Listening to Rufus Wainwright’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” was a kind of revelatory experience. While I had heard the song before, it suddenly seemed to have a remarkable emotional depth where all sort of insights lurked. Although I had heard it before a few times (mostly Cohen’s version, I think), I had not heard it with his introduction in which he explains how he came to write the song about what seems to have been a fairly brief encounter with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel in New York (uploaded by rhino49 in 2008). As Rufus’ live version also includes a brief introduction from Cohen in which he praises the yonger singer’s performance, it seemed obvious that what I needed to do was stitch Cohen’s introduction to the live audio of Rufus’ performance, with a few pictures of other celebrities who stayed there (yes, that is Joni Mitchell, and–in other photo–Rufus, although long after the events narrated in the song) while keeping the focus on Leonard and Janis. In some ways, although I didn’t plan it that way, this is a logical followup to the “Leftover Wine: Little Girl Blue” slideshow I did last week, while the joining of a revealing live introduction to a different version of the song being introduced echoes what I did earlier on “Bluebirds Fly.” Anyway I promised something accessible and moving after last week’s “As an unperfect actor” (which has actually gotten a more positive response than I expected), so I hope this achieves that. I hope you think so too.
In my memory, buying David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album is inextricably connected with getting deeply into music, at least in terms of buying record albums. I’m sure I had a few before (I remember having the Beatles Second Album, which may have been a gift, and a couple of Monkees albums growing up), but it was probably about this time (I would have been fifteen in 1973 when the album was released) that I started working, making money, and having money of my own which I spent almost exclusively on books and records. By the time I had finished my teens, it was virtually impossible to get around my bedroom as stacks of albums or science fiction and fantasy novels basically filled every available inch of floor space except for narrow pathways so I could reach my record player and the closet where my clothes were.
I was very aware of music, and read Robert Hilburn, the longtime popular music critic at the LA Times, religiously. While he had his detractors, and I didn’t always like every musical suggestion he made, I will always be grateful to him for exposing me to so many different artists and genres. In the early seventies, glam rock was happening, more in the UK than America, but it certainly had an impact in the big cities, including Los Angeles, and I was an Anglophile from very early on, so the fact that Bowie was more popular in his homeland than in the US was–if anything–a kind of recommendation to me. Bowie’s very conscious experimentation with multiple personas and public bisexuality was a source of both attraction and anxiety for me and one day, having somehow scraped together four dollars, I determined that I was going to buy his new album, Aladdin Insane, which was being praised to the skies by Hilburn. The punning title, with its promise of both magical transformation and a kind of companionship in my own mental struggles with the “strange changes” that I was going through, was undeniably an attraction too, while the striking cover art seemed both a more overt statement of a kind of gay aesthetic, and a more hidden one than the limp wristed photo of David in a phone booth that graced the back of Ziggy Stardust, an album which I was very much aware of, but hadn’t yet quite summomed up the courage to buy.
As I remember, at this time the only local record outlet, which sold a very limited selection of music, was Thrifty Drugstore, a big chain at the time. I think only the sleeves were out in the racks, so you had to take the sleeve to the cashier and exchange it for a copy that actually had a vinyl album inside. I remember taking the sleeve out and putting it back several times as I built up and then immediately lost my nerve. I think I finally realized that I was making more of a spectacle of myself in my public indecision than I would do actually purchasing the record so, like ripping off a bandaid, I walked briskly to the counter where the young, dark haired, female clerk checked me out. I think she gave me an odd, slightly searching look, but that was probably my imagination (Does she know? I’m sure I thought at the time).
After that, I was off, getting into Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, and even the New York Dolls, and very quickly into many other musical genres as well. I soon got a license, then a used car, and after that the record stores of the San Fernando Valley, and even the iconic Tower Records down on Sunset, suddenly became accessible to me and I discovered not only used records, but really esoteric things like imported singles and albums, which were instrumental in getting me into punk rock a few years later. I actually saw Bowie once in 1974, on his Diamond Dogs tour when he did a five day stint at the Universal Amphitheatre (here is a link to a video of “Cracked Actor” recorded at one of these shows, and a live recording drawn from the entire run has also just been released–I had completely forgotten, by the way, that he performed the song with a skull, although I remember the shades and the sweater). Anyway, here is my video tribute. I chose these two Who covers not so much because they reveal anything about David, but because they really nail what he meant to me at the time: a slightly inexplicable attraction coupled up with a sense of the opening up of near limitless possibilities: gender, art, politics, literature, everything. Where have all the good times gone, indeed?
I’m also going to include David’s official video of “I’m Afraid of Americans,” partly because I identify with it (which is odd, at least according to my Passport, I am an American), and partly because I had been thinking of making a slideshow about it. After looking at it, however, I doubt I could do better, and there is simply no way I could replace David’s magnetic presence in it. So, if you haven’t seen it, enjoy; even if you have, it’s probably worth watching again. Sort of unfortunately, it seems even more timely today than it did when it was released.