A few weeks back, we looked at the true stories behind some of our favorite love songs. It’s always fascinating to hear a definitive account of what inspired one of your favorite tunes, but it can be equally enthralling to try to puzzle it out on your own. And, of course, in some cases that’s all you can do, because it may well be that the songwriter in question isn’t providing any answers. So it goes with these tunes, which are all the more fascinating because of the mystery surrounding exactly who they’re about.
Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat”
The identities of some of the real-life people in Cohen’s songs have been well-documented — Janis Joplin in “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”, artist Suzanne Verdal in “Suzanne.” Others, however, remain enigmatic. There are a bazillion theories about the identities of the people involved in the love triangle described in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” one of Cohen’s greatest songs — the closing “Sincerely, L. Cohen” seems to imply that the singer himself is one, but the others? No one really knows apart from Cohen himself, and he’s not telling — not apart from some cryptic liner notes to his 1975 best-of compilation, anyway. And so the mystery remains: maybe there’s a real Jane out there, and maybe she was only ever a work of fiction. Either way, it’s hard not to be curious.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “Green Eyes”
So, go on, is it about Tori Amos or not? And does she really sew sequins into her pubic hair? Cave has been pretty strident in his denials of this persistent rumor: “That’s simply not true,” he told Q in 2005, “It keeps getting repeated in the press, but it’s not true.” And if not, is it about PJ Harvey? What does it all mean?
Elvis Costello — “Alison”
Love and regret and pity and guilt… yeah, it’s an Elvis Costello song, alright. It’s clear that Costello loved the song’s subject once, and in a way he still does, which is why he’s all the more disconcerted by seeing the state she’s in. Exactly who she is, though, remains a mystery — the song’s author told Rolling Stone in 2002 that it’s definitely inspired by someone real, and that the song is about “disappointing [her],” but declined to elaborate further.
Concrete Blonde — “Joey”
And while we’re on depressing love songs, remember this one? It’s about being in love with an alcoholic, and the destruction that addiction can inflict on a relationship. Sigh. It’s most likely that the song is about the late Marc Moreland of LA band Wall of Voodoo, with whom Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano had a relationship, but this has never been publicly confirmed as far as we know.
Townes Van Zandt — “Kathleen”
And shit, here’s one more. Is Kathleen a real person? Is she just a whacking great metaphor for the doomed songwriter’s burgeoning heroin habit? Either way, this doesn’t exactly sound like a portrait of a healthy relationship.
The Go-Betweens — “Someone Else’s Wife”
Yes, but whose?
Girls — “Laura”
Christopher Owens obviously isn’t shy when it comes to writing songs inspired by real people, so it’s hard not to wonder who the Laura who inspired Girls’ most memorably sing-song moment might be. He’s said in multiple interviews that she’s “just a friend of mine now,” but beyond that, there are no details to be had.
The Rolling Stones — “Angie”
One of the great enduring mysteries of the music world: who did Keith Richards write this song about? There are various theories — it’s a metaphor for the guitarist kicking his drug habit, it’s a song somehow inspired by the birth of his daughter, or it’s about David Bowie’s ex-wife Angela. All of them make sense, although for what it’s worth, Mick Jagger is apparently adamant that the last interpretation isn’t correct. (Then again, some say he was always more interested in David, anyway…)
The White Stripes — “Suzy Lee”
The consensus on fan forums is that Suzy Lee is none other than one Meg White, although of course, without any definitive answer from Jack White, this remains only speculation. Whatever the case, the character of Suzy Lee crops up repeatedly in the White Stripes’ lyrics — she also appears in “We Are Gonna Be Friends,” and gets a dedication in the liner notes to Get Behind Me Satan.
Alanis Morissette — “You Oughta Know”
And finally, no, this isn’t a love song — but shit, we don’t buy into the whole Valentine’s Day business anyway. The identity of the subject of Morissette’s vitriol has been debated endlessly over the years since its release, and while ex-boyfriend/Full House star Dave Coulier has claimed to be the inspiration, the singer herself has never actually confirmed that it’s about him.