We remember him well in the Chelsea Hotel, but Leonard Cohen’s New York City existence spanned beyond just the hotel where a makeshift memorial sprung up on Thursday after his death at the age of 82. Cohen came to New York City in 1966, just a year before the Summer of Love, and his breakthrough years there brought him into the orbit of Warhol and the Velvet Underground, the Beats, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Jimi Hendrix. He wrote songs for Nico and penned “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” after a night with Janis Joplin.
Actually, Cohen’s first stint in New York came in 1956, before he truly “arrived” there. After publishing his first book of poetry in Montreal, he moved to the city to attend graduate school at Columbia University, and was “quickly subsumed by the methamphetamine riptide of the East Village,” according to Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows.
“Greenwich Village was a particular draw,” according to another biography, I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. In 1957, Cohen saw a drunken Kerouac read with jazz musicians at the Village Vanguard. (He would later see him again, lying under a table at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment.) At the time, Cohen hadn’t yet tried his own hand at setting his writing to music, but that would soon change.
When Cohen returned to New York in 1966, he managed to connect with a fellow Canadian in the music industry who arranged meetings with producer John Hammond and singer Judy Collins— “an aristocrat of the Greenwich Village scene,” per Simmons. Cohen played some songs for Collins at her apartment and she decided to record two of them, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” for her breakthrough album— thus becoming the first of countless artists to perform Cohen’s work. In his room at the Chelsea Hotel, Cohen played another handful of songs, including “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” for Hammond. On the spot, the man who had signed Bob Dylan decided to do the same with Cohen.
When Songs of Leonard Cohen came out in December of 1967, the New York Times review was titled “Alienated Young Man Creates Some Sad Music.” It began: “Leonard Cohen is fairly young—33 years old—Canadian, Jewish, and very, very sad.”
— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) November 11, 2016
As the new kid in town, Cohen “didn’t know anybody in New York,” he told Simmons, and he was “never any good at that kind of hard work that’s involved with socializing.” Still, that didn’t stop him from ending up at Max’s Kansas City one night, when a young Lou Reed approached him and complimented on his 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers. “He brought me over to a table full of luminaries—Andy Warhol, Nico. I was suddenly sitting at this table with the great spirits of the time,” Cohen recalled in I’m Your Man.
Cohen’s “reputation then was fierce—and he was sexy,” said Danny Fields, the Elektra A&R man who signed Iggy Pop and the Ramones and is now subject of the documentary Danny Says. The young writer-musician managed to befriend both Nico and her boyfriend Jackson Browne, accompanying them to East Village club The Dom and reading his poems to them. Though Nico resisted Cohen’s advances, he ended up writing two songs for her: “The Jewels in Your Shoulder” and “Take This Longing.” She also inspired “Memories,” “Joan of Arc,” and “One of Us Cannot Be,” according to Simmons.
There’s some dispute about when and where Cohen made his live debut in New York. One biography, A Broken Hallelujah, by Liel Leibovitz, puts the show at Town Hall on April 30, 1967. But in I’m Your Man, Simmons notes that an ad for the anti-war benefit indicates that it was actually on February 22, at the Village Theatre, which would later become the fabled Fillmore East.
Cohen, who didn’t have much faith in his budding performance skills, was nervous about playing for over 3,000 people, on a bill with Pete Seeger. He initially declined, but Collins talked him into it. She told the story of the performance (which she placed at Town Hall) in her memoir, Trust Your Heart:
When I introduced him, he walked onto the stage hesitantly, his guitar slung across his hips, and from the wings I could see his legs shaking inside his trousers. He began Suzanne, with the hushed audience leaning forward in their seats; he got halfway through the first verse and stopped.
“I can’t go on,” he said, and left the stage, while the audience clapped and shouted, calling for him to come back. “We love you, you’re great!” Their voices followed him backstage, where he stood with his head on my shoulder, my arms around him.
“I can’t do it, I can’t go back.” He smiled his handsome smile. He looked about ten years old. His mouth drew down at the sides, he started to untangle himself from his guitar strap. I stopped him, touching him on the shoulder.
