Man In The Long Black Coat (1989) Part 7: Somebody is out there feeding a fed horse

by Jochen Markhorst

VII        Somebody is out there feeding a fed horse

There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June
Tree trunks uprooted, ’neath the high crescent moon 
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse
She never said nothing, there was nothing she wrote
She went with the man
In the long black coat

In the eyes of most earthlings, the self-proclaimed animal welfare organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is once again making a fool of itself in 2018. The organisation, which has been known to attract attention with über-assertive campaigns that, instead of garnering sympathy for the cause, garner mostly antipathy against itself, has this time targeted the most powerful opponent of all: Language. Proverbs like “to kill two birds with one stone” and similar expressions in which cruelty to animals is used metaphorically, lower our threshold for actually being cruel to animals, is the consideration. And thus deserve to be eradicated.

It is an action with a high Don Quixote quality. After all, language is a supertanker; far too powerful to be forced to change course by a few splashes against the stern. But, it has to be said, PETA’s criticism is constructive – the organisation offers alternatives. Instead of killing the two birds, we could say “feed two birds with one scone”, instead of bullying the bull by taking him by horns, we could take the flower by the thorns. It all leads, predictably enough, to a tsunami of sarcastic responses, almost all of which think to distinguish themselves by replying with yet another animal-abusing proverb.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Twitter users have less comic talent than they seem to think, but a few do manage to elicit a smile, like US CBS talk show host Stephen Colbert, who thinks we have “bigger fish to fry” than this drivel.

Meanwhile, it must be feared that Dylan’s oeuvre would not pass PETA scrutiny unscathed. “I could eat a horse” (“Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”), “The Cat’s In The Well”, a dead pony (“Hard Rain”), a dog on a chain (“Only A Pawn In Their Game”), suck that pig (“Tiny Montgomery”), sharkskin suits (“Early Roman Kings”)… in fact, not a year goes by in Dylan’s career without him singing a combination of words that would stir the animal welfare organisation’s red pencils. But for now, he seems to be ignoring PETA’s suggestions. At least, the disrespectful, animal-unfriendly closing line of “The Man In The Long Black Coat”, Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse, has not yet been changed to the, admittedly rather dubious, feeding a fed horse, and still shines in all its cruel glory in official publications and on the site.

It’s a peculiar closing line. Or rather, a peculiar way to end a narrative. For a narrative it is, indeed; the poet may be insinuating and suggesting more than he is telling, but from the opening shot, the chirping crickets and the bent African trees, we are lured along through the how and why of the profound life changing event we know from the beginning (“she” has suddenly left the protagonist) in a fairly classic way, to the answer to the question: what happened after “she” went with the Man In The Long Black Coat without a word of farewell?

After all, after the where, the setting of the scene in the first stanza, we are introduced to the who, to the first-person’s male antagonist, in the second stanza. The third stanza with its philosophical aphorism about the unreliability of anyone’s conscience reveals the why; “she” has apparently fallen head over heels in love (“She gave her heart to the man to man in the long black coat”), and the bridge, after Dylan’s textual revision, offers insight into the narrator’s state of mind: evidently in an attempt still to stop her before she gets on the boat with the stranger, he has run to the river. He was just too late and now sadly stands on the bank.

Content-wise full of vagueness and dim suggestions, but still, the structure is pretty classic. We have an exposition, the rising action (or suspense, as a screenwriter would say), a climax, and the falling action… we have now, in short, had four of the five elements of a classic plot structure. We are only missing closure, a conclusion, a denouement if you will – at least some kind of epilogue to satisfy the listener’s curiosity about the ending and round off the story. Surely, there are questions left open.

The narrator Dylan knows that too, and he obeys it often enough; epic ballads like “Hurricane”, “Tin Angel”, “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” and “Hollis Brown”, narrative intermezzos like the “Sun Pie Interlude” in Chronicles, to a certain extent, and a script like Masked And Anonymous all neatly meet the five requirements for a solid plot. And likewise, in this final stanza of “The Man In The Long Black Coat”, the narrator seems intent on fulfilling them.

The opening, There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June / Tree trunks uprooted, ‘neath the high crescent moon mirrors the exposition in the song’s opening lines, and “it’s been there since June” suggests a “months later” epilogue. The temporary lyric revision in which the crescent moon is replaced by a bloody moon foreshadows a fatal denouement, but is on reflection changed back – apparently, Dylan thinks the line “there’s blood on the moon” is either too unambiguous or redundant. Presumably redundant; the third line, Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force, is just as ominous, just as predictive of a horrific outcome – well, even a touch more ominous, actually.

That expected horror ending is then a bit of an anti-climax. Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse is far too established a proverb to evoke macabre images or communicate horror. With some flexibility, the listener can understand this last stanza as a concluding epilogue, where the narrative perspective has switched back from the first-person to the omniscient narrator – who then recounts that months later, the abandoned husband is still spending his days on the waterfront, waiting for the return of the mother of his children. But his love is in vain, a smoke made with the fume of sighs, as the Bard says, the water a sea nourished with lovers’ tears (Romeo and Juliet, act 1, sc. 1). Smoke on the water, as it were. And in that scenario, that last line, beating on a dead horse, expresses little more than what it always expresses: that poor sod is wasting time and effort with no chance of success.

Right. Well, still more intriguing than someone feeding a fed horse, in any case.


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:



  1. Reminds me of a friend of mine who was severely criticized for using the word
    “niggardy” in a newspaper column.

    In the song above there’s perhaps the suggestion by association that she left with a preacher of the Blakean kind who wears a long black cloak, and rides a dead horse.

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