9 Memorable Songs About the Chelsea Hotel

“I need you, I don’t need you.” —Musicians trying to quit singing about the Chelsea Hotel.
Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel, Phoebe Bridgers.
Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel, Phoebe Bridgers. / (Cohen) Anwar Hussein/Getty Images; (Chelsea) Ben Hider/Getty Images; (Bridgers) Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella

For over a century, New York City’s Hotel Chelsea—or, more commonly, the Chelsea Hotel—on West 23rd Street has played host to artists of all kinds and inspired art of all kinds, including, naturally, music.

Some songs are widely mistaken to be about the Chelsea Hotel, like Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” which she actually wrote about her apartment seven blocks south of it. Others mention the hotel but aren’t really about it. Bob Dylan’s “Sara” falls into this category with the line “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writin’ ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” And “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” itself is often cited as a quintessential Chelsea Hotel song since Dylan did write (at least some of) it while living there. 

But “songs written in the Chelsea Hotel” is really its own deep category that features everything from Patti Smith’s “Fire of Unknown Origin” to Jefferson Airplane’s “Third Week at the Chelsea.” The nature of inspiration makes it hard to claim that these songs aren’t about the hotel, even if the text doesn’t reflect that in any literal way. 

For this list, though, we’re focusing on the more literal examples (including songs about events that occurred in the Chelsea).

“Visions of Johanna” by Bob Dylan

The best argument to make for a Bob Dylan song that actually is about the Chelsea Hotel is probably “Visions of Johanna” from 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. Dylan scholars generally believe that he wrote it while living there with Sara Lownds in 1965, which supports the theory that lines like “Lights flicker from the opposite loft / In this room the heat pipes just cough” could refer to their hotel quarters. It’s even been suggested that the track was specifically inspired by the northeast blackout of November 1965. 

“Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen

This slow waltz is an ode to Leonard Cohen’s fleeting but very famous romance with Janis Joplin in the spring of 1968. The two, both staying at the hotel, had a chance encounter in the elevator and decided not to part ways when the doors opened. “She wasn’t looking for me, she was looking for Kris Kristofferson; I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot. But we fell into each other’s arms through some process of elimination,” he recalled 20 years after the fact. The song, released on Cohen’s 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, is labeled “#2” because there’s an earlier version that was never officially recorded but is preserved in the 1974 concert documentary Bird on a Wire (filmed in 1972).

“Chelsea Girls” by Nico

After the premiere of Andy Warhol’s 1966 film The Chelsea Girls (or Chelsea Girls), Velvet Underground members Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison wrote this song as an unofficial companion piece, chronicling the activities of the Chelsea Hotel’s buzziest young residents in much the same way the film does. Nico, one of the starring Chelsea Girls, recorded it for her 1967 album, titled—wouldn’t you know it?—Chelsea Girl.

Iconic though the album is now, Nico’s lack of control in the studio left her unhappy with the whole thing, especially the flutes that feature so heavily on “Chelsea Girl.” “The first time I heard the album, I cried. I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away,” she later said, according to Dave Thompson’s Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell. “I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! They added strings and—I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! I cried and it was all because of the flute.”

“Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” by Okkervil River

Jobriath, né Bruce Wayne Campbell, was billed as glam rock’s next big thing in the early 1970s but never fulfilled his promise as a phenomenon—a failure partially caused by misguided marketing strategy and the public’s discomfort with his being gay. So Campbell shed the Jobriath persona and became Cole Berlin the piano lounge performer instead (the name is a nod to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin). His interview for a 1979 Omega One cover story [PDF]—conducted on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived at the time—is a portrait of superstardom with no stage, the kind of frenetic artistic energy so common among the hotel’s residents.

Four years later, Campbell, aged 36, died in the Chelsea Hotel of an AIDS-related illness. Okkervil River front man Will Sheff penned this song for 2008’s The Stand Ins as a time capsule of Campbell in 1979. “You watch a biopic about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, and it’s gonna be the story of this meteoric rise from humble roots to smashing success, and we’re taught to want and appreciate it,” Sheff told Kansas City’s The Pitch in 2008. “You never really see the story of an artist who never made it, who failed miserably, who is destined to be remembered as a footnote. Yet these are stories that almost all artists experience.”

“Chelsea” by Phoebe Bridgers

In “Chelsea,” from 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers revisits the murder of Nancy Spungen at the hotel in October 1978. It’s sung from Spungen’s perspective to her then-boyfriend, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, widely believed to have killed her. (He was charged with the crime but died of a heroin overdose before the trial.)

“I saw a picture of Sid Vicious in Rolling Stone, covered in blood. And it got me thinking about how romanticized he is, and Nancy Spungen’s mental health, and how they were put on the weird pillar,” Bridgers told Brightonsfinest. The song reflects Bridgers’s own belief that the public’s glamorizing of their relationship (and their drug addiction) is perverse.

“Chelsea Hotel ’78” by Alejandro Escovedo

Musician Alejandro Escovedo’s time at the Chelsea Hotel overlapped with Spungen’s murder; he and his band The Nuns lived there while they toured the East Coast between summer 1978 and fall 1979. “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” released on 2008’s Real Animal, is Escovedo’s decades-removed reflection on the unholy magic of the hotel and the hazy horror of Nancy’s death. “Once the Sid and Nancy incident played out, it became apparent that there was a need to anchor our lives in a way that I had never really considered before,” Escovedo told INDY Week in 2008. The song fades out with “So we all moved out / And we all moved on / And on and on.”

“The Chelsea Hotel” by Graham Nash

Graham Nash also stayed at the hotel during his younger years and wrote about the place decades later. But his song “The Chelsea Hotel,” from 2002’s Songs for Survivors, is less a personal look-back than a study of the hotel as a mausoleum of dreams and an ongoing artists’ haven. He cites “Raymond … writing of poets and painters,” probably a reference to his friend Raymond Foye, a writer and longtime hotel resident.

“Chelsea Hotel” by Dan Bern

A stay at the Chelsea Hotel in the summer of 1997 and “a brand-new romance,” in Dan Bern’s words, inspired the song “Chelsea Hotel” off his 1998 album Smartie Mine. Bern told writer Ed Hamilton in 2005 that he chose the Chelsea “because it was 3 in the morning and the [G]ramercy had no rooms,” and one of the highlights of his time there was the nearby Krispy Kreme. Don’t be fooled by the insouciance: The song itself is practically a hymn to the building’s Dylan era. (Bob, not Thomas. Well, maybe both.)

“Chelsea Hotel” by Jesse Jo Stark

The Chelsea Hotel gets a 21st-century polished pop rock makeover in this track from Jesse Jo Stark’s 2018 EP Dandelion. (Stark is the daughter of the founders of fashion line Chrome Hearts—and also the goddaughter of Cher.)

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