"The Stranger Song" as written by and Leonard Cohen....
It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
Who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man, it's hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender
Who is reaching for the sky just to surrender

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
You find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild
He'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

And then leaning on your window sill
He'll say one day you caused his will
To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
An old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger

But now another stranger seems
To want you to ignore his dreams
As though they were the burden of some other
Oh, you've seen that man before
His golden arm dispatching cards
But now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger
And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
Yes, he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter

Ah, you hate to see another tired man
Lay down his hand like he was giving up the holy game of poker
And while he talks his dreams to sleep you notice there's a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder
It's curling just like smoke above his shoulder

You tell him to come in sit down
But something makes you turn around
The door is open you can't close your shelter
You try the handle of the road, it opens, do not be afraid
It's you my love, you who are the stranger
It is you my love, you who are the stranger

Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
We'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
I think it's time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
To get me to the heart of this or any other matter
Well, he talks like this you don't know what he's after
When he speaks like this you don't know what he's after

Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
Upon the shore, beneath the bridge
That they are building on some endless river
Then he leaves the platform for the sleeping car that's warm
You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
And you say okay, the bridge or someplace later

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
You find he did not leave you very much, not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild
He'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger

And then leaning on your window sill
He'll say one day you caused his will
To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
An old schedule of trains, he'll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger
I told you when I came I was a stranger


Lyrics submitted by phaethon

"The Stranger Song" as written by Leonard Cohen

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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The Stranger Song song meanings
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  • +3
    General CommentI find this song to be absolutely brilliant the way Cohen integrates the symbolism of poker to parrallel men who use women.

    In the first verse he's talking about a man trying to sway a woman saying that it's true I was a player and all players you've met said that they're through playing everytime they wanted to be with you and that it's hard to trust a man like that, because he wants the sky to surrender.

    The first chorus is pretty clear. He's talking about past men again and about their dirty ways of waiting and watching for the moment to take utter advantage of you (when you begin to trust/love) so as to keep his cards face up on the table and attempt to show that he has clean hands.

    The second chorus is just a continuation of the first and a finish of what the "dealers" have done. Talking about how they'll say how you have broke them of all of their bad deeds with your love and kindness and then behind your back they take out their routines and mark off what they've already said and need to say next to get you vulnerable.

    The next segue he focuses on himself again saying now here I am, ignore my dreams for the sky to surrender as if it's someone elses problem. He's an ex-player who you've seen dispatching cards with a golden arm (meaning he was pretty good at it) but now he's rusted (meaning he's done with it) and he wants to instead be a lover.

    And she hates to see this tired man giving up on his dreams, but then she kind of takes notice of some smoke curling deception perhaps, as some sort of foreshadowing. It's obvious that at this point she's wanting to help him but still skeptical.

    So she quickly makes the decision, but it doesn't strike her until she realizes that she can't close him out now, the deal is done and set. And he's telling her to open her heart and don't be afraid, you're just a stranger to love.

    And in the next two verses he's leaving and trying to convince her that he was never a player, and offering for her to come join him in his getaway. She's confused and isn't quite sure anymore whether he does love her and wants her to come, or if he's just taking her for everthing she's got. "When he gets like this you don't know what he's after" She decides that she'll trust him and meet him someplace and jump out on a limb in spite of everything she's experienced.

    Then the last two choruses are the same as the before ones where he was describing to her what all players do to women in the end, and trying to profess that he's not that way, only this time they're literal and he is playing her and he has left her and he explains to her "I told you I was a stranger". Just the icing on the cake to call her a dope.

    Truely amazing lyrics.
    sublimechumpon February 20, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI think this song is absolutely beautiful. The best version I've actually heard is the version on a '67 taping of "Once More With Felix" : youtube.com/…

    Onto analysis...

    "It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
    who said they were through with dealing
    Every time you gave them shelter
    I know that kind of man
    It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
    who is reaching for the sky just to surrender
    who is reaching for the sky just to surrender."

    This is pretty clear, I think. Talking about a "dealer", what we could call a "player" I suppose...simply put; someone who is constantly moving from person to person to get what they want. So he's telling her that he knows all her previous lovers hurt her in such a way, and each time you believed their promises that they were done "dealing" they let you down. And he's saying that he knows that kind of person and recognizes how hard it is to love someone like that (possibly implying that he understands how hard it must be to love someone else after that happens to you)

    Chorus 1:
    "And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
    you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter
    Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild
    he'll never need to deal another
    He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
    He was just some Joseph looking for a manger."

