Chelsea Morning/Chelsea Hotel

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 fa├žade 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.


  1. Great column Geoff!

    I guess it seems strange to me that 1968-69 was an era in music filled with sunshine and hope. In my mind, that was era when things turned dark in music and in politics - Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot, uprisings around the world turned violent, Woodstock seemed like decades ago. Do you have any more insight on this Geoff? Were the sunshine songs the last gasp of a utopian / alternative mindset, before it got completely crushed by the 1970s? Or is there something I am missing here about the late 1960s?

  2. I think the idea about songs making the view in front of your face appear in a different light is tightly connected to the idea that songs create nostalgia. So, just as songs can predetermine how you will see a place in advance, they also shape how you see it in retrospect. In both cases, I think they tend to make it seem brighter, better, hazier, more romantic. For that reason, I try not to have songs in mind when I visit places - they are too powerful in shaping my first impression of the place. Afterwards, I let myself listen to them (although trying not to become nostalgic), but it's too dangerous to listen to them in advance.

  3. Great photo Geoff - the sun is kinda like butterscotch in the distance!

  4. I loved this column, Geoff. Could you explain what this means though: 'Transformation scene in a pantomime.' I did try googling it, and I think that a 'pantomime' is not what I thought it was - mime artists - but actually some kind of burlesque show. Possibly this has come up on the column before, and I did also try combing through past columns to see if you've explained it in the past. But even though I think I now grasp that the British seem to enjoy fairytales as burlesque at Christmas, I'm not sure about the 'transformation scene'...........:)

  5. I agree that the song Abergavenny goes round in the head whenever you pull in there. Also, Geoff, I could imagine going to San Jose just so I could ask someone the way. I think I would also go to Amarillo though. You've got to do it all! Cheers!

  6. Here is the great song Emptily Through Holloway, by the Clientele, that Geoff mentioned.......: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPtkuKiipWE

  7. Yes, I always thought a dude from Sheffield asking for directions to a small city in Texas about 4000 miles away was a bit random. But while Tony Christie made this song famous (with a bit of help from Peter Kay of course) it was actually written by Neil Sedaka. He is from New York and chose Amarillo as a destination simply because it was the only place name that rhymed with "willow" and "pillow." Also, I only found this out recently, but following the song's success, Tony Christie was awarded the freedom of Amarillo!

  8. This is a pretty cool version of Sara by Dylan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlYtEZQ2vQk

  9. I agree Geoff - not only does the song not warrant a special trip to Amarillo, it is also less sincere. As someone noted above, the name was only picked because of its rhyming possibilities. Whereas in the other song, about heading home to San Jose after failing to make it in Hollywood, there is an actual reason for mentioning San Jose: it is is where Hal David (who cowrote the song with Burt Bacharach) was based during the war, hence referencing it in this song. However, it also rather conveniently rhymes with “way.” Just as well he wasn't stationed in Wisconsin I guess!

  10. I love St Etienne, Milk Bottle Symphony, here it is for any who don't know this song (it isn't well-known, I don't think): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edQqi3Uj_q0

  11. Geoff, thought you'd enjoy this version of Nico’s Chelsea Girls, as she is performing it live in the Chelsea Hotel! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ype6Hw_Hmjo

  12. Oh Laura, I totally disagree. If remembering a song when you first arrive at a place can make it seem less dreary, more steeped in history, more interesting, more personalized, then that can only be a good thing! Since Geoff started his column, I have not only revisited several places with the songs he has written about in my mind (and on my iPod!), but have made a point to visit some of the places I had never previously been that appeared in the column so far. I also make sure to find songs about places that I go that haven't been covered in the column yet (to keep my own little list of songs about places). It has vastly expanded my music repertoire, and greatly enhanced my enjoyment of places (which somehow seem three-dimensional whereas before they were a bit surface-level when I just passed through), so I disagree about it being 'dangerous' to let music change or shape our view of a place in advance or during a trip - unless it's a 'dangerously' GOOD thing!

  13. The transformation scene in a pantomime, Martha, is a set scene designed to show something spectacular, like Aladdin's cave or Cinderella's coach complete with horses. You'd like a British pantomime. The principal boy is a woman and the dame is a man...
    Thats an interesting point, Ingrid. I think the ending of an era with the sixties can be overstated-the movements that started in the early sixties ran through to the mid-70's. Maybe the sunshine songs of that time were still part of a feeling of optimism.

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  15. I think that's a good point, Geoff, about the lingering optimism after a hopeful era, and also the point about some movements continuing through the 1970s - thanks!

  16. Geoff, it's strange, I logged on late last night and thought I saw another comment from you, which has now vanished........ Any chance you can repost it?

  17. Wow, thanks Geoff. After reading your description, I found a scene on Youtube of an English pantomime - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnTU6KKYzfs - it looks very strange, and mainly focused on men in drag....

  18. I still think the Joni Mitchell version of Chelsea Morning is the best - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5DYLYHlKvk

  19. I kind of love the Neil Diamond version! - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kLhoEFNsTk

  20. Here are the beautiful lyrics to Chelsea Morning:

    Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I heard
    Was a song outside my window, and the traffic wrote the words
    It came a-reeling up like Christmas bells, and rapping up like pipes and drums

    Oh, won't you stay
    We'll put on the day
    And we'll wear it 'till the night comes

    Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I saw
    Was the sun through yellow curtains, and a rainbow on the wall
    Blue, red, green and gold to welcome you, crimson crystal beads to beckon

    Oh, won't you stay
    We'll put on the day
    There's a sun show every second

    Now the curtain opens on a portrait of today
    And the streets are paved with passersby
    And pigeons fly
    And papers lie
    Waiting to blow away

    Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I knew
    There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges, too
    And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses
    Oh, won't you stay
    We'll put on the day
    And we'll talk in present tenses

