The purpose of these posts is to highlight particular songs, true. But sometimes an entire album has a coherence that makes picking one song difficult. Generally, the selection has to do with some fortuitous personal association. In the case of Leonard Cohen’s truly unique album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, choosing is thorny. Every song on the album delivers a particular kind of pang. New skin is indeed necessary because the skin is fully lacerated after listening to it.
Cohen is featured today because, in my current attempts to do justice to my complex relation to the month of August, he belongs here. I first got to know Songs (1967) in August of 1977. It dominated me for a time, then. And what’s more I didn’t venture into other Cohen albums for quite a while. One was enough. By the time he released Death of a Ladies’ Man, in winter 1977, I felt I had to have it, though it was rather unlike his other records—produced by Phil Spector, ’nuff said. New Skin didn’t really make its deep inroads into my consciousness until 1979 when Mary played it a lot. Maybe a tad obsessively. It seemed the only album that suited her morose mood. At that point, the album became indelible, so much so that I could probably take a little time to do a fully worked up analysis/interpretation/poetics of the entire album. Though where does my view of it end and the real album begin? If I were to propose an album for the series 33 1/3, that might well be it.
So what song to address? “Chelsea Hotel #2” is in some ways the obvious choice because it’s the one best known, if only because it’s included on The Best of Leonard Cohen which I don’t doubt has sold many more copies than New Skin has. New Skin is uncompromising in a way that even The Best of can’t be. Cohen is a unique bard, and he was rarely what you’d call “commercial” in any sense—but many artists recorded his songs and did well by them. New Skin’s contents rarely get called on in that regard (unless you count a tribute album like 1991's I’m Your Fan). New Skin makes something like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975) seem like a feel-good album.
The reason “Chelsea Hotel” is known—perhaps even notorious—is because it opens with “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.” How’s that for grabbing your attention? We’re being addressed as someone very intimate with the singer, and now we want to know what else the “you” is up to. Cohen identified the “you” as Janis Joplin, then later regretted it as rather ungentlemanly. Fair enough, but in thinking that he’s recalling Janis, specifically, our view of the song takes on another dimension. It’s gossipy, it’s tacky, it’s . . . rock’n’roll: “You fixed yourself [heroin] / You said ‘Well, never mind / We are ugly but we have the music.’” One can imagine well enough Joplin saying that, but only in that bantering way she had. In Cohen’s sepulchral tones it sounds like some kind of judgment from God.
And that’s the way Cohen handles the vagaries of desire most of the time, and certainly on this album, where guilt is woven deep into every encounter and every comment on an encounter. But always delivered with an amazingly sardonic edge. I love the fucking thing from the depths of my being.
But I’m not that fond of “Chelsea Hotel,” though I think it’s remarkable. “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.” That is so succinct, and so earned. We know Cohen, like all those songsters then, was running for flesh and cash—“making it” alluded to both. And neither Cohen nor Joplin were such—in the late Sixties, which is what he’s remembering—as to “have it made.” And yet they did have the music and they were “workers in song.” And that’s what set them apart. For the moment. While the limousines wait, and the girl does her thing with his thing. But we might think of Hamlet: "for though I most powerfully and potently believe 't, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down."
The refrain, “You got away, didn’t you baby? / You just turned your back on the crowd / You got away, I never once heard you say / I need you, I don’t need you / I need you, I don’t need you / And all of that jiving around,” if it’s intended for Joplin sounds like poetic license. Joplin “got away”? Well, from him, sure, and from us, but turning her back on the crowd, as a euphemism for her death, is a bit grand and not earned. The part about not jiving around seems apropos for her, and grudgingly admiring. I say grudgingly because the song is something of a backhanded tribute: “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.”
When I was a youngster hearing this song, I was always a bit put-off by that ending. The “robin/often” rhyme is, again, a bit too “high” for the song. Cohen’s a poet and he knows it, etc. But the sentiment—it took me a while to see—is on target. I remember you well, when I think of you, but I don’t have occasion too, much. One suspects these two—and here we needn’t care that it was Janis—don’t have much in common, aren’t simpatico. The point of the song is that you can be with someone in moments of intimacy, excitement even, and in the end there’s not much to say. The tone Cohen uses, in acknowledging that, is well-done offhand. Which is not to say it’s truly offhand. It’s a performance, and, like the entire album, registers a particular kind of truth. The kind that comes from having the nerve to say that.
I developed considerable respect for Cohen in getting to know New Skin. Even more than his first album, which can seem a bit precious if you aren’t in tune with the Sixties, New Skin bites with the exacting precision of someone who knows what he wants to say and how to say it. Starkly, with few frills. His Songs of Love and Hate (1971) may be even more stark and sardonic, but New Skin is more compelling to me, and not only because of the summer of 1979.
We spent a night in the Chelsea Hotel, Mary and I. Our wedding night. Already in that gesture you can perhaps see the concern with ghosts that these posts also keep alive. Paying tribute. But there’s no reason to see the song in so narrow a focus—whether about Leonard or Janis or even the Chelsea Hotel. Maybe any hotel in Chelsea will do. Maybe just a hotel in New York. Or anywhere. Where two people spend some time on unmade beds, in that little bubble of longing, release, and, maybe, regret that Cohen’s song registers so well. Here's to all those fallen robins, bob-bob-bobbin' along.