THE MEANING OF 281 WORDS: Byron Williams of "The Public Morality" Reviews I GUESS I FORGIVE YOU.


Like many, I too confess being a disciple of the music and prose of Leonard Cohen. As a pastor for 15 years, I closed each service with lyrics from Cohen’s Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Cohen combined spirituality, soulfulness, and erudition that he neatly packaged in a cocoon of enigma. Perhaps no song symbolizes Cohen’s mysterious persona better than Famous Blue Raincoat. For several decades, legions of Cohen fans have sought to unpack the meaning of this 5:09 memoir that outlines a love triangle.


We now have something to juxtapose

our theories in our ongoing conflict to

“understand” the essence of arguably

Cohen’s most mysterious song.

- Byron Williams


Byron Williams, host, The Public Morality


But author Kent Stephens in his book, I Guess I Forgive You: A Deep Map of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, offers the type of investigative skills and well written prose, with an attention to detail that would have met with the approval of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. His well-researched treatise boldly takes the reader on a quest to uncover the mystery of a song that by Cohen’s own admission he “had never been satisfied with.”

It’s an audacious project because Stephens’ primary adversary is myth—the myth of Cohen coupled with the myth of a letter delivered in Cohen’s patented recitative style that raises more questions than provides answers. But myths are ravenous creatures that must be continually fed. At some point, they become truth unto themselves unburdened by accuracy.

Cohen, in my view, was beyond definition. But he was fundamentally a writer-poet who could put his penetrating words to music, transforming them into an existential experience for those who dared listen. Stephens not only listens, he hears and perceives.

As I read, I Guess I Forgive You, I could hear Cohen’s voice. I saw the apartment on Clinton Street in New York’s Lower East Side—the alleged scene of the crime. It was accompanied by the saxophone introduction by Cohen’s longtime collaborator Jennifer Warnes’ version of Famous Blue Raincoat, which offers a film noir feel.

Stephens matches Cohen’s mystery with added complexity for the reader to ponder. But I Guess I Forgive You is not the work of a sycophant. Stephens uses nearly 60,000 words to investigate, surmise, and judiciously conclude, the meaning of Cohen’s 281 words that were originally penned some 50 years ago.


At face value, however, a judicious conclusion may be antithetical for many Cohen disciples. We would rather dwell in the mystery by pontificating our late night reflexive theories. But Stephens has not deprived us of our Raincoat catnip; he has merely formalized his hypothesis so that we now have something to juxtapose our theories in our ongoing conflict to “understand” the essence of arguably Cohen’s most mysterious song.

I would like to imagine that somewhere in a closet or trunk that has not been visited for several decades rests a blue Burberry raincoat that is accompanied by the mildew smell of time. Or maybe, just maybe, that famous blue raincoat has met the fate of Charles Foster Kane’s “rosebud,” its whereabouts go into perpetuity unanswered. But that’s not important.


What’s important is this new entry into the beginningless-beginning toward understanding the Famous Blue Raincoat enigma.


Byron Williams is host of the NPR-affiliated broadcast The Public Morality. His weekly social/political column appears in the Huffington Post, the Winston Salem Journal and the Bay Area News Group. He is the author of 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, which won the 2014 International Book Award for US History. His recent historical novella, “Solitaire: Magda Goebbels: A Banality of Ambition and Evil” is under development with Netflix.

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