The Meaning Behind “Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen

In the late ’60s, Leonard Cohen decided to give up his life as an established novelist and poet in Canada for a shot at the burgeoning folk scene in New York. Lucky for all of us he did, because that move resulted in some of the most poignant songs ever written.

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Cohen was a singular voice in songwriting. He was able to deliver hard truths while making them seem comforting. He was candid about his life – even the shadier, uglier parts. He delves into such fare on “Chelsea Hotel #2.”

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It’s likely many have heard of the famed New York landmark, but exactly what went down while Cohen was a guest that prompted him to write this track? Find out below.

Behind The Meaning

Like many of the day’s biggest names, Cohen used to stay at The Chelsea Hotel in New York City while away from his home in Montreal. With so many artists passing through those hallowed halls, the hotel became a hotbed of inspiration.

Cohen would introduce this song in his live sets with a story about meeting a famous singer while at the Chelsea. Their meeting went on to develop into a sexual relationship—which he describes in the song.

“I wrote this for an American singer who died a while ago,” Cohen wrote in the notes of his Greatest Hits compilation. “She used to stay at 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.”

It wasn’t until after her death that Cohen revealed the name of the singer: Janis Joplin. As the story goes, Joplin came to the hotel looking for Kris Kristofferson. When she joined Cohen in the elevator, the infamous casanova decided to tell Joplin that he was the Highwayman.

“She wasn’t looking for me, she was looking for Kris Kristofferson; I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot,” Cohen once told Rolling Stone. “But we fell into each other’s arms through some process of elimination.”

Their affair was brief. The next morning, Joplin went on to find Kristofferson and record arguably her biggest hit “Me and Bobby McGee.” The pair would only meet a handful of times after that.

“The last time I saw her was on 23rd Street,” he remembered in the same interview. “She said, ‘Hey man, you in town to read poetry for old ladies?’ That was her view of my career.”

Joplin died on Oct. 4, 1970, of a heroin overdose. Her death had a marked effect on Cohen.

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“I was saddened by her death,” he told Sounds U.K. in 1976. “Not because someone dies—that in itself isn’t terrible. But I liked her work so much; she was so good that you feel the body of work she left behind is just too brief. There are certain kinds of artists that blaze in a very bright light for a very brief time: the Rimbauds, the Shelleys, Tim Buckley—people like that. And Janis was one of them.”

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were talking so brave and so free
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street

But you got away, didn’t you, baby?
You just threw it all to the crowd
You got away, they can’t pay you now
For making your sweet little song

those were the reasons and that was New York
I was running for the money and the flesh
That was called love for the workers in song
It still is for those of us left

Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns

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