Bob Dylan – Man In the Long Black Coat (1989)
from the album “Oh Mercy”.
As if writing about a Bob Dylan song isn’t daunting enough, I originally intended to write about “Tangled Up In Blue”.
Being just that it is Bob Dylan we’re talking about here would be enough reason enough to prove a difficult analysis to come, to me he’s a pretty cryptic and metaphysical songwriter, but it’s also the fact that “Tangled Up In Blue” is one of my real all time favourites. And I mean of all time, really. It’s just flawless, and I’ll be saving the task of explaining myself through that song for another day.
As I was scrolling through my vault of music on my computer, I started listening through my favourite Bob Dylan album, the 1989 Daniel Lanois produced “Oh Mercy”, and this is always the one song I find myself consistently fascinated by. It’s one of those songs that, whenever it comes on, I have to stop whatever it is I’m doing at that moment and just listen, and really listen to it.
It’s almost filmic, in the way that I don’t want to miss a single part of the story or the words that are told, even thought I’ve heard them a million times before.
To me, it paints a vivid picture in my mind, and to me, at least, I have clear image of what I feel it’s about.
And no wonder it’s a haunting song for me, because I feel it’s about coming to terms with the inevitable in all life forms, the one thing we all have in common, which is to sooner or later face our impending deaths.
This is the greatest fear of my life, something I usually avoid even thinking or talking about, and if the thought does cross my mind, I have to nervously and full of angst try to do some mind numbing chore to soothe my galloping and racing brain to stop thinking about it. I try to block it out, almost completely out of my waking moments.
Still, I know it’s there, like I know it’s always there for all us, looming in the back of our minds.
And yet, still, this is something that always draws me in, both when it comes to books, music and films. This is especially clear to me when dealing with my taste in movies. A while not too long ago, I went through the entire IMDB top 250, and reviewed every single movie in there, much like I am now trying to review and analyse the songs that are important in my life, and I love most types of music, I’m a real snooty film critic, prone to snobbery and turning my nose up at most things, literally getting stuck in details that ruin the entire picture for me, I could still see a clear and visible thread through the movies I did like and the films that did catch my interest.
They were always quite dark. Always dealing with depressing themes or themes that require a lot of subtext. I don’t like things to be simple, to be plain, I don’t like things being explained to me, I don’t like things that I can see coming.
What has drawn me into becoming a movie buff, has been the movies with unpredictable subjects and endings, movies that doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is, or from drawing all parts of the story into the storytelling. Usually, I’m also a sucker for the stories of an underdog, or someone abused retaliating, or an anti-hero.
A lot of the times, these movies have a lot of death in them.
It seems to me, often enough in life, the things that scare us the most, are the things that also spellbinds us and pushes us further into ourselves, it sort of makes us who we are.
Dylan paints me a detailed scenery of a desert southern place, where death looms. We don’t when he’s coming to take us, or whom he’s coming for, but we all knows he’s coming.
“Crickets are chirpin’ the water is high
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry
Window wide open African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze
Not a word of goodbye not even a note
She gone with the man in the long black coat”
Not a word of goodbye or a note, implying that death can occur suddenly, and she’s “gone”, meaning, like all of us, she has no choice but to accept him coming and go with him.
“He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask
If he wanted to dance he had a face like a mask
Somebody said from the bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man in the long black coat.
Preacher was talking there’s a sermon he gave
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied
It ain’t easy to swallow it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man in the long black coat”
This to me, is about justifying your life and your actions, in the end. Every man’s conscience is vile and depraved, as few of us are in any way, completely innocent. We all make mistakes, and maybe in some way, shape or form, we all have to own up to it. You can’t depend on it, though, as you can’t always use it as an excuse, in the end, you only have yourself to answer to, and we’re all our own worst enemy.
It ain’t easy to swallow this, all the regrets you hear about people facing on their deathbed, and it’s not easy to swallow the fact that you have to accept that you’re going away, that you’re just passing through on earth for a short while, and that, in some instances, it’s for a very short while (like Bob sings in the fourth verse even; “people don’t live or die, people just float”) and you might not have had the time or the opportunities at all do what you intended to do with your life;
after all, the things people most regret before their death, are the things they never did, even more so than regretting the things they did do and the things they did wrong.
In the last verse, I even get the sense that the person death is coming for, is someone who might’ve actually chosen it herself before her time was due, meaning she committed suicide:
“There’s smoke on the water it’s been there since June
Tree trunks uprooted beneath the high crescent moon
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse
She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man in the long black coat”
It’s been there since June, meaning, the signs have been there for a while already, people might have suspected. though there was “not even a note” as earlier hinted in the song,and “she never said nothing“.
You can just hear how pitch black this song is, how it reflects night-time with the chirping crickets in the background, the slow harmonica, and the chopped delivery with Dylan sounding a lot like an old foreboding witch delivering his stanzas.
It creeps me out a bit, and it makes me think about things I don’t want to think about, and feel things I don’t want to feel, though I know they are, like death itself, inevitable and something inside of me that I just have to accept, as sure as I have to accept death.
Annoyingly enough, the original Bob Dylan version I’m writing about is nowhere to be found on youtube except in pretty crappy live versions that I felt ruined the mood of the song, so instead I chose this cover version by Mark Lanegan from the 2007 movie “I’m Not There”, which is also excellent and pretty close to the original.