Songs of Our Lives: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”
Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” begins at four in the morning, an hour usually armed with drunken reverie, but occasionally visited on insomniac nights, leaving you with nothing to do but to send search parties into the shadowed rivers of the soul, and, like Cohen, writing letters to people who used to play a much larger part in your life. This is why I listened to “Famous Blue Raincoat” over and over, as it chiseled into my past—what I’d lost, and what I thought I’d lost.
The obsession began at one in the morning, though, with me sober, waiting up for my then-girlfriend, who I knew was cheating. I sat on the porch looking out at the quiet city block, making unreturned calls, lighting cigarettes off one another. Occasionally a car drifted by, all lights and power. Eventually I went inside and turned on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, and smoked more cigarettes as I lay in the dark on my bed.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” is an epistolary full of Cohen’s usual suspects—gypsies, infidelity, abandonment, complex images overlaid, obfuscated, morphing. I put the song on repeat and tried to make sense of it, if only to distract myself and found myself listening for the lines: And you treated my woman to a flake of your life / and when she came back, she was nobody’s wife. There is patience in the line. Cohen lets the silence come out in between the words. Like it’s an effort to even say “my woman.” Like he’s questioning even this, the poetry he’s written.
When she finally came home, well after the bars closed, I told her I loved her. Then I told her I had loved her, as if I could distinguish. I stopped myself short of confessing more. Then we fucked, that’s the only way to say it, as the song looped on repeat from my tinny laptop speakers at capacity. Still, sleep skirted past me.
Song as puzzle and Cohen the master. What can I tell you, my brother, my killer? What can I possibly say? Surely the brother Cohen mentions isn’t truly a killer. And surely brother is a word used to simplify—to hint at another man who had no relation but now does, in an odd way, through her. Just as, I believe, the killer is not a killer of body but of an idea and innocence and something pledged since gone.
Of course, when me and this ex first met, she was with someone else. I thought about how Cohen uses the word “enemy” to describe himself. I knew that someday it would be my turn, but I believed then I was doing something good, that I could be the swindler and the silent savior both.
The next day, I went to work. I came home. I paced around the kitchen and slept a few hours—she was out but I heard her come home, fix some late night meal, take her rest in a separate room. I kept “Famous Blue Raincoat” on repeat. I went to work. I came home and sat on the porch and watched the sun fall down behind some buildings, pretending I wasn’t waiting for her.
She moved out of the bedroom and onto the cot in the living room. “It’s my bed,” I said. When she took all her things, I realized that was about all I had, which was fine. She let me keep a set of sheets. The sound of Cohen’s voice sounded different then, in an emptier room.
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
I wondered if a place could really change you, if it mattered if you moved there to pursue or avoid. When our lease ran up, in one long month, she moved away, back to the city where she grew up. Would things have been different if we had lived in the desert? Is the air, the absence of noise, the sky big and heat dry, enough to do something to you, chemically?
For Cohen, writing was a way to explore all this. A maze not to be straightened out but plodded through, each turn the author’s own, each word chosen by Cohen to stretch the truth to cover beauty and nostalgia and sorrow all.
I had moved from suburbs to distant suburbs to city, trying to figure out if I liked where I was living. I deserted places that helped raise me, shape me. And now, stuck with the unseen anxieties of the city, I am less patient. I’m older. I have been changed. The place, though, how much has it done? What it did to us—her, working; me, book-learnin’; each of us searching, trying in our own ways.
Did you ever go clear?
I print out what I’ve written and cross through it in black ink. Black on black. There is no disappearing but I try to fill it in to hide the original shapes, to obscure the old meanings.
I can rewrite it better. But will I like it?
Yes, and thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good, so I never tried
Now I spend my time writing fictions of those nights too hard to revisit in fact. I come at them from the side, trying to spark myself to move forward. I’m writing letters, like Cohen, but I realize all we can do in those long, dredged-up nights is send a letter to a last known address and sign it Sincerely.