In 2008, Lou Reed (of The Velvet Underground renown) said that Leonard Cohen was in the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters" (source). Notice that Reed didn't have much to say about Cohen's guitar-playing ability, which consists mainly of slow strumming; the majority of his songs are composed of a few relatively simple chords.
Yet in a melancholy song like "Famous Blue Raincoat," the minimalist set-up works perfectly. Before Cohen even begins singing, the slow strumming of the guitar sets a somber and sedate mood. It's almost as though we hear Cohen sitting down and thinking about whether or not to write the letter. The music is so calm that one imagines it could simply fade out before the song begins.
As Cohen moves to the second line, "I'm writing you now just to see if you're better," a group of female backup singers slowly fades in and accompanies him until the end of the stanza. They seem to somehow push the singer over the hump, to give him the momentum he needs to sing about the emotionally fraught friendship that he describes in the song.
Cohen's voice is a high baritone (between bass and tenor) that's soft and beautiful enough to seem like an instrument all by itself. For much of the song, it stays low and sedate. It's only at a few pivotal points that he pushes his voice up an octave, notably in the famous chorus: "And Jane came by with a lock of your hair..." Later, Cohen again raises his voice for the poignant line: "Well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth." In part because these moments are so rare, they are especially affecting.
As the song moves on, violins also come in to create the feeling of a slightly fuller atmosphere. In general, though, the music is very demure. Whereas many singers try to craft lyrics that will align easily with guitar loops, Cohen is a poet and the music shapes itself around his words.
Though Cohen has been coy about many of the song's lyrics, he has said in several interviews that the song's title, "Famous Blue Raincoat," actually refers to a specific raincoat he used to own.
In the liner notes to The Best of Leonard Cohen (1975), he says that he brought the raincoat in 1959 at a Burberry store in London. The woman he was with at the time didn't like it, though he claims, "it hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather."
He kept the coat for more than a decade, until it was stolen in the early 1970s. In a 2008 interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Cohen remembered how the fancy coat seemed to embody the promise of an elegant future that awaited him—a future that he never completely realized. In the song, the coat gets shifted from Cohen's shoulders to those of his betrayer, but the theme is the same: youthful dreams that eventually dissolve with time. And dreams, unlike frayed coat sleeves, cannot simply be patched over with a bit of leather.
"Famous Blue Raincoat" is written in the form of an epistle (a letter) from "L. Cohen" to a friend who once betrayed him by sleeping with his woman, "Jane." While the "L. Cohen" in the song doesn't necessarily have to be the same person as the actual human being "Leonard Cohen," the signature does give the song a feeling of intimacy; we're made to believe that the man singing on stage or in our headphones is the same man who has been betrayed.
Yet Cohen himself admits that he can't remember the exact source of the song. In his 1994 BBC interview, he suggests that it was actually based on several love triangles, in which he sometimes played the role of the betrayer and sometimes played the role of the betrayed. If we try to pin down the biographical roots of the song, one of many twists is that the "famous blue raincoat," which here belongs to the betrayer, actually belonged to Cohen himself.
The interesting thing about the song being written in the form of a letter is that we don't know whether the singer is reciting the words from a letter that he has composed, or if he's reading a letter that he has received. The signature at the end of the song oversimplifies things.
We suggest that what makes "Famous Blue Raincoat" such a fascinating song is that Cohen's singing makes it nearly impossible to tell whether he's supposed to be the man who has written the letter or the man who has received it. The speaker is ambiguous, lost somewhere between the written lyrics and the man singing the song.
Leonard Cohen was a poet and a novelist before he ever became a songwriter. While still an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, he published a well-received book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956). His second book, The Spice-Box of the Earth (1961), allowed his reputation to grow outside of the university scene. It's not surprising, then, that his songs are renowned for having much more poetic merit than your average folk song.
The first thing to notice in "Famous Blue Raincoat" is that in the initial verse and in several other places, the lines are actually written in poetic meter. That's right: Cohen's counting syllables. He uses what is called an amphibrach, where each poetic foot (group of syllables) is composed of a stressed syllable sandwiched between two unstressed syllables. When you listen to him sing those first lines, you'll find that his voice lilts up and down in perfect agreement with the stresses:
It's four in | the morning, | the end of | December.
For much of the song, the lines are twinned in their rhymes in the basic structure of AA, BB, CC, etc. As often as not, the rhymes are slant rhymes, meaning that they're not complete rhymes, but that there's still consonance (similar consonant sounds) on the final consonants of the word involved. One of several examples from the song is:
Well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth
One more thin gypsy thief
These lines also demonstrate how Cohen carefully weaves together the sounds of different words in his song. Beyond the simple rhyme, we also have a case of alliteration (similar sounding first syllables) in thin gypsy thief, both of which pick up on the last syllable of the line above: teeth.
And to go back to the first line, we have two examples of assonance (similar vowel sounds). The two pairs are both in italics:
It's four in the morning, the end of December.
Aside from the well-crafted sounds of the lines, many of the sections are also drenched in ambiguity, wavering between literal and figurative interpretations. As an obvious first example, when Cohen sings, "New York is cold," we don't know whether he's referring to the obvious fact that it's freezing outside or instead to the fact that his relations with the people around him (Jane included) are cold in nature, hostile and distant.
The title offers another example. A literal "blue raincoat" takes on symbolic power; it gestures toward a time of youthful promise, when fame seemed just around the corner.