Were the haunting, breathtaking, painful lyrics of “Famous Blue Raincoat” written by almost any other songwriter besides Leonard Cohen, there would be no question about the song’s meaning. It appears to a straightforward confessional letter about a love triangle between “L. Cohen” his woman “Jane” and their mutual friend, a man with a blue raincoat who has gone to the desert and at one time had a brief affair with Jane.
As such, the song is deeply, almost embarrassingly, personal, an epistolary song about a wounded man who cannot help forgiving the friend.
The overpowering emotion of the song inhibits another look at the lyrics, but Cohen’s autobiography immediately suggests problems with this common interpretation. Specifically, it is Cohen’s life that is being described both as the narrator and the other man.
It is the friend in the song not “L. Cohen,” the narrator, who has a “famous blue raincoat.” But as the real Cohen noted in liner notes to the 1975 collection The Best of Leonard Cohen, the blue raincoat was his. “I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959….It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather.”
In the song, the narrator asks the friend, “Did you ever go clear?” This is a reference to Scientology and its state of “Clear.” Cohen himself for a brief time at least was a Church of Scientology member.
In the song, “L. Cohen” sings to the friend:
“You'd been to the station to meet every train
And you came home without Lili Marlene “
But in his concert introduction to Chelsea Hotel #2, Cohen said, “Once upon a time, there was a hotel in New York City. There was an elevator in that hotel. One evening, about three in the morning, I met a young woman in that hotel… I wasn’t looking for her., I was looking for Lili Marlene.” The song “Lili Marlene” (there are variants in the spelling of her name) was a popular love song from World War II although it had been written in Germany in 1915 during the First World War. The song is about a soldier who stands waiting by a lamppost for his love, Lili Marlene. That is, Lili is a symbol of perfect love that has gone away.
But if it is Leonard Cohen who has experienced all that is attributed to the friend, then to whom is “L. Cohen” singing? To ask the question is to answer it. “L. Cohen” is one part of Leonard Cohen singing to another part of Leonard Cohen. Call that other part, the friend in the song, “Leonard Cohen.” “L. Cohen” is faithful to women. “Leonard Cohen” is not. Leonard Cohen, the real songwriter, is writing about a romantic triangle, but he is both men in that triangle. “Jane” is any woman Leonard Cohen has been involved with.
Using this premise, it is possible to work through the song.
It opens with this line: “It's four in the morning, the end of December.” Clearly, given the time of day and year, the setting is cold and dark. It is a line reminiscent of Robert Frost’s famous line in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” an evening the speaker calls
“the darkest evening of the year.” In both cases, the setting represents the speaker’s profound sense of loneliness, of sorrow, of a depression like no other. In this despair “L. Cohen” writes to himself, seeking understanding perhaps even a reconciliation.
And so, in a step toward that reconciliation, “L. Cohen” sings: “I'm writing you now just to see if you're better.” “L. Cohen” wants the two sides to be friends.
“New York is cold, but I like where I'm living
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening.”
Clinton Street is on the Lower East Side in New York. Leonard Cohen really lived there. Clinton Street is named after the Revolutionary War hero General George Clinton who went on to become the first Governor of New York after independence and, in 1804, the Vice-President of the United States. The area, that is, is drenched in both Jewish and American history and has its own ongoing soundtrack. Unlike “Leonard Cohen,” “L. Cohen seems content, pleased about where he is in life.”
“I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert.”
“Leonard Cohen” is not like “L. Cohen.” He is emotionally apart from other people, far away from them in his mind. A desert is so dry that it can support only very sparse vegetation if any at all. The desert is a perfect metaphor for “Leonard Cohen’s” mind: it is so dry no fertile ideas can grow there. The desert also has multiple religious meanings. In Judaism the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt stayed in the desert wandering for forty years, but they also received the Torah at Mount Sinai and did eventually get to the land of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the Judean desert. The desert is a place of testing and “Leonard Cohen” was just in such a place in his mind.
”You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record.”
This line, of course, has a double meaning. “Living for nothing” can mean living without cost, but it more likely especially means living without a purpose, desperately searching. “L. Cohen,” ever the optimist wants “Leonard Cohen” to mine the despair for material, to keep a 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?”
“Jane” is the woman in both their lives. The romantic “Leonard” has given her a memento to remember him by as he left to go on a spiritual exploration.
“Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder.”
“Leonard’s” depression is aging him. The blue raincoat is a central symbol in the poem. A raincoat is a protection against wet weather, against the storms of life. “Leonard’s” raincoat was famous, because it had always protected him. He was lucky, blessed by life. All had gone well for him as he walked through life. Others got drenched, but he had his coat, his ability to conjure up the right language in the right order and put that language to music. Now, though, the raincoat is torn. It is no longer working as it once did. “Leonard” is getting a bit wet because the raincoat has torn.
“You'd been to the station to meet every train
And you came home without Lili Marlene.”
Poor “Leonard” has been looking for the perfect woman, but he cannot meet her.
”And you treated my woman to a flake of your life
And when she came back she was nobody's wife.”
“Leonard,” the great romantic has bothered to give a discarded piece of himself, a flake, to Jane, but, given that it was “Leonard,” they broke up and she returned to the faithful “L. Cohen” but she had been permanently changed. She had discovered that she wasn’t anyone’s attachment. She wasn’t defined just by her relationship to a man.
“Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth
One more thin gypsy thief.”
“L. Cohen is angry in these lines, mocking “Leonard’s” romantic pose, his Gypsy-like nomadic attitude, but in his case being a nomad meant traveling not from place to place but from woman to woman. “L. Cohen” believes in devotion to one woman for life. “Leonard” does not seem capable of that.
The end of the song is the attempt at reconciliation. “L. Cohen” misses his “brother” despite the fact that this double has killed part of him. “L. Cohen” will not put up a fight if “Leonard” returns.
And so the two sides of Leonard Cohen, the responsible side who gives voice to the song, and the depressed romantic side that is scolded and reprimanded, reach a truce. The songwriter has come, for the moment, to accept a self he’s not entirely comfortable with but recognizes as irreversible.
As if Cohen’s lyrical achievement weren’t enough in this song, there is a technical poetic point that should be mentioned. A good deal of the song is written in amphibrachs. An amphibrach consists of a stressed syllable which has an unstressed syllable on either side of it. Consider, for example, these two lines. I have underlined the stressed syllables:
It’s four in the morning, the end of December.
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better.
What better way to write a poem about a love triangle than to have a syllabic triangle with a stressed syllable surrounded by two unstressed syllables.
I’m aware of the 1994 BBC interview in which Cohen expressed ambiguity about the nature of the song, and it’s certainly open to a wide variety of interpretations. That’s what makes Leonard Cohen so mysterious and worthwhile.