Man In The Long Black Coat (1989) Part 3

by Jochen Markhorst


III         The Man Comes Around

Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town
He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask
If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask
Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man
In the long black coat

 “A lot of people say his songs are full of images that don’t mean anything. It’s like abstract painting. Some people don’t have the imagination to appreciate something a bit vague,” says Ramblin’ Jack Elliott about his mate Dylan back in the 1960s (Melody Maker, 29 May 1965).

A decade later, another expert says pretty much the same: “You who are so good with words and at keeping things vague,” sings Baez in her heartbreakingly melancholic reflection song about her relationship with Dylan, “Diamonds And Rust” (1975).

It is an aptly formulated stylistic feature of Dylan’s poetry, and in 1989, twenty-four years after Elliott’s analysis and fourteen years after Baez’s reflection, it has lost none of its sharpness. The poet has just opened “Man In The Long Black Coat” cinematically, with the cricket soundtrack and a classic wide-shot, promising a “normal” narrative. In a traditional narrative, the exposition, the development of the catastrophe and finally the catastrophe now follow. But Dylan skips the exposition, as well as the development of the catastrophe, and immediately gives away an ending: “Not a word of goodbye, not even a note / She gone with the man in the long black coat.”

Not necessarily unusual, as we know plenty of stories that start with the end. Every Columbo episode, like most detectives for that matter, starts with the murder – and we only then learn about the circumstances, the story beforehand and the main characters. Something like that now promises Dylan’s abrupt spoiler, the disappearance of “she”: we will surely now be presented with a flashback, the advance story that will reveal who “she” is, and who or what the man in the long black coat is.

That, of course, is not going to happen. Dylan does suggest, right from the opening line of the second verse, an illuminating flashback – but he is and remains good at keeping things vague: “Somebody seen him hanging around at the old dance hall on the outskirts of town.” Very good, even. “Somebody” is another “ordinary” vagueness, which Dylan has preferred to use throughout his career (there are 89 somebodies and 86 someones in the official Lyrics alone), but the old dance hall on the outskirts of town is a particularly subtle, layered vagueness. The use of “the” rather than “an” insinuates that we are, in fact, introduced, that we know which dance hall in which town, but of course we don’t, and the lyrics do not reveal any of that at all. “Dance hall” is a term we haven’t used since the early 1960s, so we situate the story in, say, the 1950s, but no, it’s the old dance hall – suggesting that the dance hall is now out of use, supplanted by nightclubs, dancings and discotheques. So that one word “old” alone blurs the picture again; this story could be set in the 1920s, or in the 1960s, or yesterday.

Something similar applies to “the outskirts of town”. Again, not necessarily unusual in songwriting, but surely the first association is the old blues classic “I’m Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town”, recorded by everyone and everything, and Dylan can undoubtedly play in his inner jukebox the versions by Josh White, Ray Charles, Louis Jordan, The Allman Brothers and B.B. King. And at the very front, of course, is Jimmy Reed,


… which gently pushes the décor back towards the 1950s. And Dylan’s second association only confirms this likely time frame;

Well on the outskirts of town, there's a little night spot
Dan dropped in about five o'clock
Pulled off his coat, said "The night is short."
He reached in his pocket and he flashed a quart

… not just the outskirts of town, but in a dance venue as well: “Dixie Fried” by Carl Perkins, one of those Sun Records giants, the men Dylan thinks of when he tells about the run-up to “Man In The Long Black Coat” in Chronicles, the men who

“… were singing for their lives and sounded like they were coming from the most mysterious place on the planet. No justice for them. They were so strong, can send you up a wall. If you were walking away and looked back at them, you could be turned into stone.”

And the third indication that we are indeed in the 1950s Dylan’s fourth line gives: “she” asks the stranger in the long black coat to dance, so the old dance hall, though old, is still in use.

Via the same diversions, we get a vague geographical notion; “outskirts of town” Dylan seems to associate with “Southern” anyway – at least that seems to be the setting in the two other songs in which he uses this very geolocation (“Something’s Burning” and “Floater”), and ís the backdrop in such landmarks as Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” (We lived in a one room, rundown shack on the outskirts of New Orleans), truckers’ smartlaps like Ferlin Huskey’s “Teddy Bear” (I was on the outskirts of a little southern town) and Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita”. And the mystery man has dust on his coat – so it’s probably hot and dry. Thin, but near-by enough to simultaneously keep things vague and still hint: we are somewhere in the South, presumably in the 1950s.

A same anonymous “somebody” then, agonisingly, hints that the stranger is quoting from the Bible. But, of course, does not reveal what he is quoting. Frustrating, but on the other hand… it opens the gate to see Blind Willie Johnson (and hear “In My Time Of Dyin’” or “John The Revelator”), or even more intriguingly: Leonard Cohen (“Story Of Isaac”, to name just one of the all-time great songs in which he quotes the Bible), or one of the dozens of songs with biblical references by the Man In Black himself, of course, Johnny Cash. “He Turned The Water Into Wine”, for instance, or “Belshazzar”. And all the vagueness even invites to argue that Dylan, like a Rembrandt, smuggles in a self-portrait. After all, like from Blind Willie, Cohen and Cash, we also know of some Dylan photographs showing him wearing a long black coat.

But in the end, the most attractive scenario is an inverse scenario; that “Man In The Long Black Coat” inspires Johnny Cash, just before his death, to “The Man Comes Around” – the Man In Black, in his long black coat, quoting from the Bible, with his face like a mask, hanging out at the dance hall. And he decides who to free…

Probably comin’ ’round in the outskirts too, this man.


To be continued. Next up Man In The Long Black Coat part 4: Those are the hills of hell-fire my love


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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