It's four in the morning, the end of December
The opening line of the song simply provides the time and date when the singer is writing his letter to the friend who betrayed him.
One thing to notice here is that it's "the end of December." In other words, it's the holiday season, approaching the New Year. One wonders what's compelled the singer to write his letter now, after all this time. Perhaps he has a resolution.
Another intriguing thing to note about this first stanza is that it's written using amphibrachs—a Greek poetic meter with each foot composed of three syllables, with a stressed syllable in between two unstressed syllables. It should be no surprise, then, to learn that Cohen was a poet for many years before he became a lyricist as well.
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening
Clinton was a hip street in New York City in the late 1960s, at the time Cohen wrote his song.
It's interesting to notice how specifically grounded this song is in a particular time and place. The singer isn't just writing from anywhere—he's writing from New York, not far from Clinton Street.
At the same time, however, the time and place of the affair itself are left pretty murky. Perhaps he can only allude to the betrayal because it was so painful. He can't even pin it to a specific place or time.
You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record
The singer here wryly notes that his betrayer has no need of a record since he's "living for nothing."
Cohen has suffered from acute clinical depression his entire life and often describes his own drug abuse and womanizing as perverse attempts at self-medication. As you might imagine, then, his songs are known for being quite dark. But when Rolling Stone asked him if he thought there was humor in his lyrics, he joked, "There's a laugh a minute." (Source)
What we have here is a perfect example of Cohen's trademark dry ironic humor, a line that manages to be both serious and light-hearted all at once. By just mentioning the frugality of his betrayer's lifestyle, the singer manages to highlight the other's loneliness and lack of values: "you're living for nothing now." In this line, the singer also seems to make a nod to financial bookkeeping.
Yet Cohen might also be alluding to writing itself as a form of "record." It's as if the act of writing is the only thing that could redeem the betrayer's hermetic lifestyle.
Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
The "lock of your hair" is the sign of betrayal, and is one of the most famous lines from Cohen's song.
Even though the woman is given a name in the song, the character herself is soaked in anonymity. Her first name is "Jane," and we might reasonably guess that her last name is "Doe." It's not that "Jane" could be any woman, but that the singer leaves her ill defined—a two-dimensional presence in the song.
The singer's focus is instead on the friend who betrayed him, and so "Jane" inevitably fades into the background. This line, the opening to the chorus, is repeated almost word-for-word in the Leo Sayer song "When I Need You," recorded in 1977. The melody of Sayer's song is eerily reminiscent of "Famous Blue Raincoat" as well.
In a 2006 interview with The Globe and Mail, Cohen talks about how Sayer was sued on his behalf, but Sayer's attorney hired a musicologist who claimed that the melody hardly began with Cohen and could be traced back to Schubert. We can only presume that the poetic phrase "lock of your hair" precedes Cohen as well.
Did you ever go clear?
The line likely refers to a time when the singer's betrayer made a promise to get off drugs.
This last line of the chorus is ambiguous, and if anyone knows exactly what it refers to, then it's probably Leonard Cohen. Perhaps what enticed Jane the night she betrayed the singer was his friend's promise that he'd "go clear."
Here, the singer delivers a jab by asking his friend if he "ever" did go clear. Given Cohen's own history of on-and-off drug abuse, the line also makes one wonder exactly where Cohen fits into this love triangle that he describes; the betrayer's story is beginning to sound like Cohen's own.
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder
The "famous blue raincoat" refers to an actual Burberry coat that Cohen bought in London.
In the liner notes to the 1975 album The Best of Leonard Cohen, Cohen explains that the raincoat refers to a real Burberry raincoat that he bought in 1959. And, as he explained on NPR's Fresh Air in 2008, he thought the coat was pretty sharp. At the time, the coat seemed to embody the promise of a glorious future that lay before him.
With time, though, he began to feel that this imagined future had not come to be. The coat seemed to be a symbol of unrealized dreams; now it's "torn at the shoulder." The fact that the coat belonged to Cohen himself, though in this song it belongs to his betrayer, again raises questions about where Cohen actually fits into this love triangle.
In real life, the coat was stolen in the early 1970s.
