Music Therapy

Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel #2."

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Never has a blowjob sounded so sad. But Leonard Cohen is the sort of
man who could read Mother Goose aloud and make it sound like Swinburne.
The blowjob in question is rumored to have come from the lips of Janis
Joplin, an extraordinary thing to ponder in the first place. The song,
of course, is “Chelsea Hotel #2.” The lines in question go:

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.

Cohen once said, “My voice just happens to be monotonous, I’m somewhat
whiney, so they are called sad songs. But you could sing them joyfully
too. It’s a completely biological accident that my songs sound
melancholy when I sing them.” Well, I think that’s bullshit. Leonard
Cohen is great because he captured the sound of sadness. Real sadness.
Meaningful sadness. Meaningful sadness is just to this side of stupid,
pointless. That’s because real sadness comes from the realization that
nothing really matters, that the world is simply too big to be grasped,
metaphorically or otherwise. We go back into the world anyway,
sometimes with gusto, but we’re changed by having stared for a moment
at that mute truth. Cohen was able to put this feeling, this terrible
insight, into a specific sound.

It sounds like “Chelsea Hotel #2.” The middle part of the song is a moment of defiance, a don’t-go-gentle-into-that-good-night. Cohen sings:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend.

You told me again you preferred handsome men

but for me you would make an exception.

And clenching your fist for the ones like us

who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,

you fixed yourself, you said, “Well never mind,

we are ugly but we have the music.”

That’s an anthem right there, a manifesto: We are ugly, but we have the music. Still, the battle between disappointing corporeality (ugliness) and moments of transcendence (the music) is a wearying one. Cohen made his peace with it. More importantly, he’s making his peace with this song. Janis Joplin let herself fly free of it all, the beautiful soul. “You got away, didn’t you babe,” Cohen sings.

It is a tribute to her, but it is a reproach at the same time. I think, maybe, that in “Chelsea Hotel #2” Leonard Cohen wants to say we have the music partly because we are ugly, not in spite of it. Facing the ugly, standing up close to the infinite dumbness of matter, is the condition for creating anything of worth. Joplin wanted it all; she lamented the limitations. More power to her. But getting it all is only for the angels. And so she left us, she got away.

Cohen stayed right here, amidst the ugly. Here’s another thing he said: “My life seems empty. I’m not saying this in any sense of despair. I mean the quality is empty. It doesn’t have many events, so the song has to come out of some other place. It’s not an event and it’s not a message, it’s another kind of color.” He calls it “color,” I call it a specific sound. Metaphysically it is the space just between matter and form. Audibly, it is the beautiful song called “Hotel Chelsea #2.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often. • 15 September 2008

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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