Thing a Week 34: Famous Blue Raincoat This is a cover of a…

By Thing a Week Redux May 17, 2011

Thing a Week 34: Famous Blue Raincoat

This is a cover of a Leonard Cohen song. If some of you kiddies haven’t heard it, you should, and in fact you’re about to. I’m sort of obsessed with it – to me it’s a nearly perfect example of how stories can be told in songs. You never know exactly what happened, but you get glimpses through all these tiny verbal gestures. The title itself says so much without being at all specific. I like to try to fill in the gaps – there’s something about a friend, a wife, and a betrayal, but also something more complicated and private. It’s especially creepy to hear Leonard Cohen sing it, because he is nothing if not totally creepy.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: It’s raining here in Brooklyn, and my very old cat died this weekend, so Leonard Cohen is just about right.

I still feel the same about the greatness of this song, and it will always be in some corner of my brain, waiting expectantly like an unfinished puzzle. These days I think more about how it might have come to Leonard – what he was thinking about when he was writing this, and how much of it might be personal. He hasn’t explained it much. Wikipedia quotes him as saying the raincoat actually belonged to him:

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.

So that clears it up.

I’ve been writing more in this direction for the new album, trying to explain less and evoke more. Trying not to worry too hard about what any song is ABOUT until late in the process. I think there are a couple that will be mysteries to most people, or rather, they’ll assume a different shape for every listener. But they’re all about something. Indeed, I’m starting to think they all might be about the SAME THING.

The scary part, and often the most essential part, is letting pieces of yourself creep into the story. Sometimes there’s a narrow, fuzzy line between the writer of a song and his characters. It can get confusing, because often characters have to do and say and think awful things in order to be interesting. If you write a character that way, is it you thinking that awful thing? Are you really the person saying that, do you secretly feel that way? Well, yes and no. The bits and pieces that grow into a song come from personal experience, they have to. But then you can use them as a guide, strike out in a certain direction, just hang them out there in the wind and see what sticks to them. It’s you, yes, but it’s also your friends and your parents and this character from that book, and that guy’s smile seems to reveal something, and those people look like they have a story to tell, and hey look, ice cream.

I listen to Famous Blue Raincoat and the first thing I want to do is figure out who Leonard Cohen was writing about – who was his friend who did that bad thing! Who was his ladyfriend who had that affair! But then, it’s his raincoat isn’t it? So as directly, painfully personal as this song feels, you just can’t say for sure which parts of it are him. Is he the rake? The cuckold? The woman?

It goes like this: Leonard Cohen was feeling kind of sad one day (maybe his very old cat died) and then he remembered something someone said once when they were making fun of him for wearing the same raincoat all the time. The phrase they used was sarcastic, and maybe a little nasty. It suggested to him a character and a relationship – he’s known people like this, the guy you love and hate, you can’t believe he wears that raincoat all the time, but of course he looks great in it and knows it. He’s dashing and fun and dangerous and kind of a mess, and all the ladies love him. You love him too, but you find him threatening. And as you all grow older, he starts to fray around the edges. Somehow it makes him even more glorious and more pathetic at the same time. As the rest of you settle comfortably into adulthood, he starts to flame out – he makes terrible mistakes, he apologizes, he gets help, he makes more mistakes, have you heard his latest plan to fix everything? You begin to understand that all that stuff that makes him so wonderful to be around comes from a very dark place, and these days he’s just barely keeping it together. One day he goes too far. He disappears for a while. Years later you write him a letter…

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.