It’s four in the morning, the end of December. I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better. New York is cold, but I like where I’m living. There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.
Is it the start of a Christmas song? Surprisingly, it isn’t. In the opening few lines of the sixth track from Leonard Cohen’s album Songs of Love and Hate, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, Leonard paints the scene of late 1960s New York at Christmas time, yet ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ has never joined the likes of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ and Bob Dylan’s questionable Christmas LP in the hallowed ranks of adored alternative Christmas music.
In ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, Leonard delivers the story of a bizarre love triangle. His narrator is writing a letter to his former best friend – quite simply “my brother, my killer” – who stole his wife’s heart many years ago. Yet the narrator doesn’t adopt an angry tone. Instead it is a tone of forgiveness and acceptance: “I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you, I’m glad you stood in my way.” Our narrator reaches out to his former best friend, constantly asking: “Did you ever go clear?” – a reference to the Scientology state of ‘clear’ (a state not dissimilar to the concept of Nirvana in Buddhism).
Admittedly, this is all not particularly festive, yet what Leonard has written is a Christmas message for the protagonist’s life-long friend, with rather salacious gossip contained within (which happens to be about the friend in question).
Think about the Christmas cards you write to old family and friends: you start them off by setting the scene around you, before relaying all your gossip and boasting about your family’s achievements over the last year. Here we have Leonard’s protagonist writing a Christmas card to his former friend, brother and killer. The letter has the awkward preamble, where the writer discusses his surroundings before moving on to the narrator’s real purpose of the letter: to confront his best friend for stealing the heart of his wife; to see if his friend ever found closure for what he did; and to let him know that he should find closure, because he forgives him, after all.
The narrator’s tone suggests that a bit of time has passed, and he now just misses a friend that he once considered close enough to call his brother.
I’ve seen several clichéd Christmas films and the joy of the festivities always seems to allow old friends to bury the hatchet, or for the coldest of hearts to warm. This is what Leonard’s narrator wants to do here. He wants to tell his friend: “It’s Christmas my brother. I forgive you. I miss you. Let us know if you ever went clear.” It’s enough to warm the soul as much as chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Oh, and if you listen carefully, there are definitely some bells amongst the instrumentation – and we all know there’s nothing more festive than bells. How has ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ never before been considered a Christmas song?