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« Other ‘Others’ on Otherness - Andre Yang [Asian Pacific American Heritage Month] | Main | Julie Sheehan, Constituent Bartender: You Get What You Order »

May 24, 2012


I LOVE this. What a brilliant post. And I find the argument compelling. The opening song in Cohen's latest album is also a conversation between parts of the self. In this case, it is as if Inspiration is speaking to The Vessel ("he knows he's really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube") It opens something like:

I love to speak with Leonard. He's a sportsman and a shepherd. He's a lazy bastard living in a suit.
But he does do what I tell him. Even though it isn't welcome.

I will read your post on the raincoat again and again! A perfectly articulated vision of inner geography, inner geography I love to get lost in.

Thanks, Jenny.

Former BAP blogger Earle Hitchner writes:

Lawrence Epstein did a fine exegesis of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" lyrics. But like a play that's read and not seen, which guts the impact by half, song lyrics require both a well-executed melody and a skillful performance to deliver full power. So let me recommend a recorded version not by Cohen himself that delivers full power: that by Jennifer Warnes on her 1986 album, FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT (a Cypress Records CD of exquisite DDD quality). There's also a 20th-anniversary edition of the album, released by Shout Factory in 2007, that contains four more tracks and a booklet. How good is Warnes's interpretation of Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat"? It's right up there with Jeff Buckley's famous rendition of Cohen's "Hallelujah." Trust your ears.

what an absolute pile of Horace McNure. The author must be a psychologist working for the government, an environment that creates phantom diseases or scenarios from innocuous sets of circumstances.
It's a marvelous song about love, betrayal and forgiveness...... let it stand as such for heaven's sake.

I just want to say I disagree with caudite. We happened to be discussing the song and Professor Epstein's analysis of it in class and we felt that it was key to understanding Leonard Cohen and his influence. Thank you. Respectfully. Jane

This is such a helpful analysis. For two decades I've been troubled by the apparent disconnect in the narrative in this song. Thanks for resolving it.

Thanks so much, Adrian. I really appreciate your comments.


I'm playing and singing LC'd Famous Blue Raincoat for more than 40 years now. With the help of Epstine's Interpretation I will be able to reach next class and level . Trank you so much

Thanks for your comment, Werner.


I am not sure why anyone would ever interpret Leonard as writing this letter to a "friend". Leonard clearly states the letter is going to "his enemy". I have listened to every Cohen song enough to know that Leonard never uses a word or thought casually. Start over from the top with this in mind and start a score sheet. Negative comments at enemy or digs on one side, and positive on the other. Why is it important to let your enemy know it is 4 in the morning in a letter but not the specific day of the week or day of the year? Because when he can see Jane is awake and she only sends her regards, not love or friendship, then the enemy knows Leonard and Jane have been together all night and Jane expresses no special feelings. Dig plus. Any time you come to what you could perceive as a friendly comment, consider a closer look. If Leonard wanted to state he forgave or missed him he would have said so with know or sure. Even when the enemy ends up doing Leonard a favor by standing in his way, it is by default and Leonard throws it back at him. It just happened to work out over time. With this thought in mind, look at the line that begins "Thanks, for the trouble... now see Thanks, for nothing, that trouble in her eyes gave her an important perspective and you just took it away. Even at the end, when you are just dealing with a thin gypsy thief, it isn't worth asking a second time if he ever went clear, just sigh it L. Cohen, and send it out into the desert.

Thanks for your comments.

Thank you for this post. I thought I'd read that this was a real letter. Was it?

I do not know if it is real. If I had to guess, I would say it is a product of Leonard Cohen's imagination.

I quite honestly consider this song to be the pinnacle of vocal storytelling in, like, forever.. It's basically a book or movie plot that he, miraculously, managed to boil down into a song that barely lasts 5 minutes - without cutting or compromising anything. It's all there. All of it.

And I'm saying this not as an ardent fan of his - I just happen to like his music. But this song is… something different.

Thank you for your comments. It is truly a great song.

Thank you for a very interesting analysis of Cohen lyrics. I enjoyed reading it.
I find Don King's interpretation too simple and reflecting more his own views than an attempt to enter into another person's mind where feelings are often ambiguous and conflicted and rarely so straightforward.

Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate them.

