Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, & The Chelsea Hotel: What He Said – And Now, What She Said


Yes, this is one of those He Said, She Said things.

Leonard Cohen Said

Most Cohen fans are familiar with Leonard Cohen’s account of the sexual encounter  between him and Janis Joplin. While there are several variations, Cohen’s  introduction to “Chelsea Hotel #2″ at a 1988 New York City concert is representative:1

A thousand years ago I lived at this Hotel in NYC. I was a frequent rider of the elevator on this Hotel. I will continuously leave my room and come back. I was an expert on the buttons of that elevator. One of the few technologies I really ever mastered. The door opened. I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. No hesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days. Late in the morning, early in the evening. I noticed a young woman in that elevator. She was riding it with as much delight as I was. Even though she commanded huge audiences, riding that elevator was the only thing she really knew how to do. My lung gathered my courage. I said to her “Are  you looking for someone?”  She said  “Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson  “I said  “Little Lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.”  Those were generous times. Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never led on. Great generosity prevailed in those doom decades. Anyhow I wrote this song for Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel.

In addition, Cohen has often reported his regret for exposing Joplin as the woman in the song. The following excerpt is from a July 8, 1994 BBC interview:

There was the sole indiscretion, in my professional life, that I deeply regret, because I associated a woman’s name with a song, and in the song I mentioned, I used the line “giving me head on an unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street”, and I’ve always disliked the locker- room approach to these matters, I’ve never spoken in any concrete terms of a woman with whom I’ve had any intimate relationships. And I named Janis Joplin in that song, I don’t know when it started, but I connected her name with the song, and I’ve been feeling very bad about that ever since, it’s an indiscretion for which I’m very sorry, and if there is some way of apologising to the ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.

And, of course, we have the story set forth in the lyrics of Chelsea Hotel #2.2

Leonard Cohen – Chelsea Hotel #2

To summarize, sans metaphors, Leonard Cohen approaches Janis Joplin, who, although she isn’t looking for him, acquiesces to his invitation to indulge in what to all appearances turns out to be a lusty and loquacious liaison.  Some time later, Leonard Cohen writes a song about the episode3 and in or before 1976, reveals that the song is about Janis Joplin, an indiscretion for which he is remorseful.4

 Janis Joplin Said

The following interview with and photo of Janis Joplin, dated September 3, 1969,5 are, like  yesterday’s post,6 found in The Sixties by Richard Avedon and Doon Arbus (Random House; 1st edition: November 2, 1999), a collection of photographs and interviews designed to evoke a sense of the 1960s.

Reading the entire interview (four paragraphs)  is helpful in establishing context. Leonard Cohen is named, paired with Jim Morrison, in the third paragraph. Click on image to enlarge.

Now, there is nothing in Joplin’s interview that specifies the event – or non-event – with Cohen  she describes is the same episode as the one on which Cohen based his song,”Chelsea Hotel.” And, because this is, as previously noted, one of those He said – She said things, the correlation between reality and either Cohen’s or Joplin’s report of it cannot be ascertained with confidence.

Chelsea Hotel #3

Still, the two accounts leave one with distinctly different impressions of what took place sexually between the two stars, including who instated the contact, and the implications are intriguing. If nothing else, judging from Joplin’s rather casual observation that “they [Cohen and Morrison] gave me nothing [sexually],” Leonard Cohen should no longer feel obligated to apologize to Janis Joplin’s ghost for his revelations about her.

Perhaps if Janis Joplin had not died so young, she would have emulated Joni Mitchell7 by writing a song or two about Leonard Cohen from her own perspective – who wouldn’t be interested in hearing Janis Joplin’s “Chelsea Hotel #3?”8

  1. Leonard Cohen Prologues []
  2. Lyrics – Chelsea Hotel #2

    I remember you
    well in the Chelsea Hotel,
    you were talking so brave and so sweet,
    giving me head on the unmade bed,
    while the limousines wait in the street.
    Those were the reasons and that was New York,
    we were running for the money and the flesh.
    And that was called love for the workers in song
    probably still is for those of them left.

    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,
    I need you, I don’t need you
    and all of that jiving around.

    I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
    you were famous, your heart was a legend.
    You told me again you preferred handsome men
    but for me you would make an exception.
    And clenching your fist for the ones like us
    who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
    you fixed yourself, you said, “Well never mind,
    we are ugly but we have the music.”

    And then you got away, didn’t you babe…

    I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
    I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
    I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
    that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often. []

  3. Cohen’s first performance of an early version of “Chelsea Hotel” took place in 1972. See Chelsea Hotel #1 By Leonard Cohen []
  4. On at least one occasion, in an interview with Harry Rasky published in Rasky’s The Song Of Leonard Cohen (Mosaic Press, 2001), Cohen presents a somewhat different take on linking Janis Joplin to “Chelsea Hotel #2,” characterizing it as an acknowledgement rather than an indiscretion:

    My meeting Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel was the genesis or the seed of the song. It went through a lot of changes. …

    As the years went by I began to realize that it was Janis Joplin who gave me the seed of the song. Often a song develops from the gift of another individual, as though somebody hands you the song. It may take years to develop. …  Well, while I was working on the song I wasn’t even sure it was the song Janis Joplin had given me but as I began working on it I understood what that seed, the seed gift, or the seed origin or the genesis, that thing from which the song develops, that softens the heart enough to receive ah, whatever the energies are that produce the song, that it was Janis Joplin. And as the years went by I began to want to acknowledge that gift. []

  5. Janis Joplin would die from a heroin overdose just over a year later, on October 4, 1970 at age 27 []
  6. See Leonard Cohen 1969 – “It’s really wonderful not feeling you have to sleep with everybody” []
  7. Joni Mitchell not only wrote songs about her experiences with Leonard Cohen (see Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell: Just One Of Those Things), she and Cohen also each wrote a song with the same title and similar themes (see  “Winter Lady” By Joni Mitchell & “Winter Lady” By Leonard Cohen). []
  8. Joplin did sing a duet with Nick Gravenites, the lyrics of which referred to another of her bedroo, partners, Joe Namath:

    You know I ain’t no Hollywood star
    I’m not Joe Namath, you know,
    I read about that in the papers today
    You know I’m just a working man,
    You don’t work too hard, baby!
    I never ran in a football game 200 yards

    For more about Joe Namath, Leonard Cohen, and Janis Joplin, see Leonard Cohen & Joe Namath – Parallels Between The Poet & The Passer []

4 Responses to Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, & The Chelsea Hotel: What He Said – And Now, What She Said

  1. Seems to me the two accounts are in sync; she gave him ‘something’ on a unmade bed, and he gave her , well, … nada…niente. ;-)

  2. ps: in other words, she got the short end of the stick.

  3. Folks who read my posts tend to be the sort who can fit these two stories together so I opted to be circumspect. Kinda. Sorta.

  4. This was a great article…very intriguing to hear such a divided tale. Thanks for the memories!