    When the curtain closes and the rainbow runs away
    I will bring you incense owls by night
    By candlelight
    By jewel-light
    If only you will stay
    Pretty baby, won't you
    Wake up, it's a Chelsea morning

  21. This is a particularly beautiful live performance done for the BBC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=G2dicRl4eAc

  22. Here is a photo that I took walking through Chelsea recently - yours reminded me of it a bit! - http://www.flickr.com/photos/aaross/5635273309/sizes/l/in/photostream/

  23. Sorry Laura-my comment seemed to get posted up several times and I was over-zealous in deleting them! I said something like that I understood the point about songs shaping perceptions of places both before and after but that it wasnt always possible to avoid them-it would be difficult to go to Paris or New York without having heard a song about them. Also I guess songs are the same as perceptions gained from other sources like films or books- like images of New York being formed from decades of TV cop shows set there.

  24. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wg5G5gEgDSE

    I did this version of Let the Sunshine in, in 1969. It was a glorious time. Life is still full of sunshine though, and I hope to see you on the road sometime.


  25. Thanks for the link and comments. A good pub quiz question is always 'What was the best selling UK single of 1967?' All You Need Is Love? A Whiter Shade of Pale? Nope-Release Me!

  26. Here's Up, Up and Away, which Geoff mentioned, for those of us feeling the post-Christmas blues before New Year's Eve!


  27. I love Tam Lin, though have never met anyone else who knows it!

    Here's the only version online I could find: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jy3ihk205ew

  28. I lived in the Chelsea for a spell, just after Warhol's movie Trash. I wasn't there long, and it was being paid for by some producers of Scarecrow in a Garden of Cucumbers, which I starred in. But I loved it. I had my own balcony located just beneath the Chelsea sign. Things were always in uproar with Jackie Curtis and the rest of the gang whooping it up on my terrace. We were dipping into all kinds of jollity. Wine, weed, booze, men… it was ancient Greece all over again.

  29. Well, if we're posting Fairport Convention songs, let's not forgo Matty Groves too:)


    Thanks for the column Geoff! I was away over Christmas, and it was lovely to get back, log on, and find a new column! Hope you had a great Christmas.

  30. Great blog! You might enjoy my book about the Chelsea Hotel.....

  31. No column about the Chelsea Hotel would be complete without a clip from Chelsea Girls (Warhol's film shot at the hotel), so here is one!


  32. RE: Holly Woodlawn above (!), there is a brief glimpse of her at the hotel in this piece of a film:


    She appears at minute 8.05.....

  33. I like Arthur Miller's description of Chelsea:

    "With all my misgivings about the Chelsea, I can never enter it without a certain quickening of my heartbeat. There is an indescribably homelike atmosphere which at the same time lacks a certain credibility. It is some kind of fictional place, I used to think."

    From Arthur Miller's "The Chelsea Affect"

  34. A little know fact, and one I believe that has never been mentioned here before, is that there exists a second 'Chelsea Hotel', albeit under another name, in northern Africa. Grace Slick and other members of Jefferson Airplane have booked in there, Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones too, not to mention Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley, Sting, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Tennessee Williams and Orson Welles - the list is endless. Leonard Cohen also, of course - I believe that's where he wrote a poem or two. It is called the 'Riad al Medina Guest House', situated in the coastal town of Essaouira, west of Marrakech, Morocco.

  35. For another Chelsea song, there is "Chelsea Avenue" by Patti Scialfa.

  36. Just wanted to tell you that I went to the Monument while visiting London in the week before Christmas, mentioned your column and took my family of four up it for free:) Thanks Geoff! Any more sites you can mention to get us free entry please?!:)

  37. I heard Leonard Cohen sing Chelsea Hotel in Kansas City in November 2009.
    I had heard many versions and variations of Leonard Cohen meeting Janis Joplin in the Chelsea Hotel elevator and the Kris Kristofferson exchange. But I had never heard some of the very witty observations he related at the Kansas City concert. Luckily, I had my camera rolling and captured Leonard Cohen's delightful intro to the Chelsea Hotel on video. I was thrilled to be sitting there witnessing it. Here is what he said:

    I was sitting in this bar in Miami Beach
    It was a Polynesian restaurant
    And I was drinking a cocktail out of a ceramic vessel
    that was fashioned to resemble a coconut

    I was taking a vacation from the deeply authentic
    It allowed what was left of my mind to drift back
    to earlier days, to the 60's
    which contrary to conventional wisdom
    only lasted 15 minutes

    It was during that period
    that I lived in the hotel on 23rd Street
    I came home one night after a pointless evening
    And I rode up to my room on the elevator
    There was a lovely young woman in the elevator
    of ordinary countenance,
    but with a radiant spirit that (inaudible)

    And being Canadian I kept to myself

    I had occasion to come down to the lobby once again
    And she was still in the elevator
    apparently riding the elevator
    And then when I took the elevator back to my room
    she was still there

    I eventually say, can I help you
    She said, no
    And I said, are you looking for someone
    She said, yes I am
    I'm looking for Kris Kristofferson
    I said, little lady, you're in luck
    I'm Kris Kristofferson
    Such was the generosity of those times
    I thought you would be taller

    Back to the bar in Miami Beach
    I began to scribble some notes
    And those notes became this song...

  38. I was really sad when I read about the hotel being sold to developers:


  39. That is a great transcription of a Cohen intro to the song above! Here is actually a whole page of his prologues to that song, across several decades of him introducing it to audiences....


  40. Another little link of columns...Holly Woodlawn above is the Holly in Lou Reed's Walk On the Wild Side ('Holly came from Miami FLA') on which Herbie Flowers (Carolina In My Mind column) plays the famous bass lines.