Beautiful Obscurity: The man in the Long Black Coat

By Aaron Galbraith in the USA and Tony Attwood in the UK

Aaron suggests the tracks, and Tony attempts to give his thoughts while the music is playing – but no longer than that.

There is an index to other episodes from this series here

Aaron: One of my favorite Dylan tracks from the late 80s has surprisingly few covers, here are just a few for your delectation.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer, from In The Hot Seat…there was a rumour Bob plays on this, but I doubt it:

Tony: It is also a song I’ve always loved, not least for its very unusual (for rock) time signature – 6/8 is normally associated with traditional folk music, and is widely used by classical romantic composers, but not nearly so much in pop and rock.    It runs as a quick 1 2 3; 1 2 3 to make up the six beats.   Here the strong drum beat emphasises the start of each second group of three, which is really interesting – nothing here is as expected

The intro gives no clue at all as to what is coming up, and if I didn’t know this was going to be Long Black Coat I would have never guessed.   Strong singing and great original accompaniment throughout, this is excellent for me and I want to hear it again, after this little session of writing is over.

The way the singing of the lyrics emphasise the distance that is implied throughout the song is brilliant also.  I can’t pause here to think of other Dylan songs that relate to this – I am sure there are some obvious examples but they escape me.   But for now this is one of the best discoveries of this series of articles.

Mark Lanegan from I’m Not There

Tony: The “I’m not there” soundtrack has always struck me as strange, although this song keeps close to the original, with a new approach to the instrumental backing.   This brings across the horror implied of the ghostly element within the lyrics.   And indeed the lyrics are so good, it doesn’t really need the music to vary itself very much.

Indeed that middle 8 is one of the most powerful moments in Dylan’s music – it comes as such as surprise.

But there are moments here I don’t quite like – it is as if they have decided to do it “like this” and that is how they do it.  The vibrato guitar gets a bit wearing after a while, and it just stops, whereas I have always imagined the man in the clock fading into the distance.  That doesn’t mean it has to be a fade-out, but not a quick dead stop either.

Joan Osborne

So vibrato guitar – it is the obvious thing to do, but there is one thing this makes clear – this song is very suited to a female voice; the lyrics might imply a growling man, but the woman’s voice can deliver just as well.

Actually, the sound here is really fascinating, and I want to stop typing this and listen, which is always the most positive sign.  But I’ve managed to get it while typing away – what they have done is turned it into three long beats in a bar but subdivided each beat into six.  Now that is clever, and it really works.

The other challenge in this song is what to do with the instrumental verse if you have one, and this sailing guitar gets it right for me.   Just laid back enough to keep the ghostly feel.  But it is the way they play with the beat that really makes it for me.  And she does have a really fine voice for this type of song.

A tiny detail, I didn’t think the repeating of the title line over and over at the end helped – I’d got the message by then, and somehow it distracted.

Count To Fire

Tony: Of course the challenge for each new interpreter is to come up with something new while not drifting too far from the original.   But the problem is we all know the song well, so a movement away from the original is needed to keep our interest and show why this new version is needed.

Playing a dominant piano part as the lead accompaniment with the guitar way behind it, is an original thought but I am not quite sure it is enough to hold us to the song.  And yet the vocals are so good and clear that the lyrics come through so very powerfully, and that is good because apart from the rhythm it is about the lyrics and that very unusual melody, which doesn’t need to be played with at all.

I do like this version, but by removing the pulses between each group of three I beats I feel something is lost.  Of course, versions that come later in Aaron’s selection always are at a disadvantage because by the time I get to them I’ve just heard the song three or four or more times, and maybe that’s the problem here.  But excellent though the rendition is, I find it a bit of a plod.

Aaron: Steve Hackett – a rare cover from one of my all time favorite artists/ musicians from his excellent album Wild Orchid

Tony: Ah Mr Genesis – still here after all these years.  Goodness, I haven’t listened to your music for years.

Of course, there is going to be some dramatic guitar entries and yes at one level this song cries out for them, so this version runs as I expected when I saw who it was.  But no, the song doesn’t need the regular virtuoso performance that Steve Hackett can give.   But the harmony on lines like “People don’t live or die” is sublime.

The problem is that behind the virtuoso there is a plod plod plod with guitar in between.  I know a lot of Genesis fans will hate me for this, but I think this is a case of the musician putting himself first and the composition second.  It’s Steve, so Steve has to show off his sublime talent – except no he doesn’t, because we all know what he can do, and what would have been great would have been for him to explore those harmonies a little more and play the guitar at the speed of light a little less.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed this selection, but have the feeling no one has quite got to the very essence of the piece.  Maybe there is another version out there that does….


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