In a 1994 BBC Radio Interview, Cohen remarked: "The problem with that song is that I've forgotten the actual triangle. Whether it was my own - of course, 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. It was a song I've never been satisfied with. It's not that I've resisted an impressionistic approach to songwriting, but I've never felt that this one, that I really nailed the lyric. I'm ready to concede something to the mystery, but secretly I've always felt that there was something about the song that was unclear. So I've been very happy with some of the imagery, but a lot of the imagery."
Cohen's songs inspired Canadian artist Elizabeth Laishley to create pieces called "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Homage to Leonard Cohen." In 1999 Laishley held an exhibit of her Cohen inspired art in Calgary, Canada, entitled "Poetry and Songs of Leonard Cohen."
Shannon - Kathleen, GA, for all above
Ron Cornelius played guitar on this album and was Cohen's band leader for several years. Here's what he told Songfacts about this track: "We performed that song a lot of places. Typically gardens in Copenhagen, the Olympia Theater in Paris, the Vienna Opera House. We played that song a lot before it ever went to tape. We knew it was going to be big. We could see what the crowd did - you play the Royal Albert Hall, the crowd goes crazy, and you're really saying something there. If I had to pick a favorite from the album, it would probably be 'Famous Blue Raincoat.' I ran his band for four years all over the world and played on four of his albums, and hands down the best one was Songs Of Love And Hate. We worked 18 months on that album, Paul Buckmaster did the strings in London, and I went to London nine times recording that album."
Paul Buckmaster did the string arrangements on this track. Ron Cornelius told us about him: "Buckmaster is a wonderful string arranger, he did Elton John's records, he's just one of these guys who can make an orchestra talk. In other words, if the strings aren't saying something, it ain't on the record. On that album we cut basic tracks, and then let him live with them for a couple of months while he was writing the orchestrations. Then we went back in there, put the strings on and worked for a couple of weeks. Paul Buckmaster is a genius, no doubt in my mind. To be able to do the songs on Love And Hate, he had to take those songs and let them get into him and be creative enough to come in with those killer arrangements."
Regarding the orchestra, Cornelius said: "In London these guys are all 50, 60, 70 years old, and they're all dressed nicely in a string section with cellos and oboes and stuff, and they've got their little lunch pails by them. When it comes time for lunch, I don't care what you're doing, you have to stop and they all take their little lunch pails, take their lunch, then fire back up again."
Cohen's version is sung from the perspective of a man discussing with another man a woman they both had a relationship with. Many female artists have managed to flip the gender and make the song even more ambiguous. Joan Baez, Tori Amos, Laurie MacAllister and Jennifer Warnes are some of the artists who have covered this song. In 1987, Warnes released an entire album of Cohen's songs called Famous Blue Raincoat
before contributing to the hit "(I've Had) The Time of My Life
" later that year.
Cohen said in a 1993 issue of Song Talk
: "I thought that Jennifer Warnes' version in a sense was better because I worked on a different version for her, and I thought it was somewhat more coherent. But I always thought that that was a song you could see the carpentry in a bit. Although there are some images in it that I am very pleased with. And the tune is real good. But I'm willing to defend it, saying it was impressionistic. It's stylistically coherent. And I can defend it if I have to. But secretly I always felt that there was a certain incoherence that prevented it from being a great song."
Jennifer Warnes was a backup singer for Cohen in the early '70s and did her part to bringing Cohen to renown in America in the '80s, which happened after the release of his 1988 album I'm Your Man
You might hear traces of this song in the 1977 Leo Sayer hit "When I Need You
." Cohen sued that song's writers, eventually reaching a settlement.
Adavid Kynaston's book Modernity Britain: Book Two: a Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 states that a young Canadian writer named Leonard Cohen bought a not-yet-famous blue raincoat at Burberry's in Regent Street, London one dank December day in 1959.
Jennifer Warnes singles this out as one of Cohen's best melodies. "Leonard is not known for his great melodies, but he actually is a great melody writer," she told Songfacts
. "If you take the words off and just listen to the melodies, he's really, really good. It's just not known, because we're so distracted by the poetry."
Jennifer Warnes had mixed feelings ethically about the song's lyrical content, but admired Cohen's genius. She told Uncut magazine:
"It was about a fellow who left New York to go to the desert to pursue his own vision, and left the girl behind - and Leonard stepped in. The song offended my sense of morality, but I knew it was great poetry. There was a feeling of deep forgiveness in all of Leonard’s work. He was forgiving himself for his appetites, and also forgiving everyone for having confusing boundaries. He had a wild, roving eye, and he had many, many great loves. So did Picasso."
Irish folk singer Heidi Talbot covered this on her 2022 album, Sing It For A Lifetime
. She told Songfacts in a track-by-track interview
: "Leonard Cohen's song, darkness and beauty intertwined in the lyrics and the melody. The wonderful Seonaid Aitken arranged the strings for this one. She did such a great job of coloring the instrumental break. A wonder of a song to sing."