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And Upon a Napkin I Began That Song
October 8, 2008, 4:20 am
Filed under: Rufus Wainwright, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Rufus Wainwright on Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” February 2005 (Interview here):

I think he’s very underrated, mostly in terms of his sense of humour. That was one thing that really struck me doing the song, is that although he becomes very dark and foreboding and sensitive, there’s always this sort of ray of humour that sort of shines out.

Indubitably the Leonard Cohen covers that are played and talked about the most are both of “Hallelujah,” which has perhaps been covered well more times than any other song I can think of.  Not only did both Rufus and Jeff Buckley record stellar versions, but the John Cale rendition that appeared both on the Leonard Cohen I’m Your Fan tribute CD and in the actual movie soundtrack of Shrek (but not the CD) is also quite good.  Both the Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley versions have been used repeatedly as background music for TV shows, most recently when the Late Show with David Letterman used Rufus’s as the soundtrack for their Paul Newman tribute.  I would be hard-pressed to say whether “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” or “Hallelujah” is the better Leonard Cohen song because I believe both are among the greatest compositions ever written, but I will say that over time I have come to prefer Rufus’s underrated version of the former over his slightly overrated version of the latter.

Before somebody hits me over the head with a sandbag, this is not to say that I do not enjoy hearing Rufus sing “Hallelujah.”  I would probably enjoy listening to Rufus sing a census form or a lunch menu, let alone this incredible song that so well suits his voice and emotive capabilities.  The reason I have come to prefer “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is partly the ray of humor of which Rufus speaks and partly the way it has grown on me slowly over time since I first saw Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.  There have been many cover versions of this song including ones by Regina Spektor, Josh Ritter and Lloyd Cole, but the authority with which Rufus delivers it may be attributable to the fact that he lived there for six months in 2000 and wrote most of Poses there:

As performed by Rufus Wainwright, this song acquires an ambiguity that distinguishes it from the Leonard Cohen version, because we know Leonard Cohen sings to and about Janis Joplin from the many times and ways he has said so.  Who, if anyone, is Rufus singing to?

When I visited New York last February, there were banners hanging from the Chelsea supporting former manager Stanley Bard and decrying the new part-owners, who had forced Bard of his active role in running the hotel.  There are ongoing disagreements between the tenants and the new management regarding whether or not the building should be renovated and whether the current ban on new permanent residents should be lifted to help maintain the bohemian ambiance that made the place legendary.  I’m sure Rufus would agree with me; a place that has inspired so many people, such a great song, and so many historically significant trysts deserves to be a monument, not turned into just another boutique hotel.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
you were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
you fixed yourself, and said, “Well never mind,
we are ugly but we have the music.

There is a big difference between having the music and merely exploiting one’s history of doing so for the sake of the almighty dollar, so I hope the Chelsea will return to its former glory as a sanctuary and inspiration for artists in residence.  Change is inevitable, but some traditions are worth preserving and I would hate to lose the chance to hear what still another generation’s resident voice of experience would do with “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.”

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