Resident Bohemians: Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen

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THE POET AND THE LADY OF THE CANYON

In 1967, two young Canadian songwriters met at songwriter’s workshop at the Newport Folk Festival, and had a romance. They were both about to become very famous, thanks to Judy Collins, who had introduced them and who would bring their songs to the Billboard Charts. Collins had released her cover of “Suzanne” the previous year, would release “Both Sides Now” the following year, and “Chelsea Morning” the year after that.

“Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell

Bill and Hillary Clinton would say that Collins’ version of “Chelsea Morning” would inspire them to name their daughter what is also the name of the two adjoining neighborhoods in New York, Chelsea and Clinton.  Of course, the Canadian songwriters I speak of are Joni Mitchell with her taut cheeks and stick-straight blonde hair and the lustrous dark-headed Leonard Cohen, who both spent part of the late sixties living in what was more commonly called the Hotel Chelsea, but we know it as the Chelsea Hotel perhaps because “I remember you well in the Hotel Chelsea” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

“Chelsea Morning” was one of the first Joni Mitchell songs I ever loved. I used to wonder what a Chelsea Morning was. I imagined Europe: a Parisian flat, china, a breakfast spread. I was a little disappointed to learn she was talking about New York. That the “sun poured in like butterscotch” seemed sticky and like it would ruin your breakfast more than it would be a nice thing (quick, get a bucket and a towel; the sun’s pouring in again) and reminded me of the sun in “Suzanne” that “pours down like honey,” similarly thick and sweet. Not that Mitchell or Cohen had the trademark on warm-colored dessert metaphors for the sun, but both songs were written around the same time and both songs also mentioned oranges. In Mitchell’s song the oranges are being offered to the person she hopes will stay the day, while in Cohen’s song oranges are being offered to him and they come all the way from China. I’m not that into sleuthing song lyrics for biographic meaning, so I’ll let you decide if you want to think about who’s giving oranges to whom.

Though their fling purportedly lasted only a few weeks, and Mitchell and Cohen may or may not have consummated their romance on one of the Chelsea Hotel’s unmade beds—Cohen, after all, could never keep track of each fallen robin—both musicians did write songs that continue to shape the way we think about that red building on 23rd Street, the incense owls and all of that jiving around.

“Chelsea Hotel #2″ by Leonard Cohen

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Deenah Vollmer is from Los Angeles and lives in Brooklyn. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Faster Times and she is the winner of the L Magazine’s Literary Upstart short story contest. In addition to her writerly pursuits, she performs with the bands Old Hat, Kung Fu Crime Wave, and Huggabroomstik. More from this author →