Study Guide

Famous Blue Raincoat

Famous Blue Raincoat Introduction

In a Nutshell

It's one of the saddest songs you'll ever hear.

Imagine your best friend seduced your wife…and that you had to admit that he'd made her happier just by treating her "to a flake of his life." Now imagine you sat down late one night, your disloyal wife sleeping by your side, to write that friend a letter. 

What would you say? Would it go something like this?

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

About the Song

ArtistCohen, Leonard
Year1971
LabelColumbia Records
Writer(s)Leonard Cohen
Producer(s)Bob Johnston
Musician(s)Leonard Cohen (guitar, vocals), Paul Buckmaster (strings), Ron Cornelius (guitar), Susan Mussmano (vocals)
Learn to playChords
AlbumSongs of Love and Hate

Music Video

Influences on Cohen, Leonard

Cohen's influences are diverse and often as literary as they are musical. In an interview in 1994, he said that if you consider yourself a minor poet operating in a tradition then "you're not just talking about Randy Newman, who's fine, or Bob Dylan, who's sublime, you're talking about King David, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, you're talking about the embodiment of our higher possibility." (Source)

When Cohen was young, he loved Whitman, Yeats, and Henry Miller (Source). The poet he most idolizes, however, is Frederica Garcia Lorca, after whom he named his daughter, Lorca.

Though Cohen may reach for the stars in terms of influence, he's famously modest and in the same 1994 interview, he goes on to claim that his work could never match the sublime nature of a song like "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams. He actually has a line in one of his songs that says Hank Williams is "a hundred floors above me in the tower of song."

Cohen can afford to be modest. His reputation was enormous amongst influential circles in the 1960s. Allen Ginsberg noted that Cohen was one of the few people not blown away by Bob Dylan's lyrics because he already had such a solid foundation in literature and poetry. Dylan himself said that Cohen's songs sounded like prayers, and Kris Kristofferson asked that the opening lines of "Bird on a Wire" be inscribed on his tombstone.

Influenced by Cohen, Leonard

Cohen's influence is wide-ranging. One of his early breaks came from meeting the famous folk singer Judy Collins, who recorded his song "Suzanne" after he sung it to her over the phone. She also recorded a version of "Famous Blue Raincoat" in 1971, and has since made an entire tribute album to Cohen.

Other tribute albums and covers have been done by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, REM, Sting, Bono, and Tori Amos. Nick Cave and Suzanne Vega have both cited Cohen as an important influence on their respective careers, and Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea" has a famous line in which Kurt Cobain wails, "Give me Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally." 

Singer Rufus Wainwright has said, "I really believe he's the greatest living poet on earth" (source).

Famous Blue Raincoat Resources

Books

Book of Longing (2006)
Cohen has a handful of books of poetry, and several different novels. This is only his most recent and is the only book of poetry ever to go the top of the bestsellers' list in Canada.

Albums

Songs of Love and Hate, 1971
Here's one way to buy the album where Cohen's song first became immortalized (we also recommend checking out your local record store).

Images

Cohen and Ginsberg
A cheerful photo of Cohen and Allen Ginsberg together in 1988.

Websites

Leonard Cohen Interview
Check out Cohen's 2001 interview with Nick Paton Walsh of The Observer. The conversation provides an amusing overview of Cohen's career with particular focus on his struggles with depression. There's also an entertaining bit on how Cohen views his own reputation as a ladies' man. We particularly enjoy his quote, "I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors."

Cohen's Official Site
This is a comprehensive site authorized by the singer, with plenty of information about his life and his past records, as well as up to date information tours and other projects. If you want to know where and when Cohen is playing, this is the place to go.

The Cohen Archives
A site with a number of good links. In particular, it's the perfect opportunity to become familiar with the artist's discography, lyrics, and basic story.

Video & Audio

Marissa Nadler's Cover
A beautiful version of the song done by Marissa Nadler in 2007. It's interesting to hear the twist a female voice brings to the song.