Man In The Long Black Coat (1989) Part 5: Happy little accidents

Man In The Long Black Coat (1989) Part 5

by Jochen Markhorst


V          Happy little accidents

There are no mistakes in life some people say
And it’s true sometimes you can see it that way
People don’t live or die, people just float
She went with the man
In the long black coat

 American landscape painter Bob Ross dies in 1993, at the age of 52, far too young. His television series The Joy Of Painting, broadcast all over the world at the time, was then as popular as ever. And is popular still: reruns on communication channels like Twitch and YouTube resuscitate Ross’ popularity and posthumously bring him new generations of fans. A regular episode like “Island In The Woods”, for example, is viewed 41 million times in five years. Meanwhile, Ross’ iconic presence, his manner of speaking and his unique personality have long since been incorporated by popular culture; documentaries, merchandising, board games, video games and bumper stickers provide, decades after his death, a constant revenue stream for the Bob Ross Inc., which carefully guards his legacy.

The artistic value of his landscapes can be debated, but that’s not the secret of the success anyway; that’s the man himself, his gentle, good-natured, hypnotic instructional videos, consistently embellished with casual, off-the-cuff aphorisms with a high feel-good content. Like “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, because that’s where the fruit is.” And the most popular bumper sticker is probably the one with the most beloved Bob Ross quote: “We don’t make mistakes – we just have happy accidents.”

It is a charming thought that in the late 1980s, when Bob Ross is at a first peak of fame, the ambitious amateur painter Bob Dylan is enchanted by the painting positivity guru with the afro hairdo. Perhaps Dylan became aware of the phenomenon in 1987, when his hero Hank Snow invited the painter to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry (after which Snow got a private painting lesson from Ross), but Ross could not be avoided anyway: on television in those years, he was hardly to be missed. In the United States alone, his instructional videos were broadcast on 95 per cent of all public television stations. Also in the motel room in Napoleonville in late March ’89, where the inspiration for “Man In The Long Black Coat” trickles down on Dylan. “We don’t make mistakes,” hears Dylan on Louisiana Public Television, lying on his bed, as Ross spills a few paint splatters, “let’s make them birds. Yeah, they’re birds now.”

Balm on the restless soul of the inspiration-seeking Dylan. “There are no mistakes in life some people say – and it’s true sometimes you can see it that way,” he might think. Hippie-like philosophies with the depth of the Bayou Lafourche, but inspiring nonetheless. At least: the step to the next, equally rosy key phrase, the Buddhist-anchored People don’t live or die, people just float is not that big anymore. Apparently, Ross’ soothing voice and placid aphorisms lead Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness, on this evening in the interior of Louisiana, while the crickets chirp outside, to Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, the gentle master narrative from 1922 by a Nobel laureate that sooner or later touches us all;

“Yet none died, each was merely transformed, kept being reborn, kept receiving a new face, with no time between one face and the other-and all these shapes and faces rested, flowed, produced themselves and one another, floated away and poured into one another.”

… the vision that old Govinda receives when old Siddharta invites him to kiss his forehead, the vision in which Govinda recognises that no one lives or dies, but that each soul just floats from the one into the other. From the key chapter Govinda, the chapter in which old Siddharta articulates his enlightenment with one insight after another that we also encounter in Dylan’s oeuvre – especially those relating to Truth (“The opposite of every truth is just as true”), and wholeheartedly those relating to Time;

“But time is not real, Govinda; I have experienced this time and time again. And if time is not real, then the span that seems to lie between world and eternity, between sorrow and bliss, between evil and good is also an illusion.”

… the same philosophy as in Dylan’s oeuvre from the earliest years to his latest works – in which we sometimes hear echoes of Siddharta almost one-on-one. In “I Contain Multitudes”, for instance, the opening song that sets the tone right from the opening line (“Today and tomorrow and yesterday too”), and in which we hear two-and-a-half minutes later, “Everything’s flowing all at the same time.” A near-literal crystallisation of the insight bestowed on Siddharta, the river’s secret, that there is no such thing as time;

“… that the river is everywhere at once, at its source and at its mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and only the present exists for it, and not the shadow of the future.”

In any case, a scenario in which Dylan’s meandering spirit flows via Bob Ross to Hermann Hesse’s Siddharta and his reflections on life, death, time and truth also goes quite nicely with Dylan’s lyric intervention. After all, he changes, officially in Lyrics even, this beautifully poetic People don’t live or die, people just float into the less floaty but equally powerful I went down to the river but I just missed the boat. Just like Siddharta. Who returns to the river twenty years later, but does not take the boat, just misses it, to stay with the ferryman Vasudeva – for the rest of his life. He becomes the river man himself, reaches his enlightenment thanks to the river, and here is where he says goodbye to his worldly lover Kamala, who is bitten by a black snake and dies in his arms – she leaves Siddharta to go with The Man In The Long Black Coat, so to speak.

Well, it is a possibility. And if not, this bridge from “The Man In The Long Black Coat” at least illustrates: great Nobel Prize winners think alike. And if then not to a great Dylan song, Siddharta can always take a pride in the merit that it led to one of the most perfect songs of the 20th century, to Nick Drake’s “River Man”;

Going to see the river man
Going to tell him all I can
About the ban
On feeling free

To be continued. Next up Man In The Long Black Coat part 6: Some stupid with a flare gun


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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