The Chelsea Hotel in New York city is where Cohen lived when he wasn't at his home in Montreal or his cottage on the Greek Island of Hydra. He chose the Chelsea because he heard he would meet people with a similar artistic bent, which he did. When introducing this song in concert, he would often tell a story about meeting a famous singer in an elevator of the Chelsea, which led to the sexual encounter he describes in this song.
In Leonard's Greatest Hits (1997) album notes he says: "I wrote this for an American singer who died a while ago. She used to stay at the Chelsea, too. I began it at a bar in a Polynesian restaurant in Miami in 1971 and finished it in Asmara, Ethiopia just before the throne was overturned. Ron Cornelius helped me with a chord change in an earlier version."
Introducing this song in concert, Leonard Cohen sometimes admitted that he wrote it about a very brief affair he had with Janis Joplin in 1968, explaining that she came to the Chelsea Hotel looking for Kris Kristofferson, and when they ended up in an elevator together, he told her that he was Kristofferson. She knew he wasn't, but figured he would do on this particular evening. "We fell into each other's arms through some process of elimination," Cohen said.
Joplin left in the morning, and he saw her only a few times after that. She eventually did find Kristofferson, and recorded his song "Me And Bobby McGee," which became a #1 hit when it was released after her death.
Ron Cornelius is a guitarist who played on sessions with many artists, including Johnny Cash, Loudon Wainwright III and Bob Dylan. Before branching out into production and music publishing, he served as Leonard Cohen's band leader for four albums. Ron gave us this response regarding his role in writing this song: "He claims that I helped him with a chord change in writing an earlier version of this song. The truth is that I co-wrote the song with him on an airplane (8 hours) from New York to Shannon, Ireland. The reason it has a #2 behind it is that he tried to cheat me out of my share by recopyrighting it that way (he changed nothing) - it was just 'Chelsea Hotel.' Anyone can check out the writer credits by contacting BMI to get the truthful writer credits. I ran his band for a long time (worldwide), played on his records, and have nothing but honest input to look back on - Leonard can't say that!!!"
After the death of Janis Joplin, Cohen came to regret linking her name with the song. In a 1994 BBC radio interview, he referred to it as "the sole indiscretion in my professional life." He added regarding his kiss and tell: "Looking back I'm sorry I did because there are some lines in it that are extremely intimate."
Suggestion credit: Shannon - Kathleen, GA
Lana Del Rey covered the song for a single release. Her vocals-and-acoustic guitar version was released on March 27, 2013, accompanied by a nostalgic music video, which sees her performing the track with a microphone in a dimly lit room.
Pjironed from Dublin, IrelandI saw a video of Lenny on stage before starting this song and he told of his meeting of Joplin. Which was basically: "I was standing in the lift and as the door was closing somebody jumped in saying they were actually hoping it was Kris Kristofferson in the lift. I replied (in a deep voice) "Hello little lady"" I think it was the BBC "I'm Your Man" documentary
It is also the same hotel that Joni Mitchell san about in "Chelsea Morning" which the Clinton's named their daughter after
Michelle from Seattle, WaI think the last line in the song ('I don't think of you that often) is brilliant. It's not depressing, it's simply honest. Cohen quotes 'Janis' as saying that she normally goes for handsome men but for him, she'll make an exception. You can just hear that conversation ('we have to stand up for the HOMELY rock stars of the world!!! Unzip your pants!') echoing thru the halls of that seedy hotel. Limo idling out front. The song is nostalgic without being moribund, touching without being saccharine.
David from Houston, TxCraig, I agree with your assertion that Cohen blends hopelessness with cynicism, as is often the case with intuitive lyricists and poets such as he. But I caution against use of the word depressing. He're a telling quote from the equally talented Townes van Zandt when asked why his lyrics are depressing: "Well, many of the songs, they aren't sad, they're hopeless." I believe that great lyricists just as great historians excel in intuition. Above all else Cohen, despite his fluent use of allusion, is fundamentally honest in his descriptions of life and love. "Those were the reasons, that was New York...I need you, I don't need you" This seems to me an example of his honest assessment of human nature (at least his own) in the act of love: ever-changing with the environment and the wayward currents of the mind.
Kjell from Trondheim, NorwayStatement from Leonard Cohen, March 2006 (from www.leonardcohenforum.com):
Ron Cornelius and I had dinner the other night. Twenty years since we saw each other last. Our old friendship was still there. His memory is better than mine. From now on, let it be known we wrote Chelsea Hotel together.
Kjell from Trondheim, NorwayRonald Dean Cornelius is indeed listed as co-writer of this song in the BMI database.
Craig from Dunedin, New ZealandI always find the last line "thats all i dont think of you that often" to be a very (dryly)humourous. I think that Cohen sounds more depressing than his lyrics suggest!