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`I remember you well in Chelsea Hotel'

JUST back from a quick trip to the Himachal hills, a news snippet about the reclusive poet and singer Leonard Cohen catches the eye. He has made a rare appearance in Toronto to promote his first book in 22 years and to make some money after being allegedly duped by his manager of about five million dollars. To me that does not mean much; a few million dollars here or there matter to those who have them.

It's the connection between Cohen and the hills that is important. There, as I discovered nearly 30 years ago, he is something else. He reached out to our young hearts from an old tape played out on a small cassette player tied to the belt, the great grand parent of the I-pod. His magic was magnified and his words skimmed our souls as we climbed up to Jalori pass, or struggled across alpine flower-decked meadows of Chandrakhani pass, or slithered down the steep descent to Malana. And as we bathed at sunset in the little stream rushing to meet the Sutlej at Ani or toasted our tired limbs in the hot springs at Manikaran, his ballads revealed hidden depths.

Magic of Cohen's voice

Those were the days of adventure and heartbreak, of unknown restless futures and half hidden promises. Disappointments were rare, while victories were only to be expected. Cohen's moody baritone met all these moods; he could pluck at our heartstrings with "That's no way to say goodbye"; he could conjure up visions with "Suzanne"; he could send us hastening across the hills with "So long, Marianne".

Thirty years on, neither the hills nor Cohen have lost their magic. Just the other day, I landed up at a friend's cottage in the relative wild at two in the morning. The hillside and the valleys below lay bathed in the lambent light of the Buddha Purnima moon. Once again, there was restlessness in the step, life's moorings seemed to have been loosened, a certain disconsolation had entered the heart, reality and unreality mingled in resigned sadness. As he opened the door and we watched the moonlight spread across the night, I said: "Don't turn on the light, you can read their address by the moon." He quietly nodded: "Sisters of Mercy". There was no need for more words. We had both long ago listened to Cohen in the hills.

As I muse on the news cutting, I wonder if Cohen will go down to New York city to promote his book and if he does, will he again stay at Chelsea Hotel, as he has so many times in the past. His whimsical verse comes to mind:

I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best/I can't keep track of each fallen robin/I remember you well in Chelsea Hotel/That's all, I don't even think of you that often.

That was written for one-time lover and fellow resident of Chelsea, Janis Joplin after the 27-year-old rock and roll sensation died from a heroin overdose. He began writing it in a bar in Miami and finished it in Ethiopia just before the coup, not in the hotel it commemorates.

That song drumming in my mind, I sought out Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street, deep on the west side of New York one windy evening. Far away from the skyscrapers and nearer to the more randomly laid out Greenwich Village, it was difficult to believe that this red brick building was once the tallest in the city. But that was way back in 1884.

Its height is not its claim to fame but rather the fact that besides Cohen and Joplin, scores of other writers, artists, poets have stayed and worked in its rooms. The names, many of them marked by commemorative plaques at the entrance, make fascinating reading.

Famous names

Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams lived here. Thomas Wolfe wrote his Look Homeward, Angel here. And then came the beatniks of the 1950s, the hippies of the 1960s and the rock `n rollers of the 1970s. Arthur Miller, famous playwright and one-time husband of Marilyn Munroe stayed and worked here for six years. The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas sailed forth from this hotel to the White Horse tavern in the village and died in a coma after 18 straight whiskies. The man whom he gave a name to — Bob Dylan lived, sang and even had a child here. Arthur C. Clarke wrote his famous 2001 here and was often visited by Kubrick during the making of the film. The list goes on... . Jimi Hendrix, O. Henry, Vladimir Nobakov, Edith Piaf, Henri Cartier Bresson, Jane Fonda, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock ... Short stories, novels, plays, songs, paintings have been produced in this 10-storey building with its slow elevators, narrow corridors, decadent carpets.

And as I stood in silent homage in its lobby that looks like an art gallery, the place seemed to spell artistic achievement and hinted constantly at destructive tragedy. Nonchalance and art was everywhere, style seemed to be leaning at the porch. One could understand what Miller meant when he wrote: "I witnessed how a new time, the sixties, stumbled into the Chelsea with young, bloodshot eyes."

And if Cohen does go there, far from my hills where I love to listen to him, he may recall that it was the kind of hotel where "at four a.m. you can bring along a midget, a bear and four ladies, drag them to your room and no one cares about it at all."


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