Saturday, November 5, 2016

Dylan's Man in the Long Black Coat

Throughout his career Dylan's been something of a man of mystery. And it seems like no matter what he does or says or doesn't do, someone is commenting on it.

While listening to Oh Mercy recently a line near the end of Dylan's "Man in the Long Black Coat" caught my attention: "Somebody is out there beating a dead horse."

Many of Dylan's songs contain strange imagery and some people have spent a lifetime analyzing his lyrics to gain access to the secret meanings in the songs, much like ancient mystics who used numerology to decode Judaism's sacred texts. In Desolation Row it's the last verse that offers up a key to unlocking the song, but how does one unlock All Along the Watchtower?

Knowing all this made me wonder if there were something more significant here than an arbitrary bizarre image that serves simply to make a rhyme. I thought it worth further investigation.

* * * *

The song begins with an ominous ambiance created by sparse bass and en electronic effect that sounds like crickets chirping. It feels dark, like the edge of dusk at the rim of nowhere. The effect appears designed to correspond with the song's opening line.

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

So we have an unidentified narrator telling a story, and thus far there are two characters, "she" and the man in the long black coat.  It has the feel of an old Western, the small house on the edge of a wilderness. The second verse offers clues regarding this stranger.

Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town
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

Here's this man who no one seems to know and he's hanging out at the old dance hall. She's there, too, and she takes the initiative.

The town has a church, and the preacher there once gave a message that went like this:

Preacher was a talkin’, 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

This is not the popular view today, though. I remember a discussion four decades ago which began with this question. I was asked, "If the heart were a checkerboard, is it basically white splattered with black, or black splattered with white? That is, are we good underneath or bad underneath?" The young woman who asked this had just completed a philosophy class on Plato and was attempting to sort out some of the concepts. I'm not sure how I replied other than to make some kind of know-it-all statements which she proceeded to refute. I was so much older then....

It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat

What's not easy to swallow? The message from the preacher, or the fact that she gave her heart to the man in the long black coat? Perhaps it's both. Dylan once again is the master of ambiguity.

Before moving to the last verse there's a bridge offering another way of seeing things followed by the narrator's response. In a world with worldviews in conflict we can try to get along, but we don't have to all agree.

There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way
But people don't live or die, people just float

She went with the man
In the long black coat

What's going on in this song? Clearly it's a lament. Everything is drenched with it. She left town with the man in a long black coat and she left somewhat suddenly. Her dress is still hanging on the line. She's never come back and no one ever heard from her again.

There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June
Tree trunks uprooted, 'neath the high crescent moon
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating a dead horse
She never said nothing, there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man
In the long black coat
Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music


Does the line "Somebody is out there beating a dead horse" offer a clue here or is Dylan stringing things together to amplify the feeling of mystery while looking for a rhyme? (As some people say.) The expression "beating a dead horse" means, to bring up an issue that has already been concluded; something that's considered to be pointless.

If an argument erupts and it's one that has been previously settled, then the idiom "beating a dead horse" might be said by someone who sees any further discussion on the topic to be futile. "Come on, man, you're beating a dead horse."

The spot in Turin where Nietzche collapsed.
For some reason the image that came to mind for me was that of Nietzsche's nervous breakdown while staying in Turin, Italy. Whatever internal torments he had had bottled up burst like a dam when he witnessed a man beating his horse after it had collapsed in the street while pulling his carriage. Nietzsche purportedly ran over and embraced the horse, whose suffering was more than he could bear. After this breakdown he spent the last ten years of his life in a Basel asylum.

In the opening line of the last verse, smoke on the water just happens to be the title of a Deep Purple song which is itself about a tragedy, the fire in the Casino Montreux in Switzerland in 1971. The scene described in this verse includes uprooted tree trunks, the aftermath of that hurricane force wind that blew through, altering the landscape of our narrator's life.

Perhaps when all is said and done the narrator's despair is tied to his inaction. He watched passively, stood at a distance. Had she been waiting for him to step forward? For how long. Instead he remained paralyzed within himself. She finally took an action of her own. She initiated a relationship with her ticket out of town, the man in the long black coat.

The song is gloomy. And sometimes life can be, too. 

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