Who Does The Best "Chelsea Hotel #2"?


In news that will surely anger some people, Lana Del Rey has recorded a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s classic song about Janis Joplin, “Chelsea Hotel #2.” She made a video to accompany it, too, all dark and moody and full of close-ups of matchbooks and cigarettes and her plump, sculpted lips. Hahaha. You really do get the sense that she’s taunting us, don’t you? Well, despite myself, I really like it! (*ducks*) Here’s to the quiver in that deep husky voice, here’s to make-believe!

Of course, Lana Del Rey is far from the first artist to cover this song. So let’s try to figure out: Where does her version stand compared to the others? Who did it best?

Boston fairy singer Marissa Nadler sings it too much like a fairy. As if the unmade bed that Janis Joplin was giving her head on was one made of tulips and daffodils. That’s not New York. Lana’s is better.

With her roots in the East Village folk scene, Regina Spektor would seem to be a better interpreter of this ode to NYC louche. Instead, she turns it into a half-sung, half-spoken musical comedy routine. Too cute by half. Lana’s is better than this, too.

Martha Wainwright’s voice often rubs me the wrong way, for similar reasons. I don’t think we should be able to hear how hard she’s straining to sound coquettish. But here, at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2006, as she performed the song before the premiere of the Cohen tribute movie I’m Your Man, her keening sounds straight-ahead and honestly passionate. Better than Lana’s winking artifice.

This is my favorite of any version I’ve ever heard. It’s from I’m Your Man. Martha’s brother Rufus Wainwright captures the sadness but also the prideful beauty in the lyrics. Swooning and sneering at the same time, his voice is just perfect.


I love Lloyd Cole. I would like to have Rattlesnakes and Easy Pieces to be buried with me when I die. (That way, if any greedy grave robbers tried to dig me up to steal my jewelry, rattlesnakes would leap out of my coffin and bite their eyes!) But this was not a song for him to sing. At least not so jauntily.

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner emits exactly the right self-deprecating charm for the song. But he seems like he’s just kinda fooling around with it. La-di-la-la-la. I want more from him. I’ll call this a tie with Lana.

Now we come to Leonard Cohen himself. It’s hard to top the story he tells to introduce this performance. And it’s Leonard Cohen, it’s his song, it’s awesome. It’s not really fair to Lana to make the comparison.

I think I actually prefer this original version of the song (called “Chelsea Hotel #1,” and never recorded for any album) to the one that became more famous. It’s dirtier, more sensual, and when he breaks it down into a gospel reverie with his back-up singers in the middle, he finds a new line of melody that I’ll miss forever. And at the end, my God, when he goes back into it, and sings about watching Janis racing the midnight train, nude, without any cape to cover her, tearing up her feet on the gravel, and he can’t catch up with her? It’s a eulogy, this song, isn’t it?