Famous Blue Raincoat - Analyzed to Shreds

on Sunday, May 20, 2007

I was challenged by nancycle to explain what I meant when I referred to Leonard Cohen's lyrics as "being able to carry messages at several different levels". I will probably regret this severely when I consider the knowledge and caliber of some of my readers. Still part of blogging is the exchange of ideas and I am sure I'll learn a lot from the dissenting comments.

Okay, my previous post was on "Villanelle for our time". The lyrics was not by Cohen; only the music. So in order to explain my statement, I am making use of another popular Leonard Cohen song which is "Famous Blue Raincoat".

Squirrel Nitpicker (the critic) says:

This song/poem is in the form of a letter. When I read the lyrics, I am first struck by the background detail that paints an atmosphere and a mood. It is not just trivial information. It is cold, at the end of December and it is very early in the morning. It's 4 o'clock to be specific. Why would someone be up at that time of the night? Probably the letter writer is depressed, unsettled, melancholic (with music from Clinton Street) and lonely?

On the surface, it is a cordial letter. The purpose of the letter is to ask if "you" are better. We are not told what is wrong with "you". But, I surmise, that this and the concern about how "you" is living in second stanza, are just the smokescreens of the writer.

If we look to the next level, I believe the writer is actually troubled by a pivotal incident which is Jane coming by "with a lock of your hair". We now realise that Jane, "You" and writer are somehow intimately related and yet seem to be separated. Jane came by but after what must have been sometime...going back all the way to the night that "You" went away. Yet Jane also spends the night at writer's as if it was natural.

Now clearly there is some history and some hurt that has occurred between writer and "you". If it was myself penning the words, it would have resulted in a very two dimensional descriptive of my feelings with regards to this hurt. Leonard Cohen, instead, is able to give us insights to all three characters and how the incident has affected all of them.

And what is it that we learnt? This letter tells of a love triangle. Possibly the writer and Jane are or were married ("you treated my woman") but "you" could be writer's brother ("my brother, my killer") or a very close friend. What amazes me is that we learn so much about all three characters and it is done in such a natural an uncontrived manner.

Jane's relationship with writer was obviously set back or damaged by some level of infidelity when she runs off for a short time with "you". She liked the excitement of "you" in contrast to the dull, conservativeness and passiveness of writer. She needed more than what writer could supply and despite her short liaison with "you", "you" was able to "take the trouble from her eyes".

"You" is a free spirit. Seeking an ideal woman ("Lili Marlene")which doesn't exist, he is unable to be in long term relationships. Yet, "you" being the idealist is more an expert of the heart than writer and is more passionate.

Writer is the saddest but most complex of all. He hated "You" for what he did but now that time has passed, he realises that "You" was able to give fulfillment to Jane in a way that he was impotent to do. His anger has disappeared ("enemy is sleeping") and is replaced by resignation and an acknowledgement that it would actually be better for "You" and Jane to be together.

Well, that's my understanding of this song and is multilayered because it covered three characters not one and the surface words are often contradicting the underlying intent and finally the story may be about betraytal but the message is about self-effacing love.

As a footnote to this, I actually am most familiar with the version sung by Jennifer Warnes. In this version, just a few choice words were changed. These are shown alongside the lyrics below in yellow. By just these few changes, the story changes to that of an estranged couple. The writer is the mother who seeks reconciliation. She recognises that their daughter, Jane, loves and needs her father and hopes her estranged husband realises that his ideal life or whatever he was seeking for is just a mirage. The writer invites him home.

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 (But she never turned up I mean Lili Marlene)

And you treated my woman to a flake of your life (And you treated some woman....)
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
Your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free. (...and your 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

Sincerely, L. Cohen
(Sincerely, a friend)


Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I suspected that this was gonna happen. Some 40 visitors since I posted this and not one comment.

Allow me to get it started. "What a load of psuedo-psychological babble! Even Leonard Cohen doesn't know what it means but he's mighty amused by our attempts to interpret his songs."

