Leonard Cohen: Famous Blue Raincoat

Written by Michael Barrett

Associate Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Song of the Day

Published October 9, 2018

We cover quite a bit of arcana in NYFOS concerts. Forgotten composers, obscure corners of the repertoire from A to Z. We delight in finding these treasures. Many of them defy classification. Is it a folk song, or a pop tune? We don’t think that’s of any importance really. A good song can give you so much information and emotion and history. Sometimes you have to dig for it. This week I’ll be looking at songwriters who are actually quite famous and known, but not well known to me. Leonard Cohen is one of those songwriters. Like Bob Dylan, he’s mostly considered a poet. His music is simple, sometimes to the point of being childish. It puts the focus on his words. Here is his “Famous Blue Raincoat”. It is really a letter. Can you tell to whom it’s written? It’s a long narrative to a frenemy of his. A few references are interesting to know about. When he talks about “going clear” he’s referring to Scientology, and slightly mocking his friend.” Lili Marlene” is a reference to a famous wartime tune in German. Cohen even quotes the tune of Lili Marlene (to the lyric “Jane came by with a lock of your hair”). It’s a personal, enigmatic song, and allows me to see how something (or someone like Leonard Cohen) so personal can become so popular. I think we all yearn to see the vulnerable side of people (hopefully in a kind way), and music and poetry is perhaps the best way to have this experience.


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Michael Barrett is the co-founder and associate artistic director of New York Festival of Song, as well as the co-founder and music director of the Moab Music Festival in Utah. A conductor and a pianist, Michael was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein and serves as music advisor to the Leonard Bernstein Estate.


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