And you came home without Lili Marlene
This is an obscure reference to a German song during World War II, which became popular on both sides of the front.
The German song is sung from the point of view of a soldier who's in love with his "Lili Marlene," but who's being called to duty and has to leave her. When the song was first broadcast on German radio, attempts were made to have it banned. The exact reasons for the ban are murky, but it appears that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was worried by the sheer popularity of the song as well as the fact that its singer, Lale Andersen, sympathized with Swiss Jews.
But after Axis soldiers requested it from across Europe, Goebbels agreed to let it continue to be played. The song's popularity quickly grew on both sides of the front.
This reference is interesting. The melancholy lilt of "Lili Marlene" seems to be echoed in "Famous Blue Raincoat," and yet their themes are opposed. "Lili Marlene" is about a woman who waits for her lover to return from battle, and who remains faithful. "Famous Blue Raincoat" is about a woman who has betrayed the singer by hooking up with his friend. The breach of trust leaves all of them, the betrayers and those betrayed, feeling isolated and alone. After all, Cohen sings that his friend "came home without Lili Marlene."
One more thin gypsy thief
The singer characterizes his betrayer with a disdain that's somewhat softened by poetry.
Cohen's use of the word "gypsy" seems to mainly refer to those types of people who are itinerant, who are frequently moving from place to place. Whether or not the betrayer moves often, it's clear that the guy grants himself a great deal of freedom in his relations with women; he's a gypsy in his relationships.
The singer's line is accusatory and could come off as spiteful, but it's worth noting that even the accusation has a strong poetic quality. The line keeps the rhythm of the stanza, and "thin" and "thief" are bound together by alliteration. One wonders if the poetry of the line suggests reconciliation, or if it's simply meant to conceal the singer's full contempt.
My brother, my killer
The line captures the contradictory feelings the singer experiences as he tries to forgive his friend.
The line "my brother, my killer" almost seems to echo the poet Baudelaire after the first poem in Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). The Baudelaire line goes, "Hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frère." (In English, "Hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother.")
In the poem, the line goes from an accusation to a feeling of communion. In Cohen's song, we have the reverse. He seems to be moving toward forgiveness ("my brother"), but he can't yet forget how hurt he was by his friend's betrayal ("my killer").
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
The singer offers a half-hearted attempt at reconciliation.
It's unclear why the singer has sat down to write his old friend this letter. He says it's to see if his friend's better (perhaps, it's a reference to drug addiction). Yet the entire letter dwells on the past betrayal, and it's clear that the singer is somehow still trying to come to terms with it.
In this line, we get the closest thing the letter has to offer in the way of forgiveness, "I guess I forgive you." What's interesting about this is the speaker's own indifference to whether or not he forgives his friend. It doesn't seem particularly important to either of them whether they formally make up or not.
Here, he's just parroting what normal people do after a break in a friendship. Maybe it's a sign of the poet in him that he has so little conviction in his own convictions.
Thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
This is the first time that the singer acknowledges that his traitorous friend may have helped Jane.
More important than the explicit "I guess I forgive you" is this acknowledgement that the friend managed to do something for Jane that the singer himself could not: He made her happy.
The singer says that he had thought Jane's troubled nature "was there for good so I never tried." With this admission, the scene seems to shift and we wonder whether the singer feels closer to this long-lost friend that betrayed him or to the woman lying in his bed a few feet away. It's as if the simple experience of writing the letter has made him change his sympathies.
Sincerely, L. Cohen
By signing the letter personally, Cohen seems to be identifying himself as the man who was betrayed.
When questioned about the sources of "Famous Blue Raincoat," Cohen is often fairly coy. In a 2008 Fresh Air interview, he explained that during the "free love" era, this type of love triangle was a common occurrence. He says that, at different times, he's played different roles within those.
By signing the letter with his own name, it seems that Cohen is identifying himself with the latter, but Cohen himself seems to float around the song and to play different roles within it. Part of the mystery and ambiguity of "Famous Blue Raincoat" is that Cohen seems to be both betrayer and betrayed. It's almost as if he's fused several different love triangles into one, and is now writing a letter to himself, admonishing himself for cheating with Jane behind his own back.