Dylan & the Grateful Dead

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Man in the Long Black Coat


Hey, it's me. I'm back. I've been pretty, pretty busy and haven't posted recently. Here's an essay I did for a college class.

Question - If Bob Dylan's Chronicles is a song, what song is it? Dylan himself discusses dozens of songs in the course of his book. Which song best captures it, in terms of imagery, tone of voice, melody, rhythm, or the story the song tells? You might consider any of the songs Dylan mentions, any he does not, a folk or a blues song, or a song by Dylan himself.

MAN IN THE LONG BLACK COAT

If Bob Dylan’s Chronicles is a song, it would have to be “Man in the Long Black Coat” from the album “Oh Mercy.” Mysterious, audacious, decisive and reckless, the character in this song could be Dylan himself. If the “Man in the Long Black Coat” isn’t Dylan, then it’s a composite sketch of the outlaw figure he has a predilection for. The song draws its inspiration from the folk tradition of “Blackjack Davey.” In both tales, an irresistible swashbuckling figure dressed in black comes to town, does as he pleases, and takes off with somebody else’s woman without explanations, or an ounce of regret. In Chronicles, Dylan writes like a literary fugitive as his lyrical prose defies expectations for a memoir, breaking all the rules for chronology and content, yet its message is timeless, and neatly fits together like the song,” Man in the Long Black Coat.”

As we’re introduced to the song, an acoustic axe casually picks away as crickets chirp in the background before a reverberating electric guitar riff shatters the serenity. Dylan plays three foreboding notes on his harmonica, waits for a couple of measures to build suspense, and follows with a menacing solo that completes the picture: the town is peaceful, though devastation has taken place, and the “Man in the Long Black Coat” is lurking in the distance, possibly readying himself to strike somewhere else. In the first verse the narrator informs us that a hurricane has swept through town leaving nothing but a soft cotton dress hanging from the line. There was no written or verbal message, but the implications are clear – his lady has run off with the man in black, and the hurricane is a metaphor for the disruptive force that our black coated friend can unleash.

When Dylan was presented a Lifetime Grammy Award by Jack Nicholson, Jack referred to Dylan as a “disturber of the peace.” Upheaval, positive and negative, is a consistent theme throughout Chronicles. Like the man in the long black coat, Dylan has torn through towns like a tornado altering the lives of those around him. He forever changed New York City, and the quaint upstate town of Woodstock, as well as revolutionizing the foundation of American music. But the positive whirlwind changes he brought to American culture had a backlash effect on his domestic life. He tried to shield himself from the turmoil by hiding out on a mountainside in Woodstock, but he wasn’t able to elude his obsessive fans. His fear of these fanatics was so intense that he acquired a small arsenal of firearms to protect his family. When Bob Dylan, Blackjack Davey, Lenny Bruce or the man in the long black coat come to town, the denizens of that town know it. These men shake things up, and in the process, they often become the hunted.

During the song’s bridge, it seems we’re getting Dylan’s point of view, not the narrator’s when he sings, “People don’t live or die, people just float/ She went with the man in the long black coat.” Dylan seems to be empathetic with the sinners here, insinuating that they are the ones who are really living and taking chances. There’s an admiration for the woman who has decided not to float, but has rendezvoused with the man in the long black coat. In Chronicles, Dylan writes, “It’s hard to describe what makes a character or an event folk song worthy. It probably has something to do with a character being fair and honest and open. Bravery in an abstract way” (39).

Bravery is a characteristic trait we see from Dylan as he aggressively engages challenges in Chronicles. The stories Dylan weaves, mostly stem from crossroad moments in his professional and personal life. With a guitar slung around his torso, a couple bucks in his jeans, and a burning desire for fame, he said goodbye to the North Country, the only world he knew, and hitched a ride to New York City in search of Woody Guthrie. “Howdy East Orange!” Dylan went straight to Woody Guthrie’s home as if he was the anointed one to carry on Woody’s tradition, though Dylan was a complete unknown. In Greenwich Village, he quickly identified the movers and shakers of the folk scene befriending them on his meteoric rise to the top. Dylan spun many tall tales as he impressed the likes of Izzy Young, owner of the Folklore Center, and radio host Cynthia Gooding, but the man in black does whatever is necessary to achieve his goals, whether it’s a conquest of fame, or another man’s woman. He risks his neck, usually succeeding; that’s why he is so admired.

