For a young woman from a small Texas town — a lifelong outsiderwho had drifted since she was eighteen from one bohemianscene to another — life at the legendary Chelsea was a thrilling experience.
Through some fluke, Janis had been assigned one of the smaller rooms
initially, but once she’d had a chance to wander the corridors andstep out onto a balcony overlooking the snow-covered city, she realizedthat this was where she belonged — street noise, clanking heatingpipes, and stained carpet notwithstanding. During those firstweeks, she would write to her sister of the aura of history and magicthat resonated through the halls of this "very famous literary typeintellectual hotel," whose current population of hippies and musicians,artists and writers, superstars and regular working folks hadgrown so large that it had begun to spill over into the twelve-storyCarteret building next door.
Stanley Bard also felt that Janis had found a home here. Looking
beyond her secondhand clothes and uncombed hair, he perceiveda powerful life spirit — a hard-working young woman with "goodenergy and focus." He said later that he regretted that she hadn’tbecome a teacher, something she told him she’d once planned to be.He worried even then that this goodhearted Texas girl who’d strungthe beads her ex-boyfriend Country Joe McDonald had worn for hisperformance at Monterey Pop — on the same day she herself hadstunned the audience with her no-holds-barred rendition of "LoveIs Like a Ball ’n’ Chain" — wasn’t prepared to handle the cutthroatWarhol crowd at the trendy new Max’s Kansas City, even if "Janis,"McDonald’s tribute to her, was playing on the jukebox for all thehangers-on to hear.
To some extent, he was right. On February 17, 1968, Joplin had
earned ecstatic reviews with her gut-wrenching rendition of "Pieceof My Heart" at the Anderson, and the concert was followed by ablast of publicity that promised a triumphant East Coast launch.But as recording sessions began for Big Brother and the HoldingCompany’s first Columbia Records album, later to be named CheapThrills, the first week of March, the band learned that a quartermillion-dollar contract from a major record label didn’t come withoutsome strings attached. To play its best, Big Brother had alwaysdepended on its visceral connection with the audience. Now, therewas no audience, and their producer, John Simon, was appalled byhow poorly the musicians performed. Simon, with his perfect pitch,actually had to leave the studio when the band performed off-keyor off the beat. Discussions about dumping Big Brother and gettingJanis a professional backup band began at Columbia and in Grossman’soffice.
The musicians, shocked by the criticism, began to turn their resentment
against Joplin. The press attention she had received sincetheir arrival in New York, including a photograph in the New YorkTimes from which every band member but Janis had been cropped,convinced them that she was on a star trip and intended to leavethem behind. This feeling of insecurity poisoned the air at the recordingsessions and put Janis herself into a foul mood. At the Chelsea,she spent less time with the band and more time on her own,roaming the halls at three in the morning, feeling lonely and isolated,looking for some company and a drink.
Someone else was keeping the same hours at the Chelsea that
winter. Leonard Cohen had been through his own tribulations withColumbia over the previous year. By April 1967, after further coverageof his songs by Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cohen haddone a few public singing performances and had even been offereda college tour in the fall. Months before, Columbia’s John Hammond,famed discoverer of Bob Dylan as well as Count Basie andAretha Franklin, had dropped in at the Chelsea to hear Cohen play"Suzanne," "The Stranger Song," and other tunes. "You’ve got it," hehad announced before leaving, but it was not until the end of Aprilthat he was able to persuade the record company to take a chanceon a poet-singer Cohen’s age.
Through the summer and fall of 1967, Cohen worked laboriously
to lay down the songs for his first album, first with the legendaryproducer Bob Johnston, then with Hammond. It was a painfulprocess; the chance to take time out to perform "Suzanne" at theNewport Folk Festival felt like being "released from jail."In Newport, Cohen met a fellow Canadian singer-songwriter,twenty-four-year-old Joni Mitchell, and when the festival was over,he took her back with him to the Chelsea Hotel. For a few months,they became an official item. Joni demanded a reading list from herpoet-lover, and Leonard recommended Camus, García Lorca, andthe I Ching. One day a limousine pulled up next to them, and JimiHendrix, in the limo’s back seat, started talking to Joni; Cohen waspleased that Joni didn’t jump into the limousine and run off withthe charismatic guitarist, as Nico had once done in a similar situation.But in the end, Cohen’s relationship with Mitchell developedinto something more collegial than passionate. He quipped at onepoint that living with Joni was like "living with Beethoven." She wasclearly on her own upward trajectory, and though they would remainfriends beyond their summer romance, she couldn’t resist dismissinghim now and then as a "boudoir poet," less a composer thana "word man."
In the wake of the romance, Cohen faced the hard reality of the
recording process alone. In September, Hammond dropped out, andthe project was put on hold for a month. Cohen, devastated by theprospect of having to start all over again, shut himself in his roomfor a week, smoking hash and seeing only his friends at the Chelsea.Then John Simon, Big Brother’s future producer, was brought in toreplace Hammond, and somehow the album was completed. Songsof Leonard Cohen, its back cover sporting the image of a Mexicansaint like those seen in his neighborhood botánica, shipped in Decemberof 1967. Cohen went on a brief promotional tour. Now hewas back, roaming the Hotel Chelsea’s halls again, his album havingmet with only limited success and the rights to "Suzanne" and twomore of his best songs somehow lost to a music publisher along theway. By this point, as Cohen would tell a concert audience years later,he had become expert at operating the Chelsea’s notoriously stubbornelevators. It was "one of the few technologies I really ever mastered,"he said. "I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. Nohesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days." One cold, dismalnight, returning home from a solitary dinner at the Bronco Burger,he realized that the woman next to him in the elevator was JanisJoplin and that she was enjoying the ride as much as he was. Heunderstood at once: with all the problems they had satisfying thedemands of their record label, here was something both of themreally knew how to do. Taking a deep breath, Cohen asked, "Are youlooking for someone?" She said, "Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson."Kris Kristofferson? "Little lady, you’re in luck," respondedthe silver-tongued poet. "I am Kris Kristofferson."
Joplin’s full-throated cackle at this remark made Cohen forget
all about his record, his lost copyright, and the burger he was stillstruggling to digest. In no time, Canada’s poet of pessimism