I've been here before, but let's add another layer to this mystery, shall we?
Leonard Cohen interview, backstage, Glasgow 1976.1976 was the year Cohen began announcing at concerts that Janis Joplin was the woman immortalized in his song(s) Chelsea Hotel #1 and #2. It was also the year he gave this little interview, much of which is hard to hear because of the background noise, and the interviewer's Glasgow accent.
At around 8:30, the Scottish interviewer asks him to talk about about Joplin.
"There was something in her voice that was unmistakable. 'I don't mean to suggest that I loved her the best' ... I mean, I knew her. She wasn't my best friend or anything but I bumped into her often in hotels around the States ... I love her music ... (sounds of liquid being poured, glasses and bottles clinking) ...
"I remember I was at a hotel with her in Los Angeles ... I think it was the Landmark Motel... and she was being given an award by one of those magazines like Melody Maker or some American equivalent of Melody Maker. I think it was Down Beat.. and I was there when they handed her the prize and she was like a kid, she'd gotten the prize as best woman singer of the year and it was like Christmas.. and it was real... I mean ... She was there..."
There's a lot wrong with that story. It also includes an astonishing confession.
1. The Landmark Motel was where Janis Joplin died.
She moved into Room 105 on August 24, 1970 and stayed there til the night of her death on October 4, 1970. During those weeks, she was mainly working in the studio recording her second album Pearl.
2. While Joplin was getting settled at the Landmark, Leonard Cohen was far away in Europe.He was wrapping up his tour in the UK (notably with a concert at the Isle of Wight on August 31). Then Jimi Hendrix died, in London. Leonard flew to America a few days later and recorded Songs of Love and Hate in Tennessee during the week of September 21. So if he 'bumped into her' at the Landmark in L.A., it could only be after September 25, in the ten days before she died.
3. The "award" he says she received - for which he was present - was imaginary.She never received an award in her lifetime. The April 4, 1968 issue of Down Beat did feature Joplin on the cover. At the 1971 14th Annual GRAMMY Awards she was post-humously nominated for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, for Me and Bobby McGee and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female for her album Pearl. Carole King swept the awards that year. Ironically, it wasn't until 2005 that she finally received the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award at the 47th annual GRAMMIES.
Either Leonard was confused and drunk when he remembered an "award", or more likely he just made something up to cover a serious slip: he'd just admitted to the interviewer that he'd been with her at the Landmark.
According to reports at the time, including in Rolling Stone, Joplin was found dead between the bed and the night table in her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel after failing to show up at the recording session on October 5. Her mouth was bloodied and her nose was broken. There were numerous injection marks in her arm. Presumed cause of death: heroin overdose, self-administered.
According to one account, she left the club where she had been partying with band members, and went back to her hotel in the company of a taxi driver and "a fan."
Leonard Cohen's affair with Joplin remains legendary. Meanwhile, Chelsea Hotel #1, the original version, was rarely performed, if at all, after 1972. It's worth a listen. The rambling conclusion, about fishing beside a stream in Tennessee, compares Joplin to the one that got away. It leaves a strange impression. It's hard not to get the feeling the singer was in the room with Joplin as she rode "the Midnight Train' to her death.
On his 1979 "Field Commander Cohen Tour" I listened from the rear of the stage as Leonard retold the story. That time, too, he stumbled: "We fell into each other's arms and -- after she died --" The audience gasped, there were some giggles. Not missing a beat, a smiling Leonard corrected himself, and quickly had them in stitches. "It wasn't my embrace that killed her. My kiss is poisonous, but it's not deadly."
Good old Leonard. It wasn't the only time he had tantalized an audience with the hint of Kill and Tell. Back home in Montreal, as a young poet in the 1950s, Cohen had gained notoriety with a poem entitled "Ballad" about the ritual murder of a woman in a downtown rooming house, written ironically so as to suggest the poet-narrator was in fact the murderer.
Scholar Ruth Wisse, who studied with him at McGill, commented on this poem in her article "My Life Without Leonard Cohen":
'Leonard Cohen's Montreal ... was my very own, at once familiar and made mythic in marvelous phrases.
"My lady was found mutilated / in a Mountain Street boarding house...." Rushing to meet a friend at Ogilvy's, at the corner of Mountain Street and Ste. Catherine, I wondered behind which familiar door the lady's purple blood was staining the sheets.'
We should all wonder at the way he fooled us with "marvellous phrases" -- and why we let him.
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