Man In The Long Black Coat (1989) Part 2: Une voix d’outre-tombe

by Jochen Markhorst


II          Une voix d’outre-tombe

Not a word of goodbye, not even a note
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

It is not some local rag, the venerable Nouvel Observateur (or L’Obs, as it has been called since 2014), and a reputation the French weekly does have to uphold. So the Dylan article that is published in Edition no. 2710, 13-19 October 2016, on the occasion of the Nobel Prize, “25 chansons de Bob Dylan qui méritaient bien un Nobel”, is definitely worth reading. It is an intelligent, respectful and loving tribute in the form of 25 short pieces about 25 Dylan songs, “particulièrement beaux, ou écrits, ou importants, ou touchants,” also trying to do justice to his versatility and “the improbable longevity of his talent”.

Of course, the magazine, which has recruited Dylan fans from its own editorial offices for this tribute, cannot ignore all of the usual suspects. So the spotlight is once again shone on everyone’s friends like “Masters Of War”, “Hard Rain”, “I Want You” and “Don’t Think Twice”. Albeit with French pathos and poetry, obviously. “Ce n’est pas une chanson, c’est une énigme, un cauchemar sous hypnose dont «vous» êtes l’anti-héros – this is not a song, it’s an enigma, a nightmare under hypnosis in which ‘you’ are the anti-hero,” on Thin Man, for example. Maggie’s Farm “recounts the pain of a farm worker at the mercy of grotesque masters,” and Dylan’s voice on “Love Sick” inspires the biggest fan on the editorial staff (David Caviglioli writes 11 of the 25 beatitudes) to “Il revient comme un cadavre qui sort de terre – he returns like a corpse leaving the ground.”

However: about half of the 25 songs selected fall far beyond expectations. “Moonshiner”, “Alberta #1”, “Wigwam”, “Scarlet Town”… there won’t be many magazine editors on the planet where, for all their beauty and all the respect they deserve, these songs will achieve a top listing. And according to L’Obs, which claims to have chosen from 492 Dylan songs, “Man In The Long Black Coat” is also among the elite.

Defensible, especially if you want to do justice to the longévité de son talent: it is, after all, one of the best Dylan songs of the 1980s, “un chef d’œuvre absolu – an absolute masterpiece,” as the commentator on duty, Sylvain Courage, writes. But ironically, Courage hangs his eulogy on a quite special verse from the bridge, with which he also opens his article: “Les gens ne vivent pas plus qu’ils ne meurent, ils ne font que passer – People don’t live or die, people just float”… the very verse that Dylan deleted in 2004, and never sang again afterwards. Officially deleted even, in Lyrics and on his own site, where the line has been changed to “I went down to the river but I just missed the boat”.

Sylvain Courage, and presumably every Dylan fan with him, is quite fond of the philosophical brilliance of that deleted line, which may even flare a degree more in French. And, as with all of Dylan’s lyric interventions, it is anyone’s guess as to why it was deleted. But the importance Dylan attaches to it is obvious; we know of hundreds of lyric reworkings by the master, but only a very small minority of them are officially endorsed in Lyrics and on the site; apparently, somewhere between the recording (29 March 1989, during the last Oh Mercy session) and the compilation of Lyrics 1962-2001 in 2004, he developed an insurmountable and definitive objection to People don’t live or die, people just float.

Perhaps the loss of ambiguity bothers. “The man in the long black coat” is ambiguous enough on its own, but that one line about the futility of mortality does push the associations very compellingly towards: Death. We have seen corrections like this one before with Dylan. Most notably with “Going, Going, Gone”, in the 1970s. The consensus among reviewers and fans at the time was: bleak, dreary, a narrator about to end his life. A view that is indeed obvious. The images from all four verses of “Going, Going, Gone” are sooner associated with an end of life rather than an end of love: “the willow does not bend”, “the book is closed”, “I hang on a thread” and “I am standing on a ledge” … and then there’s also the chorus with that ambiguous gone, which, after all, can also mean “passed away, died”.

Apparently, that was not the intention. As early as the first live performances (Rolling Thunder Revue II, from 18 April 1976), Dylan has been scraping away considerably. A you is introduced, that scary ledge is scrapped and the completely rewritten last verse makes the whole song lean a lot more strongly towards heartbreak:

I'm in love with you baby
but you got to understand
that you got to be free
so let go of my hand

And for the Far East Tour performances, February and March 1978, Dylan then definitively removes any doubts about the source of the man’s misery – it really is love suffering, not life suffering. The opening couplet sets the record straight right away:

Well, I've just reached a place
where I can't stay awake
I got to leave you baby
before my heart will break
I'm going, I'm going, I'm gone

Poetically not exactly an improvement, quite the contrary, but for some reason it seems to be of importance to Dylan that the song should not be seen as a swan song, that “Going, Going, Gone” is not a Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

A similar scenario intrudes on this puzzling intervention in “Man In The Long Black Coat”. “I went down to the river but I just missed the boat” is a fine song line, undeniably less unambiguous than the slightly Buddhist “People don’t live or die, people just float” – and at the very least it again dilutes the identity of the man in long black coat. Besides, I went down to the river is more familiar, more dylanesque, whatever that may be. We know the line from enough songs in Dylan’s record collection (“Trouble In Mind”, “Proud Mary”, “Banks Of The Ohio”, “Catfish Blues”, “Handsome Molly”, just to name a few that are somewhere up front), from Dylan’s own “Don’t Ya Tell Henry”, and a nod to Hank Williams is always welcome in a Dylan song;

 I went down to the river to watch the fish swim by
But I got to the river so lonesome I wanted to die, Oh Lord!
And then I jumped in the river, but the doggone river was dry
She's long gone, and now I'm lonesome blue

… although that would be nod to a suicidal song again (“Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, 1950). No, maybe we should indeed be looking at THE Man in Black, at “Big River” or something. After all, in Chronicles, Dylan claims that, in some kind of weird way, he considers “Man in the Long Black Coat” to be his own “I Walk the Line”, followed by a granite declaration of love to Johnny Cash. The artists on Sun Records “sounded like they were coming from the most mysterious place on the planet” anyway, but Johnny Cash stands out;

“Ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.”

… tone, choice of words and breathless admiration with which Sylvain Courage expresses his love for “Man In The Long Black Coat” in L’Obs:

Toute la poésie prophétique du Zim est contenue dans cette ballade ternaire: la puissance de la légende, l’omniprésence du mal, l’errance éternelle.

All the prophetic poetry of Zim is contained in this ternary ballad: the power of legend, the omnipresence of evil, eternal wandering.

Sung, says Sylvain, d’une voix d’outre-tombe, in a voice from beyond the grave.


To be continued. Next up Man In The Long Black Coat part 3



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:


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  1. In The Lyrics Since 1962, Simon & Schuster, published 2014. The « people just float » lyric is the primary lyric with a footnote referencing the alternate « down to the river » lyric.

  2. Merci Marsh. I did not know that.
    Interesting fact. Both in my Lyrics 1962-2001 (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and in my The Lyrics 1961-2012 (hard cover edition Simon & Schuster, 2016) the line is “simply” replaced, i.e. no footnote or other explanation. Odd that yet another edition, published in intervening time, reverts to the original text line and does incorporate the text change.
    The mystery deepens.

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