3 Songs Referencing the Mysterious Chelsea Hotel & Other Tales

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

By Caroline Paone

New York City’s infamous Chelsea Hotel has long been a magnet for the famous and the infamous, from Janis Joplin and Iggy Pop to Allen Ginsberg, and the setting for Andy Warhol’s art films. Tragically, it is also the site of several celebrity deaths, including Dylan Thomas in 1953 from alcohol poisoning and Nancy Spungen (girlfriend of Sid Vicious) in 1978, who was found stabbed to death in her hotel room.

The unique hotel has inspired countless artists, many of whom have created memorable works in its hallowed halls. Patti Smith actually penned her first song while living there, titled “Fire of Unknown Origin.” The Chelsea Hotel inspired songs written by Phoebe Bridges, the Ramones, The Misfits, and others.

A variety of diverse events also took place there, too. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was written at the Chelsea Hotel. Madonna’s Sex Book photoshoot was held in room 822, the same suite that later hosted Type O Negative’s album release event for their 1990s record, World Coming Down.

If Walls Could Talk

If only the walls of the Chelsea Hotel could talk, they’d reveal stories of a Bohemian paradise filled with hippies, mods, rockers, punks, pop icons, and Warhol girls—a place where wild parties and tragic tales collided. The tenants and guests partied in the lobby, the elevator, along the wrought iron staircase and balconies – it was Halloween and New Year’s Eve all the time.

Over the years, stories of suicide, murder, and betrayal became such a distorted truth and fiction splattered like a Jackson Pollock painting (the famous artist lived and worked there too). But what remains clear are the songs crafted within the hotel’s walls as well as those inspired by them.

Here are three standout songs that reference the legendary Chelsea Hotel:

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

“Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, a masterful fusion of soulful minstrel and spoken word poet, delivered an impactful punch with his understated style enveloped in bold lyrics. Cohen, who resided in room 424 of the hotel, met fellow hotel dweller Janis Joplin in the elevator. They began a passionate affair in 1968, which inspired Cohen to write two songs, “Chelsea Hotel” and “Chelsea Hotel #2.”

“He recalls the blues legend with a satirical bend, singing:

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.”

This song stands as a moving tribute to the singer, conjuring a sense of what might have been while exposing Cohen’s emotions and observations through the delicate lyrics:

“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.”

And, of course, there’s a candid reference to the intimate moments shared on the unmade bed. Is it an homage or simply his stream of consciousness? He sings the rhetorical, “And that was called love for the workers in the song,” so… I guess that’s up to each listener to decide. The song masterfully captures the essence of New York during the ’60s and ’70s, mainly through Cohen’s uninhibited perspective.

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

“Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell, the melodic Lady of the Canyon, illuminates the notorious hotel in a new light with her renowned song “Chelsea Morning.” Her vibrant acoustic performance and masterful use of vivid imagery create a kaleidoscope of musical artistry.

At the heart of the tune lies the enchanting beauty of a homemade hanging decoration, reflecting the warm New York sunshine in Lower Manhattan.

Mitchell explained it to The Los Angeles Times, “The sun would hit the mobile and send these moving colors all around the room. As a young girl, I found that to be a thing of beauty. There’s even a reference to the mobile in the song. It was a very young and lovely time…before I had a record deal. I think it’s a very sweet song.”

Her words and phrases are vivid sensory experiences, like her take on sunshine: the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses.

Mitchell’s intricate guitar work complements her radiant, bohemian style on the early track, which was later covered by various artists. With a beret perched atop her flower-child tresses, Mitchell’s observant gaze captures a New York neighborhood through the lens of a songbird’s prism.

“Woke up; it was a Chelsea morning

And the first thing that I heard

Was a song outside my window

And the traffic wrote the words.”

All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons

“Sara” by Bob Dylan

The Chelsea Hotel drew a diverse array of creative minds, from poet laureates to spirited musical geniuses, with none more prolific than Bob Dylan. In an insomniac, creative frenzy, he composed “Sara” while staying at the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived during the 1960s. The lyrics notably reference:

“Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel

Writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for you.”

This track is unique in that it’s the only instance where Dylan directly quotes one of his own song titles in the lyrics of another song.

“Sara” is dedicated to Dylan’s on-again, off-again wife at the time. The iconic folk singer weaves a vivid tapestry of their family life, depicting their experiences and journeys together.

 “I laid on a dune; I looked at the sky

When the children were babies and played on the beach

You came up behind me; I saw you go by.

You were always so close and still within reach.”

And during a poignant moment in the song, Dylan casts a glance toward the future, foreshadowed through his lyrics:

“Sara, Sara

Wherever we travel, we’re never apart

Sara, oh Sara

Beautiful lady, so dear to my heart.”

Caroline Paone (@CarolineRex) is a contributor for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at contact@vinylwriter.com

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