Let's start with a question: Is "Famous Blue Raincoat" a song about betraying or about being betrayed?
Common sense tells us that it's about being betrayed. From the beginning, we learn that the song is written in the form of a letter: "I'm writing you now just to see if you're better." The letter's addressed to an old friend who slept with "Jane," either the writer's fiancee or his wife. And if we had any doubts, the letter is signed, "L. Cohen." Case closed. The song's about being betrayed.
But common sense, as we often find, is only the outer layer of the onion. Time to peel it back.
There's this strange thing about having someone sing a letter to you. Namely, you don't know if they're singing a letter that they have written, or a letter that they have received. In other words, we don't know if the person singing is the duped friend who's writing to his betrayer, or the betrayer reading a letter from his duped friend. This is the question that we carry through the entire song: Who is singing? Is this the voice of a depressed cuckold? Is it the lilt of a remorseful traitor?
The song is a mystery, start to finish. And part of the mystery is that we don’t know how to respond. We want to know how to feel, but the song refuses to tell us. Should we feel sympathy and compassion? Resentment and disgust? The song forces us to do the impossible: to experience both of these contradictory emotions at once.
Think of the song as one of those pictures that can be interpreted two different ways. You look at it one way and you see the betrayer. You look at it another and you see the betrayed. Which is it? Both. But the eye can only interpret a picture one way at a time, so you have to constantly shift back and forth from one interpretation to the other: betrayer, betrayed, betrayer, betrayed...
"Famous Blue Raincoat" first appeared on Cohen's third record, Songs of Love and Hate (1971). The song quickly became an all-time Cohen favorite, even though he remained dissatisfied with it. As he told Details in 1993, he "never felt the carpentry was finished." Though we at Shmoop love the mystery of the song, for Cohen "it's too mysterious, too unclear." (Source) It's as if Cohen himself can't deal with the ambiguity of the song, and as if he, too, wants to know whether he's the traitor or the victim.
Even within the letter, the writer seems to be struggling with conflicting emotions of compassion and contempt. At first, he offers only a half-hearted effort at reconciliation: "I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you." But he eventually admits that the friend was able to make Jane happier than he ever could: "Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes." The letter, like the song, doesn't exactly come to a resolution, but we get the sense that the writer has at least started to work through his emotions related to the betrayal. In other words, where the letter ends is where forgiveness begins.
In the background, there are a number of allusions to the betrayer's past and current struggles, particularly with drug abuse. Initially, the writer says he's checking "to see if [his friend's] better," though we don't know (or ever really learn) what was wrong with him in the first place. A few lines later, we hear that the writer's friend is "building a house in the desert," and that "he's living for nothing now." Both lines paint an image of an isolated and lonely man.
Later in the song, the writer mentions that the last time he saw his friend, he "looked so much older," and that he came back from the train station without "Lili Marlene" (an obscure reference to a World War II song about a faithful fiancee waiting for her man to return from battle). It seems that the betrayer, a ladies' man, eventually resigned himself to being one lady's man, and that now even that one has abandoned him.
With regard to drug use in particular, the writer mentions in the chorus that the night Jane slept with his friend, she came back and said that he'd promised to "go clear." In his letter, the writer, whether out of spite or curiosity or concern, asks, "Did you ever go clear?" The same line ends the song, and we're left wondering, like the writer, whether or not his friend is okay.
While being interviewed on the BBC in 1994, Cohen was asked about the circumstances that led to the song. He said:
I always felt that there was an invisible male seducing the woman I was with, now whether this one was incarnate or merely imaginary I don't remember. I've always had the sense that either I've been that figure in relation to another couple or there'd been a figure like that in relation to my marriage. I don't quite remember but I did have this feeling that there was always a third party, sometimes me, sometimes another man, sometimes another woman. (Source)
What's so interesting about this quote is that it captures the strange free-floating sympathies in the song itself: the ambiguity between betrayer and betrayed. The last line of the song would seem to solve the mystery. The letter is signed, "Sincerely, L. Cohen." It's easy to presume that the signature confirms that we're hearing the voice of the betrayed. Yet what we learn from Cohen's comment to the BBC is that he has combined several different love triangles in which he was involved (in different roles) so as to blur the line between betrayer and betrayed. It's almost as if Cohen himself plays both roles within the song, as though he's singing a letter that he has both written and received. In other words, as if he has written a letter to himself.
We return, then, to our questions: Is "Famous Blue Raincoat" a song about betraying or about being betrayed? Who is singing in this song?
What we find is that the signature—"L. Cohen"—is not the solution to our mystery, but a deepening of it. We learn who is singing, but now we're left with the much more perplexing question: "Who is Leonard Cohen?"