Friday, June 13, 2014

Hotels and Motels:Songs About the Chelsea Hotel

Jefferson Airplane: Third Week in the Chelsea

I am willing to bet that there is no other hotel or motel in the world that has inspired more songs than the Chelsea, located in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of the same name. Recently purchased and closed for renovations, the hotel has long been identified as a place for artists, performers, writers and musicians to live and work, which probably explains its popularity in song.

Wikipedia lists 22 different songs referencing the hotel, and one of them, Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” has been often covered. You could create a pretty credible cultural Hall of Fame consisting just of residents of the Chelsea, which for years was a residential hotel, including Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg, Iggy Pop, Arthur C. Clarke, Allen Ginsburg, Diego Rivera, Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Stanley Kubrick, Uma Thurman, Jane Fonda, Alice Cooper, Larry Rivers, Christo, Julian Schnabel, Alejandro Escovedo, Jimi Hendrix, Willem de Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gore Vidal, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Dennis Hopper, Thomas Wolfe, Elliot Gould, Elaine Stritch, Edie Sedgwick, and many, many more. And, of course, Sid Vicious’ girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was found dead at the hotel, as were Dylan Thomas and Charles R. Jackson, the author of The Lost Weekend.

Cohen’s song has been discussed previously on this blog, here, and a cover by Lloyd Cole is discussed here, Dylan’s “Sara” was mentioned, if briefly, here, and a post about Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" is here. But there are many, many others to talk about.

My favorite is “Third Week in the Chelsea,” the second song from Jefferson Airplane’s Bark album that I have written about (which is pretty interesting, considering that it is generally considered a pretty mediocre album). It was written by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and it is a beautiful song, filled with sadness and resignation about the impending demise of one of the great bands of its era. It is a classic of the “leaving the band” genre, right up there with Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” Although the whole thing is great, this stanza always kills me:

All my friends keep telling me that it would be a shame 
To break up such a grand success and tear apart a name 
But all I know is what I feel whenever I'm not playin' 
Emptiness ain't where it's at and neither's feeling pain 

Because, when it is time to go, it is time to go. Luckily, he had Hot Tuna to fall back on.

Leonard Cohen’s song, which we really aren’t going to discuss, was about an (oral) sexual encounter at the hotel with a woman he later acknowledged was Janis Joplin. Jeffrey Lewis, a New York singer/songwriter, wrote “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” which is both about and not about Leonard Cohen’s song, and has a certain shaggy dog charm of its own (and no actual oral sex):

Dan Bern, who is often compared to one time resident Bob Dylan, because they are both Jews from the Midwest who have raspy voices, play guitar and write interesting songs (making the comparison somewhat plausible), also wrote a song about having sex at the Chelsea. This version was recorded at the Turning Point in Piermont, New York, just across the Tappan Zee Bridge from my house, which gets surprisingly good acts, considering that it is about the size of a small living room. And it has a trumpet solo.

And, finally, here’s Okkervil River’s “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed On The Roof Of The Chelsea Hotel, 1979.”

Campbell was the real name of the former Chelsea Hotel resident, singer Jobriath, who is considered to be the first openly gay rock musician signed to a major label, as well as one of the first well known musicians to die of AIDS.

The song appeared on Okkervil River’s The Stand Ins album, which is filled with songs musing about celebrity and pop culture. Jobriath, whose albums received generally good reviews (and had both Peter Frampton and John Paul Jones contribute to his glam-rock, very David Bowie-esque music), found his career derailed first by excessive hype by his management, then his disillusionment with the industry, and finally by his illness. He apparently did an interview from the roof of the Chelsea in 1979, but it was different from what Okkervil River sang about. Although not directly related to the hotel, here’s one of his songs, “Take Me I’m Yours,” about S&M, which certainly could have happened at the Chelsea Hotel.

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