Leonard Cohen’s 1985 Various Positions tour came to Warsaw, Poland during a very difficult time in the nation’s history. The communist state was under Soviet control and martial law was lifted just two years later, but dissidents were still being jailed and the atmosphere was extremely tense. There weren’t a lot of major rock shows coming through the country, but at the last minute Leonard Cohen made a point to bring his tour to the Congress Hall at the Palace of Culture. This was perhaps the single lowest point of his commercial career, but he had a fanatical cult following in Poland and tickets vanished instantly.
When addressing the crowd after opening the show with “Bird on the Wire,” Cohen attempted to strike a balanced tone. “I come from a country where we do not have the same struggles as you have,” he said. “I respect your struggles. And it may surprise you, but I respect both sides of this struggle. It seems to be that in Europe there needs to be a left foot and a right foot to move forward. … And I would like to say to you, to the leaders of the left, and the leaders of the right, I sing for everyone. My song has no flag, my song has no party.”
Professional cameras were rolling on the show and much of it has wound up on YouTube in pretty great quality. Check out this tremendous version of “Chelsea Hotel # 2.” Cohen didn’t love his singing voice, and often used female backup singers to aid him, but he delivers this with just his voice and an acoustic guitar. “Every concert that I give, I dedicate this song to a great American singer that I met one night in an elevator in a shabby hotel in New York City,” he told the crowd. “I think she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. I told her that I was Kris Kristofferson. But she said, ‘I thought he was bigger.’ I said that I used to be bigger, but I’d been sick. And we spent a little time together. … And I remember writing on one of their very badly designed napkins, ‘I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel…’ so I dedicate this song to one of the great singers, Janis Joplin.”
Cohen lived to regret revealing the true-life inspiration for the song and apologized to “Joplin’s ghost” for revealing explicit details of their brief tryst. He wouldn’t return to Poland until 2008, and by that point Cohen was headlining massive arenas and Poland was a free nation. It was a situation almost impossible to imagine back in 1985.