    'And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind' just seems to imply that this person, or ex-lover, took everything from this woman (even the "jokers") The singer refers to how little this woman has been left with because of these relationships. He's also saying that because she let him con her so well, he was able to stay in that relationship and use her for a long time "he'll never need to deal another"

    Chorus 2:
    "And then leaning on your window sill
    he'll say one day you caused his will
    to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
    And then taking from his wallet
    an old schedule of trains, he'll say
    I told you when I came I was a stranger
    I told you when I came I was a stranger."

    More empty promises from the "dealers", making her think that she has changed them for the better. I believe the fact that "I told you when I came I was a stranger" part is placed here and repeated at the end of the song is supposed to contrast the singer with the previous lovers. Letting her know that while some parts of the situation are similar, he is very different than her previous relationships.

    "But now another stranger seems
    to want you to ignore his dreams
    as though they were the burden of some other
    O you've seen that man before
    his golden arm dispatching cards
    but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger
    And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter
    Yes he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter."

    This is saying that this new person (let's say the singer) is asking her to ignore his selfishness. He tells her that he used to be a player, that he knew that life well but now he's "rusted". He basically wants to trade his previous ways for a meaningful relationship with this woman.

    "Ah you hate to see another tired man
    lay down his hand
    like he was giving up the holy game of poker
    And while he talks his dreams to sleep
    you notice there's a highway
    that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder
    It is curling just like smoke above his shoulder."

    The beginning of this verse makes me think that she doesn't believe the singer's intentions.

    "You tell him to come in sit down
    but something makes you turn around
    The door is open you can't close your shelter
    You try the handle of the road
    It opens do not be afraid
    It's you my love, you who are the stranger
    It's you my love, you who are the stranger."

    "The door is open, you can't close your shelter" makes me think that he has fallen for her (and one would reasonably assume she for him) and she has become the untrusting one, the one unable to settle down.

    "Well, I've been waiting, I was sure
    we'd meet between the trains we're waiting for
    I think it's time to board another
    Please understand, I never had a secret chart
    to get me to the heart of this
    or any other matter
    When he talks like this
    you don't know what he's after
    When he speaks like this,
    you don't know what he's after."

    He's thinking of leaving, telling her that this was not his original intention. He seems to understand on some level why/that she cannot trust him.

    "Let's meet tomorrow if you choose
    upon the shore, beneath the bridge
    that they are building on some endless river
    Then he leaves the platform
    for the sleeping car that's warm
    You realize, he's only advertising one more shelter
    And it comes to you, he never was a stranger
    And you say ok the bridge or someplace later."

    He's basically telling her it's her choice whether to trust him enough to let him in or not. Insinuates that perhaps she realizes too late that he was different.

    Chorus 1

    Chorus 2

    I told you when I came I was a stranger.

    Again the repetition of that line seems to say that it is a very important part of the song, and I think the placement at both the beginning and the end is supposed to be a symbolic contrast.

    Hope I could give some clarity! Sublimechump seemed to have it pretty much right on the nose there.

    ps. Keep an eye out in the performance at the end. There's a tear on his cheek. Sad, eh?
    thecoldparton February 03, 2008   Link
  • +2
    General CommentQuite old, but I thought I would point out that this song *was* the opening theme for a Hollywood movie titled "McCabe and Mrs. Miller". I first heard the song watching that movie long ago, and I've had difficulty separating the two ever since.

    Warren Beatty stars as a smalltime gambler who teams up with Julie Christie's prostitute and Madam, to run a whorehouse in the California Gold Rush country.

    It is, in every way, a bleak, hopeless and pointless movie from Robert Altman. McCabe accomplishes nothing, and ends up getting himself shot. Miller ends up an opium addict, their business closed by a larger company. One memorable scene involves a young boy taught to shoot another out of prejudice, to no purpose at all. You'd be hard pressed to find a moral, or even a point, here.

