by Jochen Markhorst
I Things grow at night
The camera swings up, wide-shot of the cloudless, sweltering sky containing a solitary bird of prey circling. No matter then whether it is a steppe eagle, a kestrel or a greylag harrier, the Sound Effects department will always pull out that same recording of the red-tailed hawk’s cry (eeeek).
Just as a wolf’s howl can be heard briefly at every full moon. Just as in every tropical forest, anywhere in the world, the Australian kookaburra laughs, every key on the computer says bleep, doors always creak, car tyres, on every surface, squeak while braking, cornering and accelerating, and every light bulb always breaks with an electric bzzz. Hollywood has, in short, conditioned us nicely in terms of sound and vision – to the point that in the real world, we are surprised when we hear the explosion much later than we see it, that the police radio does not have five unintelligible voices crackling through each other non-stop, and that you don’t hear a shwoosh while performing a karate stroke.
The chirping of crickets is part of the same arsenal. There are no doubt millions of people who have never heard a cricket concert in real life, but thanks to Hollywood, instantly know what it signals: a sultry summer evening somewhere in the southern United States. And just wait, in a few seconds the crickets will suddenly be silent, creating a lurid, elusive menace.
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
Cinephile Dylan speaks the language. “Man In The Long Black Coat” opens with the sound effects and wide-shot that go with the exposition, with the setting of the scene. The crickets give a false suggestion of idyll, the high water level is silent menace, the lone dress on the clothesline communicates woman alone, the open window invites danger in, and the bent trees testify to invisible violence… it really is a very visual, very cinematic opening.
It’s the crickets though, mainly. In songwriting, we know them mostly as a nocturnal accessory without too much dramatic power – quite the opposite, in fact; crickets are usually mentioned casually to accentuate nocturnal solitude. Charley Pride uses the image quite regularly (“On the Southbound”, “Mama Don’t Cry For Me”), and it is no different in blues classics like “One Room Country Shack”;
I just can't sleep no more Crickets and frogs to keep me company And the wind is howlin' 'round my door
… and in old Western songs like “All Along The Najavo Trail” (When it’s night and crickets are callin’ / and coyotes are makin’ a wail): an accessory. But cricket chirp as an atmospheric instrument, as Dylan uses it here, we know mostly from films. Remarkably often with alien visitations, for that matter. In both Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977) and Signs (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002), for instance, the directors stiffen the cinema audience by abruptly silencing the noisy cricket chorus – something’s coming!
We know the cliché from every film genre, of course, but in brooding thrillers it is almost inescapable. Often during the day too, although crickets actually only chirp after sunset – another piece of misinformation that Hollywood has by now implanted in three-quarters of the world’s population. Dylan doesn’t escape either, as we have known since “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, which he wrote in 1974;
Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy I could stay with you forever and never realize the time
… a clock time is not mentioned, but that this scene takes place in broad daylight seems abundantly clear.
Dylan seems aware of it, of the cinematic, atmospheric power of the cricket chirp. In the chapter “Oh Mercy” in his autobiography Chronicles (2004), he devotes relatively many words to the creation of “Man In The Long Black Coat”, and the song is the punchline of a seemingly through-composed, again very cinematic, short story.
The story begins when Dylan has been in New Orleans for a month, has had some minor successes and some major clashes with producer Daniel Lanois during recording, and wakes up very early in the morning. He roots his wife out of bed. He wants to leave. “I was feeling stuffy – needed to get out of town. Something wasn’t clicking.” They get on their motorbike and ride out of town. Aimlessly. Hours later (“early afternoon”), Dylan says, they have a bite to eat in Morgan City, which is only about eighty miles from New Orleans, and in the evening they arrive, apparently after another considerable diversion, at Napoleonville, 33 miles away from Morgan City, where they find a motel.
“I laid down, listened to the crickets and wildlife out the window in the eerie blackness. I liked the night. Things grow at night. My imagination is available to me at night. All my preconceptions of things go away.”
… which already provides the backdrop for “Man In The Long Black Coat”. And sure enough, Dylan feels new life and new inspiration, waking up the next morning, there in Napoleonville. He feels a lust to go back to New Orleans again, but not just yet. Freewheeling by chance, they stumble upon “an obscure roadside place, a gaunt shack called King Tut’s Museum”, which introduces the Sun Pie interlude, an interlude that has the same unreal atmosphere and place as the “Boston interlude” in the song he will record with Lanois eight years later, in “Highlands”.
King Tut’s Museum is driven by the colourful carpenter Sun Pie,
“… one of the most singular characters you’d ever want to meet. The man was short and wiry like a panther, dark face but with Slavic features, wore a narrow brimmed, flat-topped straw hat. On his bones was the raw skin of the earth.”
Dylan is intrigued by the man’s appearance, his facial expressions, his manner of speaking and his opinions. Quite intrigued even; the Sun Pie interlude covers four pages, some two thousand words. And Sun Pie inspires…
He paused and picked up an oily rag. “I think all the good in the world might have already been done.” Sun Pie talked in a language you couldn’t misunderstand. “Bruce Lee came from a good family and he defeated them all, all the babies, all the greedy criminals, the ones with clawing hands, powerful men but worthless. They couldn’t stand up to Bruce Lee. Their consciences, God help them, were vile and depraved.”
… words Dylan puts in the mouth of one of the side characters in “Man In The Long Black Coat”, of the priest in the third verse;
The 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.”
Dylan and his wife say goodbye to Sun Pie, and before evening Dylan is back in New Orleans, back in the studio. He has a song. Two even:
“I’d gotten back to New Orleans with a clear head. I’d finish up what I started with Lanois, even write him a couple of songs I never would have written otherwise. One was “Man in the Long Black Coat” and the other was “Shooting Star”.”
It is a perfectly rounded short story with a fascinating interlude, the story of the run-up to the song. And 99% fiction, of course. “Crickets”, “eerie darkness”, “vile and depraved”, and in between, Sun Pie quotes Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (Does your conscience bother you?), of which Dylan says: “This conscience stuff would stick in my mind” – to name just a few of the most appealing implausibilities.
The soundtrack has also been provided. Apart from the Lynyrd quote, these four pages feature The Beatles (“Do You Want To Know A Secret” plays on the radio as Dylan enters), the Dale and Grace song “I’m Leaving It Up To You”, Phil Phillips’ “Sea Of Love” and The Queen Of Country, Kitty Wells. None of these are mentioned without ulterior motive by scriptwriter Dylan, nor is Sun Pie’s profession – carpenter – a coincidence.
And a script it is, of course. For a never-filmed classic. A road movie, probably.
To be continued. Next up Man In The Long Black Coat part 2: Les gens ne font que passer
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic