I remember Leonard Cohen well from the Chelsea Hotel. This story has sex in it.
Not between me and him. Between him and a woman friend of mine who I’ll call S. To be honest, though, there was no sex in that there was no happy ending in the traditional sense. She was hardly a blushing flower and in fact had the terrible habit of picking up guys in the subway. She picked up him in the Spanish restaurant that I believe still sits downstairs. They went up to his room, but she wasn’t equipped to deal with the prodigious size of Cohen’s member. She couldn’t complete the act.
No wonder his songs are so bitter.
If the act was completed by the usual other means, she didn’t say. All I know is that the blow job described in his song “Chelsea Hotel #2” was delivered by Janis Joplin.
In the early 1990s he did an interview in which this Q & A occurred:
“Who are your best male friend and your best female friend?”
“My 12-inch dick.”
According to S, that was no exaggeration.
Now, how does that take us to me? In the early 1970s, probably 1972, I interviewed him at the Chelsea Hotel, which is famous as the place where rock stars stayed while playing New York as well as for being the hostelry where hip New York guys scurried off to while escaping wives and girlfriends. Or to murder them, as in Sid and Nancy.
And a host of literary figures too, something that is easily found on Google.
Cohen didn’t give interviews those days, but he gave one to me, probably because I wrote a good review of one of his concerts either that year or the one before in the New York Times. I met him in his room, the same room he took S. The Chelsea rented out a large proportion on a semi-permanent basis to artists.
They rented one to me for a summer, but I didn’t stay longer than that. I left after making a mistake while lighting the gas oven and blowing myself across the room and burning all the hair off the front of my body. Luckily I had pants on.
When I took the room I had the choice of either an air conditioner or a set of the famous French doors opening on the famous wrought iron balcony. Of course I took the doors. It was wretched hot in the summer of 1971 and I slept with the doors open. The guy next door, also a long-term renter, had two golden retrievers who had the run of the balcony and used to visit me with their wet noses in the middle of the night.
Fortunately, I grew up on a farm and was accustomed to wet noses.
So, Leonard Cohen. I went up to his room, which was on the opposite side of the building from me, the south side. He had one of the artists’ (artists as in painters) rooms into which amazing light poured through large windows.
The room was single and large. The only furniture was a small kitchen table with two straight-backed chairs, and a bed, which was unmade. There was smoke and dust in the room, and a vertical shaft of brilliant light bisected the room, making the smoke and dust glow like a light saber. Leonard took the two chairs and arranged them facing one another, looking across the shaft of light.
Tell me about theater.
That was how we talked. We talked about his habit of using real peoples’ names in his songs. There was a Suzanne. There was a Marianne. And we talked about a song he had just written, “Chelsea Hotel #2.” As you recall, the first verse goes
“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.”
He recited the verse to me, adding emphasis at two points. When the line came about the unmade bed, he nodded in the direction of the unmade bed. And when he recited “that was called love for the workers in song, probably still is for those of them left,” he gave me a little smile and a knowing look.
There were few workers in song left in the early 1970s, few good lyricists. He sensed that I knew. New York Times rock critics are expected to know these things. The disappearance of them was one reason I gave up the rock beat a few years later to write mystery and suspense novels. What workers in song were there? Give me a good literary analysis of “YMCA.”
The complaint thought stuck with him. Much later, in the song “The Future,” he mentioned “the lousy little poets comin' round tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson."
So Leonard Cohen of the enormous talent and even bigger dick was really ticked off about how few if any others could match him, at least in the first.
We hit it off, and when we were done talking he locked up the room and, without luggage which I presume he sent ahead, he got into a cab for Kennedy Airport. He was on his way to the Aegean, where he either had a place or stayed with someone and doubtless there was a Suzanne or somebody else to write songs about. I took his picture in the back seat and he dropped me off in Midtown, where I worked.
I never saw him again. I never saw S again either. I have picture of both. But not together, which would have been priceless.
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