BY P. CLAIRE DODSON
Leonard Cohen is the patron saint of people who love sad music, so it seems appropriate (especially in light of his death on Nov. 7) to honor him as the first artist spotlighted on Melancholic Mondays, a weekly appreciation of the songs that bring us the blues. These songs are best listened to when lying down, in bed or on the floor, alone in a dark room thinking about love, or the nature of existence.
Though numerous Leonard Cohen songs are wrenchingly sad, the one I find myself going to back to lately is off his 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is a letter from Cohen to an old friend who moved away after betraying Cohen by having some sort of affair with his lover, Jane.
I return to this song for its beauty -- Cohen has a special knack for capturing that sort of tragic coldness we imagine only exists in New York City. But I also return for its tension, the way Cohen’s longing for his friend is balanced against his hatred at the betrayal (“I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you”). The way that betrayal is tinged with relief and gratitude at how the friend gave a little light to Jane’s life, a light Cohen himself had not bothered to try to provide. He sings brokenly, “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes. I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.”
Cohen has not infrequently talked about the origins of this song in interviews. He has said that the blue raincoat was his own. He told BBC Radio in 1994 that he doesn’t remember if the love triangle was real or imagined, if the third person was another man or woman or was an incarnation of himself who was holding his own relationships back. “Famous Blue Raincoat” is a reckoning with what we lack, and what we can really give the ones we love. It’s a reminder of the kindness (to them and to ourselves) it is sometimes to let someone go.
Here’s a live version of Cohen performing the track:
Bonus: Here’s a video of Lana Del Rey’s cover of another sad Cohen song, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.”
P. Claire Dodson has written for The Atlantic, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Vice, Fast Company, and more. She is a music editor for @LunaLunaMag. Follow her on Twitter at @Claire_ifying.