A friend sent me this review. Although I've heard many LC songs and performances I've never heard Famous Blue Raincoat. Naturally I will be seeking out a copy as soon as I finish this piece. But it is the first time I will know more about the song before hearing it than at any other time. I expect the experience will be greatly enhanced by the knowledge you have imparted here about the song's references and nuances. Thank you for enlightening me.

Thanks. I appreciate your kind words.

I addicted to this song.
If he wrote the letter to himself, it reflect even more how lonely he was at that time,sharing this storm of fillings only with the paper.

Thanks for writing. What you say is very interesting.

youse are all kidding yourselves if you think you can divine what he means. the highest level of meaning is in the musical sound and the bare words. the more and more you try to construct out of the words the thinner and thinner is the ice on which you scramble.

What a brilliant analysis. I'd figured out quite a bit of it, but you articulated and contextualised it so well. The line, 'Thanks for the trouble you took ... ... From her eyes' is possibly the most subtly genius of all.

Thanks so much for your kind words.

With Leonard Cohen's recent death (or passage to the next stage), I've spent some days reading up about him beyond my former just-loving/listening-to-his-lyrics & voice. I have always felt a deep 'knowing sort of connection' to FBR (& BOAW) in particular, and tho' I truly love it, I could never work out what it was really about. I feel that Benjamin above has put his finger on what’s important overall - and I also found your 'anaylsis' of the two sides (or faces/men) that Cohen has/is, and your metaphorical interpretations of many parts of the song, extremely interesting and quite convincing...but I am unable to agree that “'Jane' is (just) any woman Leonard Cohen has been involved with".

Following up my intuition that it is still Marianne (his first important & deepest love) that Leonard is referring to,(the perceived ‘failure’ of that establishing what became for him a ‘pattern’ with other women in his life), I read on to several other websites (including SHMOOP & and was eventually led to the Kari Hesthamar interview with Marianne in 2005, which has somehow confirmed that hunch for me. This part of the then-(still?) unpublished LC poem “Days of Kindness” that she reads from, says so much:

"...What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
It lives in my spine
Marianne and the child
The days of kindness
It rises in my spine
And it manifests as tears
I pray that a loving memory
Exists for them too
The precious ones I overthrew
For an education in the world"

(It is interesting that Adam, LC's son, mentions L's 'spinal fractures' in the last years).

Marianne, too, in the same interview, echoes this refrain (and ties up many of the loose ends, including that line “..hear you’re building your little house deep in the desert” etc:

She describes how the relationship was a gift to them both,“an opener” for the rest of their lives, “for better or worse”.. and that it is “through the hardest blows” that one gets “the chance to move on”. … She recounts how after many trips away for L, with she and her son left alone on Hydra, she finally asked to go along with him and how the return to Montreal all together as a family “was dramatic on very many levels”.

But with L continuing to travel a lot and their relationship, and communication between them, faltering, she realised “something was about to happen” in their ‘love story’ and that she must seek her own ‘renewal’. She describes her sojourn away from Montreal thus:
“to try to alleviate everything I left for Mexico, to visit my old friend. I took little Axel with me. And it was a very strong experience. Among the Indians. In those mountains. .. At that point I had a feeling that I in a sense was very close to God. I was almost convinced that I would never come down off that mountain.” and then this:

"We had had so many retreats, and we tried and we tried. Neither of us really felt like giving up completely.”

The reference to an old ‘friend’ is noted several times by both parties, tho’ that man remains nameless. I haven’t time to research this more fully, but if I were writing the script of this ’sweet story’ (to quote LC from the New Yorker article (Oct 17), I’d try to interview Jan Christian Mollestad, the “close friend of Marianne’s” that emailed Cohen from Marianne’s deathbed, to ask if he ever lived among the Indians of the Mexican mountains?? (See also Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihren’s Obituaries, online).

And indeed, at the end, a “reconciliation” IS or has been reached, of mutual forgiveness and understanding. With the public release of his ‘farewell letter’ to Marianne, in July '16, (at the behest of ‘one of her closest friends’) Cohen, for me at least, has finally ’gone clear’ to resolve (‘nail’) the mystery of these wonderful lyrics in a universal poem about the magic and power and unfailing endurance of Love, and in particular, his for Marianne - his ‘first love’.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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