    The song fit well with the tone of the movie, but I always took from it an essential hopelessness that isn't really there in the lyrics. I wonder which came first, the song or the movie?
    bagbyon August 23, 2012   Link
  • +2
    General CommentThis song is about autonomy. Leonard Cohen often explores this theme with songs of domination/submission, power/weakness etc. In his earlier works, especially “Songs of Love and Hate” he vacillates between feeling like a monster and demonizing or devaluing others despite recognizing the beauty in them. The narrator is speaking about a person(woman?) who has felt discarded after often being there for others. It is difficult to always console a man who is always looking for something just out of their reach that they can submit their will to rather than to claim their own autonomy. After is all said and done and the woman is picking up the pieces she realizes that these people in their need take, but did not give very much. When they go she is so sad she is no longer able to even laugh. She realizes that he was someone who will always be looking for a better shelter. The way he detaches from the woman is by rejecting her and telling her it’s her fault. She caused him to be weak by offering herself to him. She gave him her autonomy. He can not respect her help because he himself can not claim himself as sovereign. He dismissively uses the excuse that “I told you” when I first met you I would leave as if this is a justification for his modus operandi. After this she meets another man who is just the same and won’t truly connect with her. He is just out of reach and she can finally see he is the same as the others. His rusty forearm is a dead giveaway as to how long he has been playing this game with himself and others. She really cares about this person so it is hard to watch him give his own autonomy to another again, and even while this is happening she can see the smoke curling up behind him as he plans his next escape. Just as she is becoming aware of this pattern between them she has invited him in her sheltering heart again but this time she realizes he has jammed the door and cast her out onto the road. Or, she realizes she had best make a run for it. The narrator tells her not to be scared and she can finally see why she is not much different in her own way. She has always offered up her autonomy with her love in the form of giving, and he offered his up to someone else in hopes to not have to take ownership of his life. She is afraid of her own power so she keeps giving it away, and he is angry that he has none because he is always giving it away to the next warm form in his bed in hopes she will be the one that can take charge or care of him.

    He asks her if she would be willing to meet tomorrow. He was hoping and waiting for her to meet him again some day and tries to explain that he never had a secret chart to understand his actions. He did not mean to be so obtuse, but he has been asleep most of his life. She secretly knows it is because he is always dreaming of submitting to another. She realizes he is still being as vague as ever and she has no idea what he still wants from her. But without his own autonomy, he doesn’t even know who he is or how he feels at this point. He is still unaware of himself. She agrees to meet him again at a different place and time in their lives. In the end he gives the same excuse over and over. I warned you that when we met I would eventually leave. They are like two satellites trapped in an orbit of their own making. Neither will ever really escape the gravitational pull of the other until one or both of them decide to claim their own power. This song is from so long ago so maybe by now they have found this with each other or someone else. Leonard Cohen is always so vague about his songs, which is probably why HE is probably “The Stranger”.
    1lonetreeon January 25, 2013   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI feel this song is not so much a critique of men who use women, but of women who are attracted to these sorts of men. The woman in this song is in a cycle of bad relationships. The repetition of those two verses is symbolic of that. It creates a loop where it becomes difficult to tell where one relationship starts and another one finishes.

    The first three verses tell about the end of a relationship. The fourth verse starts with, "But now another stranger seems to want you to ignore your dreams...", which indicates the beginning of something new and the hope that it will be different this time. The fact that the song ends with those repeated verses shows that it doesn't. But the heart of the song tells us that the blame for this failure lies as much with the woman as the man. Simply put, she is looking for men who are unreliable "strangers".

    Consider the fifth verse, starting with "you hate to see another man lay down his hand". This woman is attracted to adventurous strangers. But the moment she has snared one, then he is no longer adventurous or a stranger. She can see his dreams curling up like smoke above his shoulder and he becomes someone boring and unattractive.

    When she invites him to "come in sit down", she finds she can't close the door to her shelter. The brilliant line "the handle of the road" instead of the handle of the door puts a different spin on things. From the POV of the men, she offers shelter and stability. Her door is the door to shelter. But from her POV her door is the door to the road and adventure and a neverending stream of strangers coming in and going out. Ultimately, this is how she wants it.

    Next, the man is puzzled by her ambilvalence and starts to pull away. He says the he was sure they would meet between the trains they were waiting for. This is an oft-repeated Cohen idea about relationships being the things that happen while you're waiting for something better to come along (see Waiting For The Miracle) He says he is going but invites her to go along (to meet him on the bridge). She says she might but we know she never will.

