A Dylan Cover a Day: Man in the Long Black Coat

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


  1. Yes the dire message of impending death in the lyrics accompanied by ‘objective correlatives’, word-images that create a chilling atmosphere, be what makes it a great song ….the appropiate accompanying music being part of the correlatives.

    Merely reading the words from a piece of paper would fail to catch the full impact of the lyrics but expressing atmosphere through the voice, without music, could approach the goal.

    The total performance with the words and music coming together is what matters.

    The music without words, or at least without knowing the words, would create an atmosphere, but then it’d be like a ship with no captain, and no long black coat.

  2. I appreciate your article but I don’t think the versions come anywhere near Dylan’s. I guess it’s difficult for me as this is one of my favourites by him. Not to say I don’t like listening to covers.

  3. That is objective correlatives in the song are manufactured by words thereof in order to evoke subjective (‘abstract’?) emotional responses in the listener thereof but reference objects that are concrete in and of themselves (ie, the long black coat) to enhance the thematic “meaning” of the song through mental associations.

    Music alone, or accompanied with words that hardly matter (especially if designed specifically for dancing)cannot do that because the atmospheric-induced emotion is not grounded.

    Dylan is being sarcastic to the bone when he calls himself a simple ‘song and dance’ man.

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