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Leonard Cohen: Famous Blue Raincoat and a Hydra odyssey

Ian Malin

In the harbour of Hydra Town find a narrow passage by the Pirate Bar and follow the winding stone steps upwards. It’s hard work in the late summer heat and you pity the donkeys that are the only mode of transport on the Greek island of Hydra. Turn right at a little general store and a couple of minutes later there it is. The house, newly-painted and adorned with bougainvillea, is smarter than its neighbours. No one is at home but it has clearly been lived in recently.

Leonard Cohen lived here when he discovered Hydra in the early Sixties along with his girlfriend Marianne. They were part of a bohemian set that included the Australian writer Charmian Clift and her war correspondent husband George Johnston. The story of the set is told in a recent novel by Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers. Samson, the wife of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, narrates the story through the eyes of a fictitious young British woman Erica who has washed up on Hydra and is taken under the wing of Charmian.

Cohen had followed in the footsteps of a number of artists such as Lawrence Durrell and Henry Moore who found the island a creative place. Cohen had gone there to escape the grey gloom of London and work on his first novel, The Favourite Game, and a poetry collection, Flowers For Hitler. His relationship with the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen is portrayed in the Nick Broomfield bio-pic, Marianne And Leonard, and the song So Long, Marianne was written about her.

Our correspondent Ian Malin with his wife Debbie outside Leonard Cohen’s old house in Hydra

Cohen bought the house with $1,500 he inherited from his grandmother in 1960 and we gaze on it along with a couple from Sydney who are just as interested in the house nearby where Charmian and George lived. It is impossible not to feel the spirit of the Canadian who was later in the decade to achieve fame as a singer-songwriter with his often sparse, bleak songs.

The poet laureate of angst was well into his thirties when The Songs Of Leonard Cohen was released in 1968. Despite the minimalist production (it was often Leonard strumming minor chords along with some lovely female backing vocals) and the Cohen voice, a cross between singing and talking, it worked. There were musicians on the album such as the jazz bassist Willie Ruff but, although they had been recruited personally by Cohen after he had heard them play in a New York club, they were not credited on the album sleeve.

The Songs Of Leonard Cohen went on to sell over 100,000 copies in 1969 alone. It became a fixture in album collections on both sides of the Atlantic. Cohen’s purple patch came at the end of the Sixties and beginning of the Seventies with his first three albums. Songs From A Room takes the bleakness up a notch or two with its opener Bird On A Wire becoming one of his most recognisable songs and The Partisan, a song written during the second world war with its haunting chorus ‘Oh the wind, the wind is blowing/ Through the graves the wind is blowing/ Freedom soon will come’. Songs Of Love And Hate, his third album, is just as emotionally intense.

Cohen was to enjoy a renaissance in the Eighties and later songs such as Allelujah and Dance Me To The End Of Love established his reputation but his first albums are remarkable. Famous Blue Raincoat, from Songs Of Love And Hate, is a personal favourite. Sung in the style of an open letter, Famous Blue Raincoat starts in a minor A key and tells the story of a love triangle between the speaker, a woman called Jane and a third male addressed as ‘my brother, my killer’. Cohen later said it was a ‘song I’ve never been satisfied with’, which is a harsh judgment on a rare gem.

The singer says the subject of the song, the raincoat, is something that once belonged to him. ‘I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth [his girlfriend] 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 City sometime during the early Seventies. I wasn’t wearing it very much toward the end.’

The song starts memorably with its reference to Clinton Street where Cohen was living in Manhattan:

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

Whether he liked it or not Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016, perhaps never wrote a song that more perfectly encapsulates the regret and loneliness in a tale of adultery than Famous Blue Raincoat. The singer even forgives his rival: ‘Yes, and thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes/ I thought it was there for good so I never tried.’

An array of artists have covered the song, from Joan Baez to Jennifer Warnes, from Tori Amos to the Americana duo The Handsome Family. There’s nothing more handsome than the original, though. No need for a raincoat in Hydra, by the way. Not even a blue one.


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