    Thus we return to those two repeated verses, but whereas at the beginning she seems to be the jilted lover abandoned by a man who is "a player", we know now that she shares complicity in the failure of this relationship and the echoing of the beginning and the end tells us there will no doubt be many more relationships like this.
    keithroy73on February 25, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIt seems to me that there’s a lot speaking for the interpretation that the man referred to in the first verses are not just any man using women. He is a man preoccupied with something to such an extent that he is desirable to the woman.
    If he is ‘Joseph looking for a manger’ and she is the manger, then (metaphorically speaking) the man is about to deliver Christ into this world, while her function is just to be the well… manger. The comforting surrounding to his project.
    He is ‘reaching for the sky just to surrender’ — meaning that he is trying to achieve the sublime as a minimum goal for his life. Someone like that cannot truly be accompanied — you cannot hold their hand — they can only be admired from a distance and waited on by people like her, who secretly like the fact that he is preoccupied with something important.
    The ‘card that is so high and wild, he’ll never need to deal another’, which he is waiting for is thereby not just another woman — the better woman, who will replace the one he is with now. The card he is waiting for is the fantastic idea. Say, the song to end all songs. The one thing that will define him, so that he’ll never have to try his hand at anything else to have left his mark on the world. It could be a woman he conquers, but not necessarily.

    To be led away from this quest for his own ingenuity towards something more cozy infuriates him precisely because he wants to be led away. If he could refuse it at will, he could take it or leave it as and when he wanted it. But if his ‘will is weakened by her love and warmth and shelter’ he is diverted from what he believe to be his true goal.
    The fact that he has kept the ‘schedule of trains’ — metaphorically speaking a backdoor — also means that he hasn’t been ready trade in his dreams completely for ‘love and warmth and shelter’. He only wanted it for a while. And if all the men she knew were like this, she probably didn’t want him to trade in his dreams completely.

    In the second verse, this is why she hates to see this apparently new man give up — disown his dreams ‘as if they were the burden of some other’. The image of the ‘highway that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder’ is a symbol the vagrant search for the ‘high and wild card’ he has temporarily left behind. Maybe he thinks of the highway as a whiff of smoke easily blown away by a new and better life with her. Maybe it is an image of where his true heart lies. Anyhow, it seems that it is this highway that she enters, when she opens ‘the handle of the road’. They switch roles. She has had enough of being the manger. She wants to be the stranger, now.

    This is the reason why the speaker in the poem, using first person for the first time in the text, believes that they might ‘meet between trains’. She has left her shelter and now, instead of him seeking her as a manger (metaphorically speaking a safe haven), she has become like him: an interesting stranger, which other people might be drawn to.
    But as strangers, they are not reliable. Their relationship will be romantically coincidental: ‘upon the shore, beneath a bridge…’. And she realizes that it probably will not be at all. She says ‘the bridge or someplace later’, perhaps playing along with the fiction that it will ever happen that two people like that (both reaching for the sky just to surrender, watching for the high and wild card, etc.) will ever have their romantic encounter.

    As the song ends with the chorus, she alone again. She is sweeping up jokers, etc., because even embarking on her own path and becoming a stranger herself, did not make him stay. It just made their relationship romantically impossible, rather than a cozy manger, which he could use as long as he liked.
    toreholston September 15, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General CommentSome interesting ideas on the meaning of this song here. In general I agree with the notion that it is about a woman who has a series of failed relationships with men who are too focused on their ambition to achieve something ideal and sublime (presumably in an artistic sense, although that is not clear) to have a meaningful relationship with her.

    A couple of thoughts on specific lines:

    "And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
    you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter"

    The "dealer" has left the woman, and he's taken his cards with him. All he's left behind are the jokers (which she's left to sweep up) - cards which are typically 'wild' or have nil or indeterminate value. When she tries to play the jokers she finds they are worthless.

