Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Famous Blue Raincoat

Common sense suggests that "Famous Blue Raincoat" is about being betrayed. Early we learn that the song is in the form of a letter: "I'm only writing you now to see if you're better." The letter is directed to an old friend who slept with "Jane," either the author's fiancĂ© or his wife. And signed: "Sincerely, L. Cohen." Case closed, the song is about being betrayed. But who is singing? The writer, or the reader? Is it a depressed cuckold's voice or a repulsive traitor? As great literature will do,the reader/listener doesn't know exactly how to respond. The song forces asks the impossible or at least the awkward: to experience two contradictory feelings at the same time. It is the optical illusion of the old witch/beautiful woman in song form.

"Famous Blue Raincoat" from Cohen's third album, Songs of Love and Hate in 1971, a fan favorite, is one of Cohen's favorites as well, though he was never satisfied with the final version. "[I] never felt that the carpenter was done, it's too mysterious and too confusing." It was as though Cohen himself could not handle the ambiguity, as if he too would like to know more. Even he is confused: "I think I miss you, I think I forgive you," but also 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."  

Underneath and in-between are a number of allusions to the betrayer's past and current struggles. 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 the writer mentions that the last time he saw his friend, he "looked so much older," and that he came back from the train station without "Lili Marlene" (an obscure reference to a World War II song about a faithful fiancĂ© waiting for her man to return from battle). Mistakenly, many take the reference to going "clear" as a metaphor for kicking a drug habit. Specifically, whether through spite, curiosity or concern, asks, "Did you ever go clear?" The same line ends the song. "Clear" instead may indeed provide a clue that it's Cohen reading the letter, as he dabbled with Scientology early on, though we’re still unsure if Cohen is the reader or the writer. Clear is a Scientology state of total freedom.

Asked about the song, Cohen stated, "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." The letter, of course is signed, "L. Cohen." It's easy to presume that the signature confirms we're hearing the voice of the betrayed. Yet what we learn from Cohen's comment is that he has combined several different love triangles in which he was involved 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. Indeed the signature is not the solution to our mystery, but a deepening of it.