By Tony Attwood, based on the series The Never Ending Tour by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet).
We have presented 15 different versions of “Man with a long black coat” in the Never Ending Tour series of articles ranging from 1988 to 2009, and they are incredibly varied, and with this song I get the feeling that for many years Bob Dylan was never quite been able to decide how best to do it.
Indeed, I have to admit that some of the versions are, to my ear, failures. Arrangements that could be tried, but which should have been abandoned straight off. Consider this 1988 version – listening to it today, I really can’t understand how it got past the censors – except of course Bob has no censors, or indeed musical advisers because, well, because he is Bob Dylan. I mean, who would dare tell him that an arrangement wasn’t working?
But now let us jump forward to 1992, and what we have is something completely different. It is much more recognisable as the song that we know – and what Bob has done here is played just a little with the rhythm, running two lines together each time.
It is effective and the only drawback is that once we have got the hang of the re-arrangement it is simply the song and the atmosphere around it. Each verse is pretty much the same. The harmonica playing is used to add to the atmosphere rather than construct anything new and as such the song doesn’t go anywhere, rather like the image of the man in the cloak it fades into the distance.
So now let us jump on again this time by ten more years to 2002.
At once we hear that the speed is the same but there is an extra chunkiness in the delivery, and now the first four lines of the verse are run together and this seems to work much better. We know the song, we know the lyrics so let’s get into it and drive it forward seems to be the message. In fact this is the start of a journey toward the salvation of this song – although of course at the time we didn’t know it.
Having made this change Bob needs some more variations and he puts this into parts of his delivery, and a very different instrumental verse. But Bob’s singing has now got a sense of desperation within it, and I don’t feel this works at all.
Next time we come to the song we are in 2004. And although it is only two years on we suddenly do have something quite different. It is calmer, quieter, and the melody has gone. The accompaniment tells us which song we are in, and we have a brief interlude between each verse.
With this many musical changes made, the meaning changes; there seems to be more desperation here, but somehow the middle 8.
But what is lost somehow is a bit of the spookiness of the lyrics. Remember this is the song that has the lines
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling forceSomebody is out there beating on a dead horse
And yet despite the look and feel of the spooky that has always been there, that is where this version really works – this is the moment that I really begin to feel that final verse in the music. In case you don’t have the words in your head here they are…
There's smoke on the water it's been there since JuneTree trunks uprooted beneath 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 gone with the man in the long black coat
That is an incredible set of lines in my view, and there has been a drive by Dylan to get to those lines such that the music reflects the lyrics.
And having heard that I wasn’t too sure that anything more could be done with this song. But of course that was stupid of me; this is after all, Bob Dylan. And in 2009 he turned everything upside down once more to give us something completely different in terms of a bouncy accompaniment.
And if you have never heard this you may be saying “What??????” A bouncy accompaniment for this song about Death?
The temptation of course is to say that there is no artistic integrity here. Bob was simply thinking “what else can we do with this song?” and someone said, “how about a bouncy rhythm?” and Bob says, “Well I guess…”
And yes, through these various re-writes now we have something that seemingly makes no sense when simply described, and which when I first heard it, I just couldn’t take it in. Indeed it is only through going back to these earlier editions of the on-stage “Black Horse” can I understand it at all.
Now the story has changed. She’s gone with the man in the long black coat – but this is not a tragedy, not the end, not a disaster; no she’s gone, and I’m here, but you know, life goes on, I go on, it’s ok.
It is now an utterly different story, and for me, even if no one else, it now works totally.
And here’s the reason why with this song I’ve changed the format of the article, presenting not just the very best version, as I perceive it, but rather something that I feel is a little more interesting – the journey of a unique song from its oriigns to an enormously successful re-write.
For, when I first heard this version I couldn’t quite see why or what Bob had in mind. But now, working through the history of the song on stage it suddenly makes sense. I think Bob knew that he had written a song of ghostliness and loss, but that somehow that plodding rhythm didn’t quite express everything that the song could offer.
I think (and of course it is just me) Bob realised over time this is not the song he thought it was. Now we have something different, and to my mind, a song much better suited to a live show.
So maybe the conclusion is we do need two versions of this song. The original recorded version – the song of loss, and this live version in which he says, She’s gone – but life goes on.
She never said nothing there was nothing she wroteShe gone with the man in the long black coat
I created the title “The Absolute Highlights” without knowing where this series of articles would take me. Maybe the series ought to be called “The Journies”. But either way – somehow I got here.
- 1: John Brown 1987
- 2: Desolation Row. 1990.
- 3: She Belongs to Me
- 4: Tangled up in Blue
- 5: I and I – power without meaning
- 6: It ain’t me babe – go lightly.
- 7: Perfection in desolation – Gates of Eden
- 8: Girl from the North Country.
- 9: When He Returns
- 10: It’s alright Ma
- 11: Satisfied Mind
- 12: Visions of Johanna
- 13: Dark Eyes