For a young woman from a small Texas town and#8212; a lifelong outsider who had drifted since she was eighteen from one bohemian scene to another and#8212; life at the legendary Chelsea was a thrilling experience.
Through some fluke, Janis had been assigned one of the smaller rooms initially, but once sheand#8217;d had a chance to wander the corridors and step out onto a balcony overlooking the snow-covered city, she realized that this was where she belonged and#8212; street noise, clanking heating pipes, and stained carpet notwithstanding. During those first weeks, she would write to her sister of the aura of history and magic that resonated through the halls of this "very famous literary type intellectual hotel," whose current population of hippies and musicians, artists and writers, superstars and regular working folks had grown so large that it had begun to spill over into the twelve-story Carteret building next door.
Stanley Bard also felt that Janis had found a home here. Looking beyond her secondhand clothes and uncombed hair, he perceived a powerful life spirit and#8212; a hard-working young woman with "good energy and focus." He said later that he regretted that she hadnand#8217;t become a teacher, something she told him sheand#8217;d once planned to be. He worried even then that this goodhearted Texas girl whoand#8217;d strung the beads her ex-boyfriend Country Joe McDonald had worn for his performance at Monterey Pop and#8212; on the same day she herself had stunned the audience with her no-holds-barred rendition of "Love Is Like a Ball and#8217;nand#8217; Chain" and#8212; wasnand#8217;t prepared to handle the cutthroat Warhol crowd at the trendy new Maxand#8217;s Kansas City, even if "Janis," McDonaldand#8217;s tribute to her, was playing on the jukebox for all the hangers-on to hear.
To some extent, he was right. On February 17, 1968, Joplin had earned ecstatic reviews with her gut-wrenching rendition of "Piece of My Heart" at the Anderson, and the concert was followed by a blast of publicity that promised a triumphant East Coast launch. But as recording sessions began for Big Brother and the Holding Companyand#8217;s first Columbia Records album, later to be named Cheap Thrills, the first week of March, the band learned that a quartermillion- dollar contract from a major record label didnand#8217;t come without some strings attached. To play its best, Big Brother had always depended on its visceral connection with the audience. Now, there was no audience, and their producer, John Simon, was appalled by how poorly the musicians performed. Simon, with his perfect pitch, actually had to leave the studio when the band performed off-key or off the beat. Discussions about dumping Big Brother and getting Janis a professional backup band began at Columbia and in Grossmanand#8217;s office.
The musicians, shocked by the criticism, began to turn their resentment against Joplin. The press attention she had received since their arrival in New York, including a photograph in the New York Times from which every band member but Janis had been cropped, convinced them that she was on a star trip and intended to leave them behind. This feeling of insecurity poisoned the air at the recording sessions 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 with Columbia over the previous year. By April 1967, after further coverage of his songs by Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cohen had done a few public singing performances and had even been offered a college tour in the fall. Months before, Columbiaand#8217;s John Hammond, famed discoverer of Bob Dylan as well as Count Basie and Aretha Franklin, had dropped in at the Chelsea to hear Cohen play "Suzanne," "The Stranger Song," and other tunes. "Youand#8217;ve got it," he had announced before leaving, but it was not until the end of April that he was able to persuade the record company to take a chance on a poet-singer Cohenand#8217;s age.
Through the summer and fall of 1967, Cohen worked laboriously to lay down the songs for his first album, first with the legendary producer Bob Johnston, then with Hammond. It was a painful process; the chance to take time out to perform "Suzanne" at the Newport 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 her poet-lover, and Leonard recommended Camus, Garcand#237;a Lorca, and the I Ching. One day a limousine pulled up next to them, and Jimi Hendrix, in the limoand#8217;s back seat, started talking to Joni; Cohen was pleased that Joni didnand#8217;t jump into the limousine and run off with the charismatic guitarist, as Nico had once done in a similar situation. But in the end, Cohenand#8217;s relationship with Mitchell developed into something more collegial than passionate. He quipped at one point that living with Joni was like "living with Beethoven." She was clearly on her own upward trajectory, and though they would remain friends beyond their summer romance, she couldnand#8217;t resist dismissing him now and then as a "boudoir poet," less a composer than a "word man."
In the wake of the romance, Cohen faced the hard reality of the recording process alone. In September, Hammond dropped out, and the project was put on hold for a month. Cohen, devastated by the prospect of having to start all over again, shut himself in his room for a week, smoking hash and seeing only his friends at the Chelsea. Then John Simon, Big Brotherand#8217;s future producer, was brought in to replace Hammond, and somehow the album was completed. Songs of Leonard Cohen, its back cover sporting the image of a Mexican saint like those seen in his neighborhood botand#225;nica, shipped in December of 1967. Cohen went on a brief promotional tour. Now he was back, roaming the Hotel Chelseaand#8217;s halls again, his album having met with only limited success and the rights to "Suzanne" and two more of his best songs somehow lost to a music publisher along the way. and#160; By this point, as Cohen would tell a concert audience years later, he had become expert at operating the Chelseaand#8217;s notoriously stubborn elevators. It was "one of the few technologies I really ever mastered," he said. "I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. No hesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days." One cold, dismal night, returning home from a solitary dinner at the Bronco Burger, he realized that the woman next to him in the elevator was Janis Joplin and that she was enjoying the ride as much as he was. He understood at once: with all the problems they had satisfying the demands of their record label, here was something both of them really knew how to do. Taking a deep breath, Cohen asked, "Are you looking for someone?" She said, "Yes, Iand#8217;m looking for Kris Kristofferson." Kris Kristofferson? "Little lady, youand#8217;re in luck," responded the silver-tongued poet. "I am Kris Kristofferson."
Joplinand#8217;s full-throated cackle at this remark made Cohen forget all about his record, his lost copyright, and the burger he was still struggling to digest. In no time, Canadaand#8217;s poet of pessimism found himself in an unmade bed with rockand#8217;s new gypsy queen. The tryst would provide sweet if fleeting memories to this pair just beginning to perceive the price they would pay for the fame they had wished for. Too much thought and energy would be focused on "the money and the flesh" in the coming years. Well, that was all right, Joplin said, as Cohen recalled years later in his song "Chelsea Hotel No. 2." "We are ugly but we have the music."
The Fillmore Eastand#8217;s opening concert on March 8 was a whopping success, with people fighting to get in to watch Joplin belt out "Catch Me, Daddy" in a wash of psychedelic lights. By late spring, Janis was scheduled for photo shoots with Glamour and interviews with Life and Look. Soon, her portrait by Richard Avedon would appear in Vogue, where Richard Goldstein would describe her as "the most staggering leading woman in rock . . . she slinks like tar, scowls like war . . . clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave." As money started to roll in, Joplin lavished it on her friends, presiding over El Quijote dinner parties where Harry Smith and Peggy Biderman shared a plate of paella while Ginsberg compared notes on book royalties with Cohen and a bevy of adoring female fans looked on. Ginsberg, like Stanley Bard, found Janis to be "a very sensitive, beautiful person" and added her to the list of friends at the hotel whom he was likely to fetch for a confabulation in some room at any time of the night or day. But at El Quijote, the Spanish waiters observed the way she slugged Southern Comfort and loudly flirted with every man who walked by, and kept their opinions to themselves.