Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin & Me
'She wasn’t looking for me, she was looking for Kris Kristofferson; I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot.'
And welcome from the other side of International Women’s Day.
As you might know, I’m part of a badass community of humans called Thighs of Steel.
What you might not know is that Thighs of Steel, Europe’s longest annual bike ride bar none, was started by women and that our core team and cyclists have always been majority women.
Thighs of Steel wasn’t intentionally set up like this, it just happened that way when a crew of strong, connected, hilarious women got a bunch of friends together to ride 5,000km in solidarity with refugees, migrants and people on the move.
7 years on from that first ride, we’re still not your average cycling crew:
🚴♀️ Our 2023 cyclists are 69% women
👩🔧 Our core team is 60% women
🗺️ We also happen to organise Europe’s longest annual bike ride
The result is a community where women, men, all humans alike can drop competition, dominance and braggadocio and instead fully embrace the connection, vulnerability and warmth of an epic bike ride with friends.
There are still a few places on this year’s Athens ride: we’d love you to join us.
For those of you new to these pages, hello 👋 My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel. I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.
Sometimes, like this week, I write about songs.
Welcome to edition 351.
I Remember You Well
This is a story about two songs, both written by men about women they met in New York, inside and outside the Chelsea Hotel.
(Before you switch off, I’ve also included one of the women’s side of the story. It’s hilarious.)
The Chelsea is famous for its residents and the work they created there: Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Edith Piaf, Jane Fonda, Allen Ginsburg, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix — and, of course, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.
Leonard Cohen Meets Janis Joplin
In the late night spring of 1968, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin met in the Chelsea Hotel lift, going up to the fourth floor.
Cohen gathered his courage and asked if she was looking for someone:
She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’
I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on.
By the time the lift reached the fourth floor, the love affair was on, a tribute to courage — if only for a couple of hours.
The next day, Joplin tracked down that handsome devil Kris Kristofferson, who sweetly sang to her the song that would become her biggest hit.
It took a couple of years for Janis Joplin to record her bootshaking version of Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee (Spotify | YouTube), on 1 October 1970.
Three days later, she was dead.
Shortly after, Leonard Cohen started writing a new song, which he eventually released in 1974 as Chelsea Hotel #2 (Spotify | Youtube).
Here’s how it opens:
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.
Now, to be fair to Leonard Cohen, the story he tells is more complex than these first lines would suggest, but it’s not Cohen’s song that I want to write about.
Jeffrey Lewis Meets A Woman In Glasses
In 2001, New York antifolk songwriter Jeffrey Lewis released his first single, an extended riff on Leonard Cohen’s song, which he called The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song (Spotify | Youtube).
Before you get too excited, this is not a song about oral sex. As Jeff Lewis explains:
Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on
So what really went on?
Well, if Jeff Lewis will allow me to summarise his seven minute masterpiece:
Late one night, ‘tired and alone’, Jeff is walking past the Chelsea Hotel
He overhears a conversation about Leonard Cohen between a woman in glasses and her two, possibly gay, friends
Jeff gets ‘uncharacteristically courageous’ and interrupts the strangers
Jeff and the woman in glasses chat for ‘a minute or two’ about Leonard Cohen’s song, Chelsea Hotel #2
The three strangers stop to look in through a pub window
Jeff says good night (though he hadn’t quite meant to)
The woman in glasses mysteriously says, ‘see you later’
That’s it. That’s the entirety of the narrative action: they never saw each other again; they didn’t even swap names.
The song is three times as long as the encounter it describes.
What About The Oral Sex?
In that two minute conversation, the woman in glasses told Jeff Lewis that Leonard Cohen’s line about getting a blowjob ‘made her want to do naughty things’ and Jeff heard the ‘faint knocking of opportunity’:
Right about then I should have asked if she knew
What the Chelsea charged if we got a room for two
But he didn’t. He got shy, waved goodbye, went home and wrote this song instead.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he did write this song — for two reasons, actually.
The first reason is, quite simply, this, the greatest rhyming couplet known to science:
If I was Leonard Cohen or some other song writing master
I’d know to first get the oral sex and then write the song after
The second reason I’m glad he wrote this song is because the narrative action of Jeff Lewis’s street encounter ends only five minutes into the song: what happens in the last two minutes transcends the self-deprecating story into a moment of connective awe for us all.
‘For The Love Of Other Folks That They Barely Knew’
In those last two minutes, Jeff Lewis turns his gaze onto the audience, as if to say, ‘Hold on, nothing happened with this woman outside the Chelsea and yet this song did happen, is happening, and, what’s more, you’re all still listening — what does that mean?’
In Jeff’s words, it means something wonderful:
That all around the world there may be folks singing tunes
For the love of other folks that they barely knew
This bit of the song usually gets a laugh because it’s so ridiculous. No one writes songs like that.
Except they do. The woman in glasses would laugh at this bit too — the laughter of giddy recognition.
And we can enjoy that same note of giddy recognition for ourselves right now, even without a gawky folksinger writing a love song for us.
Remember You Remember Me Well Too
Think of all the people you’ve ever interacted with. Go on: all of them.