The man in the long black coat can never be pinned down, stamped or labeled; he can never be owned by others. He’ll never be the President of the United States or leader of a political movement, although others are awed by him. As Dylan tried to raise a family in Woodstock, he decisively tried to distance himself from those who worshiped him like a prophet. The music of his releases at the beginning of the 70’s, “New Morning” and “Self Portrait,” seemed to echo his desire to separate himself from his fanatic fans who thought Dylan was their voice. As usual, Dylan went his own way, refusing to let others dictate his fate. In “Man in the Long Black Coat,” Dylan describes the man of mystery as having a “face like a mask” and as being seen “hanging around at the old dance hall on the outskirts of town.” This is clearly an individual who’s not going to be pigeon-holed and used as a pawn. And his facial mask is symbolic of someone who is perpetually changing identities, both physically and spiritually, like Dylan.

In the third verse, the narrator listens to a preacher deliver a sermon about the unreliability of one’s conscience to be a guide because it is “vile and depraved.” Then Dylan’s lyrics become visceral when he moans, “It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat/ She gave her heart to the man/ In the long black coat.” Even a preacher’s sermon about the inevitability of man’s wickedness can’t bring the narrator any peace of mind. He can’t come to grips with why his woman left him or what she sees in the man in black – “it sticks in the throat” and probably will continue to do so for some time. Like the classic folk songs that stirred Dylan’s imagination, this song has all the intrigue, ambiguity and weirdness to match any of them. This is pure timeless folk that could have been born in England in the 15th Century, but Dylan put this together in New Orleans 1989. It captures our fascination with an eternal subject using emotive language while the melody, mood, vocal incantations and arrangement scream of dread and horror. In typical Dylan fashion, he sets up the line “There are no mistakes in life some people say/ It’s true sometimes, you can see it that way,” as something that can be interpreted in many ways, it’s up to the performer or the listener to make the connection they want to in-the-moment. In Chronicles Dylan wrote,” “A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. “It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening” (71). “Man in the Long Black Coat,” will never become outdated or fully be defined, therefore making it a classic folk song.

The woman in this tale runs off without offering any excuses for her passionate actions. As would be expected, the man in black is a man of action - he won’t be filling in any blanks. Just like the title of the 1965 documentary on Dylan, Don’t Look Back, Bob doesn’t waste time making excuses for his behavior in Chronicles. One contradiction that begs for exploration is his lack of compassion for the fans that are infatuated by him. When Dylan rambled across the country determined to meet Woody, he marched right up to the Guthrie residence, knocked on the door and tracked him down. However, Dylan offers no understanding, and is downright hostile to anyone who would dare pursue him, like he pursued Woody. And no explanations are forthcoming. Chronicles is Dylan’s folk song; we can read his accounts, but we’re often left with more questions than answers, and that’s fine with him. We buy the ticket and we take the ride, just like we do with his music.

In the fourth chapter, Dylan takes on the most serious crisis of his professional career as he questions his relevance as a performer. His descriptions of events are dark and dreary, and they give a sense of a lost soul searching for inspiration. In the midst of this hazy phase in his life, he talks at length about the making of Oh Mercy. Discussing the album’s most compelling track, “Man in the Long Black Coat,” Dylan says, “the production sounds deserted…It’s cut out from the abyss of blackness – visions of a maddened brain, a feeling of unreality” (215-216). It’s apparent that Dylan was able to channel the gloominess he was feeling into the song, but the song would connect him with his future by looking back at his past. This tune, and others like it, would provide a roadmap for Dylan to rediscover his muse. A few years later, Dylan would record an album of folk songs as he found new meaning in his music by returning it to traditional roots. It’s as if “Man in the Long Black Coat was within Dylan, waiting to burst out. He wrote, “After we had completed a few takes of the song, Danny (Lanois) looked over to me as if to say, This is it. It was” (216). While other tracks from Oh Mercy were difficult to record, Dylan nailed “Man in the Long Black Coat in just a few takes. This was a situation where the song played Dylan as much as he played the song. The song and the performer both got what they wanted.