We have seen previously that at times one can visit a place which one only really knows about because of a song about it. This can perhaps be the only reason for the visit. Nobody is going to go to Paris or Rome just because of a song about those cities but I could feasibly imagine travelling to San Jose purely for the pleasure of asking someone the way en route (though probably not to Amarillo for the same purpose. The song just doesn’t warrant it). In these cases, it can be hard not to see the place in question through the prism of the song. This can just mean the song endlessly going round your brain as you pull into wherever it is, as in (Taking a Trip Up To) Abergavenny. Or it can shape what you actually see: the rather dreary surroundings of Goodge Street can seem brighter than they actually are if you have Donovan’s song going round your head.
In fact one of the common devices in song is to make the view in front of your face appear in a different light. Often this is to make the dull and dingy and noisy seem bright and light and even magical, rather like the Transformation scene in a pantomime. Typically this means bathing an urban scene in a rosier glow. That was the focus of the last column, Waterloo Bridge. St Etienne turned Goswell Road and the housing estate of Turnpike House in Islington into the Milk Bottle Symphony: “La la la la la la jumps on the Forty-Three, humming unconsciously, a Milk Bottle Symphony”. In Emptily Through Holloway, the Clientele turn the streets of inner London into something rather gossamer and ethereal just out of mind’s reach. It can also do the opposite and turn a scene normally thought of as sunny and tranquil into something darker, as Nick Cave did with Battersea Bridge.
Chelsea in New York is one of those places I only knew from song . There have been several about the area: Nico’s Chelsea Girls and Dylan’s Sara amongst them. Two in particular, however, Chelsea Morning and Chelsea Hotel, were in my mind when I walked round it recently. They give very different impressions, of course. Chelsea Morning is one of warmth and optimism and I think of it rather like those other songs of the same sort of era(1968-69) that brimmed with sunshine and hope: like Let The Sunshine In or Up, Up and Away. Chelsea Hotel has dinginess, regret, sadness in there, the extent depending on who sings it. Both have become inextricably mixed up with reality. The Chelsea Hotel has a plaque to Leonard Cohen at its entrance with the opening line from his song, ‘I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel’. Bill and Hillary Clinton reputedly named their daughter after Judy Collins’ version of Chelsea Morning (though also seemingly thinking it was about the London Chelsea).
It was the Judy Collins version of the Joni Mitchell song that was the bigger hit, though there have been others down the years: Dave Van Ronk, Neil Diamond, Jennifer Warnes amongst them. The version given below, however, comes from 1968 and a pre-Sandy Denny Fairport Convention, when the singers were Judy Dyble and Ian Matthews. It is a reminder of a time when Fairport Convention weren’t regarded as a folk group at all but a kind of British Jefferson Airplane, covering songs like Tim Buckley’s Morning Glory and Paul Butterfield’s East West and with extended guitar work-outs by Richard Thompson. (An example of their work then is in the clip below of the Richard and Mimi Farina song, Reno Nevada). It is also very much of its era, which in a way suits the song. A snapshot of a place captured in time like an old photo, as Donovan did in Sunny Goodge Street. Crimson crystal beads, incense, candle light – there was probably a copy of the I Ching on the table and Rotary Connection playing on the record player
The Chelsea Hotel, song or place, isn’t frozen in time in the same way. In fact, one of the reasons it remains a tourist attraction in itself is because of its history and notoriety across the years, home to Mark Twain and Dominic Behan, where Dylan Thomas and Nancy Spungen died and the site of Leonard Cohen’s 1974 song about a brief relationship with Janis Joplin. Cohen, of course, is good at gloom and gothic, which probably fits the hotel. The version here by Regina Spektor from 2006, however, brings it more into the light, in the same way that visitors and tourists have altered the original character of the real place.
You can sometimes look at the past as a photo album. For both Joni Mitchell and Fairport Convention, Chelsea Morning is on an early and half-forgotten page of a long musical history. Joni Mitchell has said of the song “ It was a very young and lovely time.. I think it's a very sweet song, but I don't think of it as part of my best work. To me, most of those early songs seem like the work of an ingenue." For Fairport Convention, within a year or so of this release Judy Dyble had departed for Trader Horne, Ian Matthews had left for a number one hit with another Joni Mitchell song (see column on Woodstock),drummer Martin Lamble was dead and the group had changed direction to explore the dark sides of England’s rural past with songs like Tam Lin and Matty Groves.
Those pages are there still though and I as walked round Chelsea , along the streets past the Chelsea Hotel to stand and look at the façade as a tourist , through the Market and along the High Line, a song came into my head and I thought that maybe round the next corner, the sun would pour in like butterscotch.