The Dancer and His Cain

In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man

The trouble with ["Famous Blue Raincoat"] 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).
— "Interview," BBC Radio (1994)

I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn't go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne's loft in New York sometime during the early seventies. I wasn't wearing it very much toward the end.
— "Liner Notes," The Best Of Leonard Cohen (1975)

The Finest Cohen Cover Collection in the Cosmos

"Famous Blue Raincoat," the sixth of eight sides on Leonard Cohen's impeccably arranged Songs Of Love And Hate (1971), finds the narrator wearing (against the elements) the flesh of the Beloved raised up in the blizzard of "Avalanche" before descending into "the rain" pelting "Last Year's Man." Here, he's reluctantly donned "a uniform" until all involved (or implicated) fall together and "flesh" becomes a veil (contextualised in the god-awful union of Bethlehem and Babylon). The deflated declaration at the centre of the song's raison d'être — "Jesus was the honeymoon and Cain was just the man" — echoes and reverberates in cinematic clusters of images involving, predominantly, clothing and degrees of nakedness (or exposure) alongside those bound up with blood, flesh, and skin. The pattern is seamlessly reinforced by references to what individuals wear (and consequently, bear, pardoning pun) throughout the song-cycle balancing "the snowman and the rain" ("Love Calls You By Your Name"). Rips, rags, slashes, and tears dominate the material vision, however blinding or obscured that vision may, of necessity, be (in terms of love and light most keenly felt when the narrator protests the bright cruelty of both).

In the structural long view, "Famous Blue Raincoat" neatly mirrors (or reflects back upon) the album's third side, "Dress Rehearsal Rag," earmarking its organisational counterpoint in the binary narrative played out over eight interconnected compositions (balanced as four songs of love and four of hate or four in the morning and four in the afternoon). Commonly considered Cohen's grimmest representation of the squalor of the achingly impoverished and incomprehensibly surreal marginalisation of the contemporary individual, "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is, no doubt, music to eat a gun by. Then, it was four in the afternoon (anticipating the grieving doubles of "four in the morning") and, of paramount importance to the coherent dualistic vision Songs Of Love And Hate embodies, now, its sonic epiphanies are wrapped in the cut of the cloth as an inversion of the rags-to-riches narrative culminating in the coupon "written on your wrist" (a sign Holocaust survivors know too well, particularly since the numbers are indelibly branded in an unforgiving gun-metal blue on the inside of the forearm).

Cohen, so the story goes, partial to a Burberry raincoat he sported during his sojourn in London, found himself minus said protection on cold New York's Clinton Street. It had gone missing. So, by extension, had its owner or, more accurately, the better-half narrator Cohen regularly employs carving out the contours of the dynamic and dualistic nature of such an owner. In this instance, the individual is one acutely sincere L. Cohen who, in the ultimate act of revealing all, conforms with the concurrent notion of concealment (as Freud would have us believe) and vice versa. Concluding with such a salutation smacks of an almost self-flagellating zeal to create — urgently, nakedly, and with almost joyously painful resignation — a more or less accurate portrait of the doppelgänger coming to grips with a world where grand-central chaos reigns supreme. When Cohen recalls "the last time we saw you, you looked so much older / your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder," he suggests the wear-and-tear toll of learning to live with a shabbier version of his former (or, perhaps, ideal) self.

It's four in the morning, the end of December, I'm writing you now just to see if you're better . . .

Winter's an avalanche frame-of-mind, the darkest nights of the year at a time when "I" write "you" while righting the imbalance between comprehension and recognition. The speaker animates the double (also understood as brother or killer) within the constructs of love/hate, self/ego, anima/animus, etc. Here, love's a seductive monster and spirit's gripped with an austerely exquisite brutality — echoed in the sparse and often clumsy guitar accompaniment played against Jennifer Warnes's breathy and haunting vocals intertwined with stripped-down strings — and the shattered splinters of knowledge collide to visibly demonstrate, without flinching (despite the tear at the shoulder), the palpable complicity in betraying the better man within himself in the name of "some kind of record," the one for whom the mo(u)rning's well-advanced.

Jane, the lock of hair, and did you ever go clear? Jane's the wife of the universal nobody already described as "living for nothing, now." Jane, who came . . . with the lock (on the little house deep in the desert) . . . before waking, sends her regards. Did the narrator ever go clear, come clean, get down to the marrow of that matter about truth and trouble? Have we been tipped off? Are we dealing with Samson and Delilah? Or, more likely, does this constitute yet another example of Cohen's fascination with John Donne's line in "The Relic" (1633), the one concerning "a bracelet of bright hair about the bone?"

(Variant interpretations suggest Scientology's theory of engrams and so on. Cohen acknowledges he flirted with several belief systems, Scientology among them; however, he found the teachings of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard [specifically the notion some malignant alien force by the name of Xenu slaughtered millions of non-Earthlings among us many millennia ago because these so-called "souls," "body thetans," et.ilk. who glommed onto human beings, dragged them through the depths of evil torpor to deprive them of their natural spirituality; of course, now, an individual can only "go clear" when these "attachments" are erased by going through the cleansing steps an "e-meter" provides] less than satisfactory for his purposes. In "Dress Rehearsal Rag," of course, the Rosicrucians are similarly discounted [again reinforcing the relationship between the pair of tunes].)

Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes . . . I thought it was there for good so I never tried . . . A lovely twist and turn (of the Nazi dagger) opening out on the first-person singular, the pair of eyes, vision, and seeing double. Double trouble. "I" thought it was there for good (or goodness, perhaps) while the other "I," the flake who "never tried" had "been to the station to meet every train" or, not to put too fine a Freudian point on it, had almost obsessively dallied only to discover his carnal quest seeking the universal ideal embodied in Lili Marlene of WWII and big-screen fame had vanished. One does not endure a Holocaust of the soul and immediately find words to express that devastation; sometimes, the heart is simply too shattered to articulate how shattered it is.

"Famous Blue Raincoat," then, comprises an internal dialogue, voice-over division, contrasting the better man made manifest as the slain brother relieved of his famous blue raincoat (protection against the elements) with one more thin gypsy thief — Lorca, no doubt — that night that he "planned to go clear" or come clean. When Cohen's voice cracks ever so slightly dropping down to the final "go," listeners intuitively know the honeymoon's over.

"The Dancer and His Cain"
originally appeared in Essays on Canadian Writing's
Winter 1999 Leonard Cohen Edition (Number 69).
© 1999-2008 Judith Fitzgerald and Essays on Canadian Writing.
All Rights Reserved.

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