“But you will,” I said. He shook himself and drew his body up and put his shoulders back, smiled again, and walked back onto the stage. He finished Suzanne, and the audience went wild.
In a letter to Marianne Ihlen (the lover who inspired the song “So Long, Marianne”), Cohen wrote that he had left the stage with “the people baffled and my career in music dying among the coughs of the people backstage.” Even after his encore, he wrote, “I thought I’ll just commit suicide. Nobody really knew what to do or say.”
While Cohen was making his name in Manhattan, Marianne lived in their house on the Greek island of Hydra. In the summer of 1967, he convinced her to move to New York with her nine-year-old son, and she took an apartment on Clinton Street while Cohen, for the most part, continued to reside at the Chelsea Hotel (and sometimes the Henry Hudson Hotel). He lived in hotel rooms because he considered them “a temple of refuge, a sanctuary,” he said in the early documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. Consider the lyrics posted by Lena Dunham after Cohen’s death.
It was at the Chelsea where Cohen’s fellow resident Janis Joplin famously gave him head on an unmade bed, an encounter that would later be immortalized in “Chelsea Hotel #2.” The song was actually written after Joplin’s death, partly during a stay at the Penn Terminal Hotel, Cohen told a crowd in Birmingham in 1979. It recalled a night when he and Joplin ran into each other in the elevator of the Chelsea. “I was looking for Brigitte Bardot,” he told a crowd in France in 1976. “She was looking for Kris Kristofferson, someone taller than me. But we fell into each other’s arms, through some process of elimination. That’s the process by which everything happens.” (Rolling Stone today published an account of the night and the song’s creation.)
Cohen also managed to have a relationship with Joni Mitchell, after they met at the Newport Jazz Festival. According to Various Positions, by Ira B. Nadel, Cohen would visit Mitchell at the Earl Hotel, on Waverly Place. The romance produced Mitchell’s song “Chelsea Morning.”
At the Chelsea, Cohen usually stayed in a fourth-floor room with a fireplace and balcony and met friends for lunch at El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant that remains there to this day (Bronco Burger, a Joplin hangout across the street, is gone). At some point in 1968 he checked into room 100, where Sid Vicious would kill Nancy Spungen. According to Simmons, Cohen and his fellow Chelsea denizens would often gravitate toward the room of filmmaker, musicologist and savant Harry Smith, who would later move into Allen Ginsberg’s apartment on East 12th Street.
Cohen celebrated his 34th birthday at Paradox, a macrobiotic East Village restaurant run by Scientologists (he briefly dabbled in the religion, hence the line in “Famous Blue Raincoat”: “Did you ever go clear?”).
An interesting thing about Cohen’s sojourn in New York is that he never intended to “make it” there— New York was supposed to be a stop on the way to Nashville, where he planned to break into the country music scene. In the fall of 1968 he finally did make it to Music City, where he recorded his second album, Songs from a Room. He rented a cabin on a remote farm in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, and shed his identity as an urban bohemian.
In the next years, Cohen would return to New York now and then. In 1969, while hanging out at the Bitter End, Cohen was summoned to Kettle of Fish, on MacDougal Street, to meet Bob Dylan, who even then was a great fan of Cohen (the Nobel Laureate praised him at length in a recent New Yorker profile of Cohen). They met again when they both played the Forest Hills Folk Festival in 1970.
In 1974, Cohen took a room at the Royalton Hotel and started recording New Skin for the Old Ceremony, but the album was completed in Los Angeles, where he eventually moved in order to be closer to his Zen master, Roshi Joshu Sasaki (a 1997 film, Leonard Cohen: Spring 1996, documents some of Cohen’s time as a monk at Sasaki’s Buddhist monastery in the San Garbiel mountains, where he would spend five years). Cohen died in Los Angeles, “with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records,” according to his son Adam. He was buried in Montreal. But New Yorkers remember him well in the Chelsea Hotel.