Or how about, "Call this an analysis? You forgot to even talk about the famous blue raincoat!!!"

Friends, feel free to critique. I wish to learn.

Josie said...

LGS, I came back to listen to the song. I actually liked it. Who knew? I Googled it, and there was an interview with Leonard Cohen where he said wasn't really sure what he meant by the song except that he has always been fascinated with the "love triangle". Other than that, it has sort of renewed my interest in Cohen. I think the next time I go to my daughter's I just might play my son-in-law's Cohen CDs.


Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Congrats for being the brave one and putting down a comment. Cohen hasn't got the best of voices though I suppose some ladies might find it sexy. If you are listening to Cohen, the other song I like is "Song of Bernadette".

Janice Thomson said...

I think there's a bit of truth in how this was analyzed...it could relate to some incident Cohen witnessed years ago and with a little (or a lot)embossing turned into a great song that registers in the hearts of listeners everywhere. I also think the song was unintentionally showing the frailer and darker side of humanity resulting from choices we make. I find quite often in his poetry multi-layered possibilities.
Good post Lgs...and your comment about the raincoat cracked me up :)

Anonymous said...

Don't be too upset. It spring time and I think people naturally get pretty busy this time of year.

Your readers might not have had time to read through the post and give it what they thought would be time for a proper analysis.

I myself am to tired to critique, but I enjoyed reading your interpetation nonetheless!

jmb said...

I'm just passing by from I can't remember whose blog, Leslie's I think, could be Josie's. But I had to stop and comment on this.
I love Leonard Cohen's songs, hardly understand any of the poetry, think everyone sings them better than him, especially Judi Collins. I do have a CD of him singing but I think he should just write and find other singers.
I think this was an interesting analysis of this poem and it made me think and understand this one a little bit better.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I agree that it touches on the dark side of humanity which makes it all the more amazing that he is able to confront this in himself and also bare it for all to see.

I totally forgot about the raincoat but it is tattered which probably means that both clothing and owner had seen better days!

welcome back from the trip to the wilderness. I wasn't really upset ! Just play pretend upset. I would like to receive some critique though cause silence just encourages me to churn out more of the same!

Thanks for coming and commenting. I think your comment is the bee's knees. It's great. So concise. Beats my waffling anytime and I agree with you on all counts especially how his songs are better sung by others. The ladies love him though so I gave him the benefit of the doubt that maybe his voice maybe sexy to them.

nancycle said...

LGS - This is my first visit to the Blogsphere since the onset on the long weekend. I went straight to visit you.

First, let me say, I don't need breakfast now, that was delicious. From a "mathy" girl who has been taught how to "show her work" you have such an amazingly articulate art about you. :)

I baited you and you took it and with that, I would say you not only would be invited backstage, but would probably have inspired every musician to go home an write yet another song.

From living with a recording artist and having him explain his lyrics to me and then have a fan describe what the song was about to them (completely different that the songwritter's intent)...Which prompted Omar's dad to do this: during interviews when asked what a song meant, he would refuse to tell or be very vague as to the true nature of the song's lyrics for the very purpose of letting the song be the gift it is designed to be. Which is, whatever it is to the listener. With that said, I believe songs are meant to be subjective and therefore I cannot critique your interpretation, but only learn about you from your interpretation.

"Could we ever know each other
in the slightest without the arts?" - Gabrielle Roy

With that in mind, I think any musician/singer/songwriter with that integrity is a hero in my eyes.

I loved your interpretation and I feel delighted and privileged that you qualified and quantified. I will post a picture today in your honour that described what I cannot say for all men, but I now know about you.


David said...

Enjoyed your interpretation of a most beautiful song. I have listened to this song so many times and different ideas spring to mind every time I listen, from drug addiction to manic depression, but I still have the idea that this song is written from the grave (my brother my killer) and that Jane after returning from the affair is visiting his grave.

Primal Palate said...

You are inspiring!!! I just found your blog, I like it because i was seeking for such type of info.
I hope it benefits all one who land up here.
Thanks for sharing!!

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