The Best Songs: Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen)


It’s four in the morning, the end of December
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better
New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.

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. It’s not that I’ve resisted an impressionistic approach to songwriting, but I’ve never felt that this one, that I really nailed the lyric. I’m ready to concede something to the mystery, but secretly I’ve always felt that there was something about the song that was unclear. So I’ve been very happy with some of the imagery, but a lot of the imagery.
~Leonard Cohen (BBC Radio Interview 1994)

Sometime in the early 1970s, a thief stole Leonard Cohen’s old raincoat from Marianne Ihlen’s New York apartment. God only know what happened to it, but the thief almost certainly had no idea he was stealing an object that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if not the Smithsonian. It was that very coat that inspired Cohen to write one of his most beloved and mysterious songs. It’s written in the form of a letter, possibly to the narrator’s brother, who stole his lover, Jane.
~rollingstone.com

Famous Blue Raincoat (from the album – Songs of Love and Hate)

Wikipedia:

from the album – Songs of Love and Hate
Released 1971
Genre Folk
Length 5:09
Label Columbia
Writer Leonard Cohen
Composer Leonard Cohen
Producer Bob Johnston

Famous Blue Raincoat” is a song by Leonard Cohen. It is the sixth track on his third album, Songs of Love and Hate, released in 1971. The song is written in the form of a letter (many of the lines are written in amphibrachs). 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.”

leonard-cohen-songs-of-love-and-hate-

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

In the 1999 book, The Complete Guide to the Music of Leonard Cohen, the authors comment that Cohen’s question, “Did you ever go clear?”, in the song, is a reference to the Scientology state of “Clear”. Cohen was very briefly a member of the Church of Scientology, which he had heard was a “good place to meet women.”

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 sometime during the early seventies. I wasn’t wearing it very much toward the end.
~Leonard Cohen (liner notes to 1975’s The Best of Leonard Cohen)

Live

Ambiguous and mysterious, “Famous Blue Raincoat” is, in many ways, Cohen’s signature song, maybe the first Leonard Cohen song you play for some lucky someone who has not yet been exposed to the man’s music. The epistolary tune even ends with a signature — “Sincerely, L. Cohen” — lending the work a hauntingly autobiographical tinge that justifies the various (and exhausting) speculations on the song’s true meaning. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is ostensibly written in the wake of a lover’s triangle, though one of my favorite interpretations of it involves the idea that Cohen is writing a letter to himself — the raincoat and the lock of hair both his own. Each time you hear “Famous Blue Raincoat,” you understand less but want to know more. It’s a song that remains with you after it has stopped playing, and forever after.
~stereogum.com

RockPop Special – October 1979




It’s a song of love and hate, of regret and remorse. Cohen’s a cuckold and is writing a letter to the man who temporarily stole his sweetheart, only he seems stuck. “It’s four in the morning, the end of December / I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better / New York is cold, but I like where I’m living,” he rambles, dancing aimlessly around the extra-marital elephant in the room. When he finally gets into the guts of it all, it’s darkly beautiful: the music swells dangerously and seductively, and Cohen sadly recalls the moment he realised he’d been cheated, sadly murmuring: “You treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she came back, she was nobody’s wife.” What really lingers, though, is just how odd the dynamic is between each point in this strange love triangle; the way Cohen seems strangely grateful for the whole horrible mess. “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes,” he sings before signing off. “I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” A strange, disturbing snapshot into the sadly squalid lives of others.
~theguardian.com

Ahoy, Rotterdam – 18-09-2013

Although it was released on the Canadian legend’s third album in 1971, “Famous Blue Raincoat” had actually been written years earlier and tested extensively live before being taken to the studio. As Leonard Cohen’s guitarist and band leader, Ron Cornelius remembers it, Cohen realized in advance of its release that the song would become one of his best loved, “We played the song a lot before it went to tape,. We knew it was going to be big. We could see what the crowd did – you play the Royal Albert Hall, the crowd goes crazy, and you’re really saying something there.”
~1001 Songs You Must Hear

Lyrics

It’s four in the morning, the end of December
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better
New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.

I hear that you’re building your little house deep in the desert
You’re living for nothing now, I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.

Yes, 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
Did you ever go clear?

Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder
You’d been to the station to meet every train
And you came home without Lili Marlene

And you treated my woman to a flake of your life
And when she came back she was nobody’s wife.

Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth
One more thin gypsy thief
Well I see Jane’s awake

She sends her regards.
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I’m glad you stood in my way.

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

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried.

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

Cover versions worth checking out

Joan Baez

Kari Bremnes (Norwegian)

The Handsome Family

Jennifer Warnes

-Egil

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