Get Ready! You Are About To Learn The Story Of Cohen's 'Famous Blue Raincoat'


Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Raincoat

The song is written in the form of a letter. The lyric tells the story of a love triangle between the speaker, a woman named Jane, and the male addressee, who is identified only briefly as "my brother, my killer."

The lyrics contain references to the German love song "Lili Marlene," to Scientology, and to Clinton Street. Cohen lived on Clinton Street in Manhattan in the 1970s when it was a lively Latino area.

In a 1994 BBC Radio Interview Cohen remarked: 

"The problem with that song is that I've forgotten the actual triangle. Whether it was my own - of course, I always felt that there was an invisible male seducing the woman I was with, now whether this one was incarnate or merely imaginary I don't remember, I've always had the sense that either I've been that figure in relation to another couple or there'd been a figure like that in relation to my marriage. I don't quite remember but I did have this feeling that there was always a third party, sometimes me, sometimes another man, sometimes another woman. It was a song I've never been satisfied with."

Cohen's version is sung from the perspective of a man discussing with another man a woman they both had a relationship with.

Many female artists have managed to flip the gender and make the song even more ambiguous. Joan Baez, Tori Amos, Laurie MacAllister and Jennifer Warnes are some of the artists who have covered this song.

Cohen said in a 1993 issue of Song Talk

"I thought that Jennifer Warnes' version in a sense was better because I worked on a different version for her, and I thought it was somewhat more coherent."

In the liner notes to 1975's The Best of Leonard Cohen, which includes the song, he mentions that the famous blue raincoat to which he refers actually belonged to him, and not someone else.

Cohen says: 

"I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn't go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne's loft in New York City sometime during the early seventies. I wasn't wearing it very much toward the end."

Back to the lyrics, the writer seems to be struggling with conflicting emotions of compassion and contempt.

At first, he offers only a half-hearted effort at reconciliation—"I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you." But he eventually admits that the friend was able to make Jane happier than he ever could—"Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes." The letter, like the song, doesn't exactly come to a resolution, but we get the sense that the writer has at least started to work through his emotions related to the betrayal. In other words, where the letter ends is where forgiveness begins.

In the background, there are a number of allusions to the betrayer's past and current struggles, particularly with drug abuse.

Initially, the writer says he's checking "to see if [his friend's] better," though we don't know (or ever really learn) what was wrong with him in the first place. A few lines later, we hear that the writer's friend is "building a house in the desert," and that "he's living for nothing now;" both lines paint an image of an isolated and lonely man.

Later in the song, the writer mentions that the last time he saw his friend, he "looked so much older."

It seems that the betrayer, a ladies' man, eventually resigned himself to being one lady's man and that now even that one has abandoned him. 

If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me
Well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free

It's easy to presume that the signature confirms that we're hearing the voice of the betrayed.

Yet, what we learn from Cohen's comment to the BBC is that he has combined several different love triangles in which he was involved (in different roles) so as to blur the line between betrayer and betrayed. It's almost as if Cohen himself plays both roles within the song, as though he's singing a letter that he has both written and received. In other words, as if he has written a letter to himself.

We return, then, to our questions: Is "Famous Blue Raincoat" a song about betraying or about being betrayed? Who is singing in this song?

And Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear

What we find is that the signature—"L. Cohen"—is not the solution to our mystery, but a deepening of it.

The last line of the song is also intriguing: 

Sincerely, L Cohen

We learn who is singing, but now we're left with the much more perplexing question: "Who is Leonard Cohen?"

Sources: 12

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