    "It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
    who is reaching for the sky just to surrender"

    I understand this line to mean that the man is constantly over-reaching, and trapped in a cycle of defeat/failure as a result. He wants to be great, to find his one ultimate winning card, but he fails every time he tries and he knows it. Thus he is "reaching for the sky" but only to inevitably fail - "to surrender". No coincidence that in cowboy movies and the like you hear the phrase "reach for the sky" - it is, indeed, a gesture of surrender. It's a great metaphor though because it would literally be hard to hold the hand of a person making this gesture, and in the context of the song it is hard for this woman to get a meaningful connection with a man who is determined to reach for the ideal in his life.

    "And then leaning on your window sill
    he'll say one day you caused his will
    to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
    And then taking from his wallet
    an old schedule of trains, he'll say
    I told you when I came I was a stranger"

    Contrary to some of the above, I understand this to represent the scene where the man inevitably walks out again. Suddenly in his mind he never really wanted to be there - it was just that he needed shelter and the woman "caused his will to weaken". In other words he turns on her and blames her for distracting him from his imagined task of achieving greatness with her love. So he pulls out the train schedule because he's leaving, and uses his escape clause - "I told you when I came I was a stranger", i.e., I never promised I would be yours and so you have no reason to be upset that I am walking out now.
    caitsith01on February 17, 2010   Link
  • +1
    TranslationI spent a couple of years in the late 80s/early 90s as a junkie, and the stranger of this song really reminds me of that kind of lifestyle. There's a great deal of gambler imagery as well, but I think it can also apply to drugs. For one there's the dealer who "was watching for the card that is so high and wild
    he'll never need to deal another", this reflects a notion which was common in a lot of the people I knew back then. Even desperate, indebted junkies like us who weren't dealers at all were always looking to pull of some wild scheme that would mean they could get all the skag they'd ever want, for awhile at least. Just waiting, praying for some lucrative deal they could find, or some grand act of theft. Usually things weren't so grand and instead there was simple petty theft.

    The whole first verse, for example. The concept of lying (or thinking wishfully) to cover addictions/vices in order to get some help from friends/family/whatever sucker is walking by. And from my experience at least, "reaching for the sky just to surrender" is a perfect description for that sort of lifestyle. Reaching for the sky can mean the desperate measures one goes through to score (or surrender, which kind of what a junkie is doing as they enjoy their fix, surrendering to the pleasure of junk and surrendering prospects of a more normal life).

    This is what comes to mind for me. Overall, the stranger could go by many names. Gambler. Rogue. Junkie. Desperado. Vagrant. Player. Dealer. Whatever they are, this woman falls for them and they destroy her to the point where she can't recognize or accept anything better in her life.
    spitzleron August 10, 2011   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationThe depth of Leonard Cohen's songs are amazing. And for the most part I don't have any complaint with the interpretations given; with the exception of this part:

    "And then leaning on your window sill
    he'll say one day you caused his will
    to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
    And then taking from his wallet
    an old schedule of trains, he'll say
    I told you when I came I was a stranger
    I told you when I came I was a stranger."

    I take this to be when the dealer/player is breaking up with her: leaning on her window sill, blocking her view, her ability to see anything beyond what he is telling her. She caused his will to weaken. Rather than changing him for the better with her love and warmth and shelter, she's caused him to become weak and turn away from the life he has always known and loved. And then taking out an old schedule of trains he'll remind her "Hey, you knew what kind of person I was when you met me."
    JukeBox903on September 01, 2011   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthe beautiful thing i can see among the comments that everybody interprets the song differently, everybody sees oneself in the song.
    it's not only about relations but about the nature of a man. men that haven't found their place, that are roaming, wandering around, that cannot stay in one place or with one woman because they need to proceed and see the world. even if he'd like to stay, to settle down, he cannot, it's against his nature, he's already thinking about the road
    "And while he talks his dreams to sleep
    You notice there's a highway
    That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder"
    and then there's the girl who's trying to keep the men with herself by giving herself out, giving her energy, love and warmth and shelter and not getting anything in return, this is not the thing the men need, it only weakens them, they feel trapped, and the girl realises that she could never have them or stop them because they are always ready to move
    "The door is open you can't close your shelter"
    and the girl herself, she's afraid of moving, she's afraid of the road, it's not her nature so she's waiting for another one that comes out to be the same.
    i think it's about unhappy peaple, uncalm peaople, that cannot stay, only stop changing shelters and hoping that the following one would be better.
    bobausison December 17, 2012   Link

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