Okay, okay — too much. How about just the ones who made you ‘sing’?
If you’re like me (and Jeff), they’ll fall into two camps:
There’ll be people still in your life who already know that you remember them well. Your best friend who taught you self-esteem as a teenager or the mentor who modelled how to change career late in life.
But there’ll also be people in your past who will never know that you remember them well. The Albanian plumber-mechanic who showed you the true meaning of hospitality, or that lost classmate in college who didn’t realise he was teaching you how to be funny.
Firstly: make a note to go and tell everyone in Camp 1 exactly what they mean to you. You can never do this too many times.
Now turn your attention to the people in Camp 2. This is where the magic happens.
Look at your list and ponder: there must be hundreds of fleeting moments in your life where a complete stranger made you sing and you will never be able to let them know.
Take a moment to acknowledge the ripples in the water, stones skipped by strangers.
Now flip it around in Jeff’s next lines:
[…] the next time you’re feeling kinda lonesome and blue
Just think that someone somewhere might be singing about you
A laugh again: fantastically unlikely. But it isn’t.
If you remember a hundreds strangers well, remember that a hundred more strangers remember you well too — they just never got the chance to tell you.
When you realise how even a brief interaction can connect and change us, that’s pure wonder. Never forget it.
The Other Side
Okay — reality check!
Songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis are really good at turning their lives into stories: pinning the emotion that helps them process the encounter.
It’s a beautiful defence mechanism — transmuting their personal vulnerability into universal meaning.
As Jeff Lewis says, it’s much easier to write a song than it is to risk rejection.
You might think that vulnerability to rejection doesn’t apply to Leonard Cohen, but I’m not so sure.
We’ll probably never know what story Jeff Lewis’s woman in glasses would tell of their encounter, but Janis Joplin wasn’t one to stay in the shade.
This is what she made of that same one night stand with Leonard Cohen:
Sometimes you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to tell you. So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening — innate communication. […]
So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping. And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realise that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there. He’s not balling me.
Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis would seem to offer two different approaches to a fleeting connection between strangers:
either we are courageous enough to stop and feel out the depths of the exchange
or we are sensitive enough to walk away and still find meaning in the moment
But it’s not a choice: we can be both.
As Jeff says:
Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on
So let’s sing a new song: a song where we enjoy both Leonard Cohen’s earthy physicality and Jeffrey Lewis’s abstract transcendence.
Let’s recognise that any connection with a stranger, in the lift, on the street, can go both ways.
We might flex our courage and take things further, but, when we don’t — and most often we won’t because we’d never get anything else done — let’s remain sensitive that the moment was meaningful.
And occasionally, occasionally, a connection that we didn’t explore, years before, can, in the most unlikeliest of plot twists, come back around a second time.
Then we are both.
I’ll leave the last word to Jeff Lewis:
So who knows if I’ll ever see her again? Maybe we’ll see
This whole time she could have been singing about me
Probably not — but it could be
ps: Just as I was finishing the final read-through on this piece, a woman snuck up behind me on the train and said in a loud voice, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’
I turned around with a thump and realised she was talking on the phone, to someone else. But I hope that one day, by some serpentine logic of the universe, she gets to read this story, listen to the music, and say again, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’
Thanks to Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jeffrey Lewis and CW for showing me how it’s done.
Days Of Adventure 2023: 6
I can’t work out whether the landscape itself is beautiful or whether it’s enriched beyond universal recognition by the meaning and memory I hold close, under the yew.
This photo might not qualify as a thirst trap exactly, but rather represents those moments in time that are, for me, most aspirational.
We don’t yearn to trek Death Valley, swim the Amazon, or even plant our flag at both poles; we yearn for connection and significance.
Sometimes that’s just a walk round Cheesefoot Head.
Three Small Big Things At The End
If you haven’t yet read EM Forster’s A Room With A View, please do. If only for his characterisation of that exceedingly English psychological trap — the muddle:
You are inclined to get muddled […] Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.
There’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate […] It is on my muddles that I look back with horror.
We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle.
Beware of muddle, people. Don’t stay confused or uncertain: connect and communicate.
In this delightful piece, Robin Sloan shows how JRR Tolkein wrote The Lord Of the Rings in exactly the same way that any of us mortal writers write: by muddling through.
Tolkien, for all his vaunted designs, only got to The Good Stuff when he was IN it, really working the text of the novels […] He could not worldbuild his way into a workable story; he had to muddle and discover and revise, just like the rest of us.
The One Ring To Rule Them All was originally conceived as just one of thousands manufactured by The Dark Lord, like ‘cursed candies scattered […] across Middle-earth’.
In early drafts, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, was replaced by a ranger hobbit with wooden feet named Trotter. Good grief.
The analogy is clear, and hugely heartening: if Tolkien can find his way to the One Ring in the middle of the fifth draft, so can I, and so can you.
When you come across a muddle — and you will — persist with it until it clears up. Muddle on through.
That’s all for this week. I feel very lucky that I get to sit here and write to all 536 of you, picking up these words from 50 countries around the world.
Thank you for reading and I hope you found something to take away with you.
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