I remember you well
In the Chelsea Hotel
You were famous
Your heart was a legend
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The famous Chelsea Hotel
Famously, Leonard Cohen introduced this song live with a reference to Janis Joplin, implying the song was written about she and Cohen's short affair in the Hotel Chelsea. Despite Cohen's later apology for this statement, it has forever colored the rich, fissured narrative of the song. Unlike many writers who turn poems into songs, Cohen considers them entirely separate, but this is certainly one of his more poetic songs. Just listen to his emphatic voice hushing the music that seems to play only as a background for his baritone as he tells the story of a tender, too brief romance. Hotel Chelsea,that gritty soul of New York's bohemian artists, is the setting of "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" and it is evoked in all its messy beauty, from the unmade bed to the limousines waiting in the street.
Cohen, who stayed at the Chelsea when he wasn't in Montreal or the Greek Islands, explained in an interview with Song Talk
: "I came to New York and I was living at other hotels and I had heard about the Chelsea Hotel as being a place where I might meet people of my own kind. And I did. It was a grand, mad place. Much has been written about it."
Hotel Chelsea was famous as an incubator for the most soulful and creative musicians and artists of the '60s and '70s. While many have composed odes to the place, its way of letting glamour live alongside grit is never evoked so romantically as when Cohen describes this scene and rounds out the picture with everything that New York was to him. One can only speculate that these were the reasons the two lovers came together in a dingy hotel room, and for all their grime and solitude, these are also the reasons that New York makes Cohen nostalgic. The place is at the heart of these two people's affection.
In Cohen's tale, the memory of a lover is intrinsically tied to the place where the love affair happened. The woman of this song is no less distinct from the Hotel Chelsea than the Hotel Chelsea is from New York. The song evokes parallels between love and place from the very first line, "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel," before listing an intertwined series of remembered images that the listener can't be sure relate to the woman or to the city. The woman and the city seem to be stand-ins for one another, echoing their love and resentment of the narrator, embracing duality the way any New Yorker must learn. Cohen finishes this list with, "those were the reasons, and that was New York."
When the woman leaves the city, she leaves the song's narrator. With only the very last traces of bitterness left in his voice, Cohen intones:Ah, but you got away, didn't you babe
You just turned your back on the crowd
You got away, I never once heard you say
"I need you," "I don't need you"
These lines are the heart of the song, the refrain, pinning the memories to the notes of the guitar and picking at the sadness that trembles just beneath the voice, achingly recalling things that cannot be recaptured. In fact, the Hotel Chelsea itself stands remarkably changed today. No longer are rooms offered for long-term residency; tourists shuffle through the halls endlessly. The place has evolved, like so many things, into a New York money making gimmick with T-shirts and keychains for sale.
In the last verse, Cohen, or the character he plays for this piece, composes himself, recovers from the injury of the memory, and says, "I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best / I can't keep track of each falling robin." As Cohen sings this final verse, he seems to decide that the most profound memories here, the ones worth holding on to, are the ones that can't be disconnected from that vivid time and place when the two "were running for the money and the flesh." That was who they were, Cohen seems to say, the embodiment of the sad. romantic New York breed of love and music that fell away from them like the shabby memories of an infatuation, as vacuous as a crowd of tourists and as easy as turning in a key and paying the bill for your stay. With the soul of their time at the Hotel Chelsea gone, so is the romance, thus Cohen's last lines of "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" tell the story of a twin demise, "I remember you well in The Chelsea Hotel / That's all, I don't even think of you that often."
~ Maggie Grimason
Chelsea Hotel #2 Songfacts
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