By Tony Attwood
I can still remember the first time I heard Dylan’s “Man in The Long Black Coat” – someone (I can’t recall who) had given me a cassette of the album (remember cassettes?) upon its release, and I was playing it in the car in the evening as I drove on my own to Leicester to visit a very ill very close friend in the hospital, and we got to this track. I seem to recall I nearly caused an awful accident by not seeing that the car in front had stopped suddenly at a red light. I missed causing a collision by an inch.
So presumably that was in 1989. 33 years ago. And I can still recall it, but it is not the near accident, nor even my pal (sadly no longer with us) that I recall first: it is still the first time I heard this song and the incredible impact it made on me.
And in case that sounds heartless, of course I still remember my late friend, and I’m still very close to his family, but it is the music that symbolises that moment. I have a thousand memories of one of the best friends I ever had, but for that evening, it is playing this song in the car that is the first recollection.
Rolling Stone said, it was “a chilling narrative ballad suffused with a medieval sense of sin, death, illicit sexuality and satanic power…the sparce musical background evokes a universe frighteningly devoid of absolute meaning”. Much later I wrote “The sense of continuing futility is overwhelming which ever way you look at it,” and I think for once I really got it right. What is the point of all this, if in the end we simply pass away in the night?
“Long Black Coat” is above everything pure and utter atmosphere, and coming to the cover versions all these years later, that is what I look for. If the atmosphere goes, then the song has gone too. But of course for cover-artists, the temptation is to use electronics as a way to create atmosphere as some sci-fi movies do.
And yes, of course you can get atmosphere by electronics, but really it is the spooky nature of the melody and sparce accompaniment that does it. Emerson Lake and Palmer get half way there, but they have a repeated electronic guitar four note effect – and it is the repeat of that which really turns me off the version.
The soft guitar of Admiral Freebee however gives the sense of menace, but then the suddenly loud couple of guitar notes seems too simple, too obvious. This song is horrifying but also subtle. It deserves more than sudden bangs, or their equivalent.
Daniel Bedingfield adds to the menance and chaos element, and although the occasional use of a chorus of voices helps enormously, it is just too repetitious for me, too pounding, too fast. Certainly as the voices are used more and more the sheer sense of a world falling apart develops, but really someone should have shot the percussionist for his (or of course maybe her) use of the bass drum. Without that we could have focussed so much more on the really clever use of the voices throughout. Try and ignore the drum – although it is hard.
Barb Jungr obviously knows Dylan better than most and she’s done some brilliant work with his music – and here we really do get the sense of menace. The church bell tolling is a bit obvious (really, do these musical directors not have a single new idea in their heads?) but everything else she gives us is remarkable – not least because she and the arranger hold back. The piano is delicate and the rhythm is controlled, and the meance is heightened – its an extraordinary trick. Very very difficult to pull off, but she gets it. The shivers go up and down my arms as I type this.
Gentle can mean horror, threat, regret… hard to do, but when it is right, it is spooky.
Found Wandering have this understanding too, but they manage to go further by doing less. The singer is delicate, the harmonies are perfection, and yet still contain that absolute sense of menace. It’s a good job this version wasn’t on that cassette I was playing when I first heard the song; if it had been I think the accident I just avoided would most certainly have happened.
Just listen to those harmonies as the performance evolves. And do stay to the end, it is worth it. This is perfection.
In fact, listening to these (and a few other versions I really didn’t want to include here) it turns out that the key to every performance comes in the last two lines of each verse. Get those right, and you stand a chance of giving a superb recording.
And the fact is that the very last two lines of the song are probably the most chilling ever written by Bob.
She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote She gone with the man in the long black coat
That is the ultimate darkness. There is nothing beyond; nothing is left behind.
The Dylan Cover a Day series
- The song with numbers in the title.
- Ain’t Talkin
- All I really want to do
- Apple Suckling and Are you Ready.
- As I went out one morning
- Ballad for a Friend
- Ballad in Plain D
- Ballad of a thin man
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- The ballad of Hollis Brown
- Beyond here lies nothing
- Blind Willie McTell
- Black Crow Blues (more fun than you might recall)
- An unexpected cover of “Black Diamond Bay”
- Blowin in the wind as never before
- Bob Dylan’s Dream
- You will not believe this… 115th Dream revisited
- Boots of Spanish leather
- Born in Time
- Buckets of Rain
- Can you please crawl out your window
- Can’t wait
- Changing of the Guard
- Chimes of Freedom
- Country Pie
- Crash on the Levee
- Dark Eyes
- Dear Landlord
- Desolation Row as never ever before (twice)
- Don’t fall apart on me tonight.
- Don’t think twice
- Down along the cove
- Drifter’s Escape
- Duquesne Whistle
- Farewell Angelina
- Foot of Pride and Forever Young
- Fourth Time Around
- From a Buick 6
- Gates of Eden
- Gotta Serve Somebody
- Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall.
- 42 Heart of Mine
- 43: High Water
- 44: Highway 61.5
- 45: Hurricane
- 46: I am a lonesome hobo
- 47: I believe in you
- 48: I contain multitudes
- 49: I don’t believe you.
- 50: I love you too much
- 51: I pity the poor immigrant.
- 52: I shall be released
- 53: I threw it all away
- 54: I want you
- 55: I was young when I left home
- 56: I’ll remember you
- 57: Idiot Wind and More idiot wind
- 58: If not for you, and a rant against prosody
- 59: A Dylan cover a Day: If you Gotta Go, please go and do something different
- 60: If you see her say hello
- 61: Dylan cover a day: I’ll be your baby tonight
- 62: I’m not there.
- 63: In the Summertime, Is your love and an amazing Isis
- 64: It ain’t me babe
- 65: It takes a lot to laugh
- 66: It’s all over now Baby Blue
- 67: It’s all right ma
- 68: Just Like a Woman
- 69: Knocking on Heaven’s Door
- 70: Lay down your weary tune
- 71: Lay Lady Lay
- 72: Dylan Cover a Day 72: Lenny Bruce
- 73: That brand new leopard skin pill box hat
- 74: Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
- 75: Dylan Cover a Day: License to kill
- 76: Like a Rolling Stone
- 77: Love is just a four letter word
- 78: Love Sick
- 79: Maggies Farm!
- 80: Make you feel my love; a performance that made me cry.
- 81: Mama you’ve been on my mind