Bob Dylan Countdown #118: “Man In The Long Black Coat”

“‘Man In the Long Black Coat’ was the real facts.” I’m not sure I can say it better than that, which is Bob Dylan’s own description of the song from Chronicles. By facts, he doesn’t mean the details of the song, in which a woman up and leaves her home with a mysterious stranger. He means the facts inside all of our hearts and minds, the eternal impulses that drive us to act in such a way as to become estranged from not just the ones we love but even from our better selves.

At first listen, you’d swear old buddy Mark Knopfler had jetted in to lay down the spare but telling licks on this track off Oh Mercy, when in actuality it’s just Dylan and Daniel Lanois flickering over Malcolm Burn’s keyboard bed much like smoke flickers on the water in the song. The music is all about suggestion, the spaces between being far more important than what can actually be heard.

Dylan frames the song brilliantly. He uses the first verse to set the desolate scene:  crickets chirping in the air freshened by a hurricane, a woman’s dress hanging on the line unretrieved. It becomes clear quickly why that dress is hanging on the line:  “Not a word of goodbye, not even a note/She gone with the man in the long black coat.”

So who was this stranger? A preacher? A psychopath? A Johnny Cash impersonator? Ultimately, he’s not the important part of the story; silver-tongued seducers are a dime a dozen. What’s important is what makes this woman leave with him. Is it simply a matter of us all being “vile and depraved?” Or is it less black-and-white than that? Maybe she’s not even in the wrong for making this choice:  “There are no mistakes in life some people say/It is true sometimes you can see it that way.”

What’s clear is that this isn’t as rare an occurrence as you might think, as Dylan speculates in the final verse, which returns to the hurricane-ravaged setting of the opening. Bob sings, “Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force/Somebody is out there beating a dead horse.” In other words, you can talk about it, make judgments, rend your garments, but human nature isn’t going to change. There will always be somebody new to betray their ideals and beliefs in exchange for a few kind words from a stranger.

It comes down to wisdom versus charisma. That eternal battle is played out in miniature in “Man In The Long Black Coat,” and it’s clear what side Dylan thinks comes out on top more often than not.

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One Comment on “Bob Dylan Countdown #118: “Man In The Long Black Coat””

  1. Indeed, the original middle eight went “People don’t live or die/People just are…” In live versions, “He went to the river/Just missed the boat”… bleak song which somehow puts me in mind of Watchtower.


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