The first thing heard on Bob Dylan’s song “Man in the Long Black Coat” is the sound of crickets chirping.
The song is the last track on the first side of Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy. The album was produced by Daniel Lanois, which marked the first time Dylan and Lanois worked together after being introduced by Bono. The pair would reunite for 1997’s Time Out of Mind, which has been documented on Recliner Notes many times. For Oh Mercy, Dylan came to the recording studio that Lanois had established in a house in a residential neighborhood in New Orleans. Lanois said later about the song:
“We spent a lot of time getting the ambience right, recording the neighborhood crickets – the genuine sound of the New Orleans night. It’s a song that was directly inspired by the environment and mood of the city.”
Lanois may be remembering recording the crickets wrong because engineer Mark Howard’s memory of the source of the cricket sound is slightly different as he told Uncut’s Damien Love in 2008:
“I really remember recording ‘Man In The Long Black Coat.’ Malcolm was playing a Yamaha DX7 that Brian Eno had mastered – he had all these sounds built in. Brian had come in on the Neville Brothers record and given us a bunch of sounds for the DX7, and one of the sounds was this crickets sound. Actually, on the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon record, I’d found this six-storey apartment building on St. Charles Avenue where we lived and recorded, and they have these bugs in New Orleans, cicadas, that make this high-pitched sound. When Brian came in with his cricket sounds, he would play this melody, and then these cicada bugs would repeat it back. It became really creepy. He would do it again, and they’d do it again, and he’d make the melody a little harder, and they would follow it, and so we were like, ‘Brian Eno is communicating with the insects, oh my God.’”
Maybe it’s a tall tale, but is there any human more likely to jam with cicadas than Brian Eno? Speaking of making music with insects:
This sound piece by Michael Reiley is a remix of a recording of cricket sounds recorded in Scopello, Sicily. This is an example of a piece from a project called Cities and Memories which is both a repository of field recordings from around the world, and also an opportunity for sound artists to use those raw sounds to create new works. Hearing the different snippets of both examples of the sounds in their podcast feed is a magnificent cataloging of the world. It’s an audio version of Italo Calvino’s beautiful and abiding Invisible Cities, a novel in which Marco Polo describes to the emperor Kublai Khan the many cities that can be found in the great Khan’s empire. The inspiration of Invisible Cities for the Cities and Memories project is confirmed with the following quotation by Calvino’s novel on the project’s website:
“As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of [the city] as it is today should contain all [the city’s] past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
Back to “Man in the Long Black Coat”: the first non-cricket music heard in the song are guitars playing blues licks. A bass joins in with its own mysterious rumblings. A seemingly far away harmonica played by Dylan echoes the guitar runs and heralds the start of the song proper as the guitars and bass establish the song’s chord structure. The harmonica plays again before Dylan starts singing. The first line is apt: “Crickets are chirpin’,” and he goes on to establish the song’s setting:
The water is high
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry
Window wide open, African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze.
From the references to “hurricane breeze” and “the water is high” we can guess that the song takes place in the American South, despite the title “Man in the Long Black Coat” that might suggest a man wearing a duster in the West. About halfway through a violin joins the instrumentation to help provide an old-timey feel to the song. The crickets are heard through to the very end of the song, even after the music stops.
Dylan has an oft-putting delivery for his vocals in “Man in the Long Black Coat.” There is a deliberate method in how he sings the song, almost at a staccato rhythm, following the chord changes carefully. In his interview with Damien Love for Uncut in 2008, multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Malcolm Burn said:
“I remember when we were doing ‘Man In The Long Black Coat,’ when he first started doing it, he was singing it maybe an octave higher. And it didn’t sound very good. It sounded pretty awful, in fact. And it might have been Bob or it might have been [Daniel Lanois], but someone recognized it wasn’t really working, and suggested singing it an octave lower… suddenly the phrasing came and I was like, ‘Fuck, this is really good.’ It was a different song.”
With the change to the lower octave in his singing, Dylan may have chosen that purposeful delivery to keep the listener unbalanced. This consideration for the vocals adds to the spooky nature of the song. In his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan chose to write extensively about the time period around Oh Mercy. Here, he writes about the construction of the recording for “Main in the Long Black Coat”:
“The chord progression, the dominant chords and key changes give [the song] the hypnotic effect right away — signal what the lyrics are about to do. The dread intro gives you the impression of a chronic rush. The production sounds deserted, like the intervals of the city have disappeared. It’s cut out from the abyss of blackness — visions of a maddended brain, a feeling of unreality — the heavy price of gold upon someone’s head. Nothing standing, even corruption is corrupt. Something menacing and terrible. The song came nearer and nearer — crowding itself into the smallest possible place. We didn’t even rehearse the song, we began working it out with visual cues. Before the lyrics even came in, you know that the fight was on.”
This quotation serves as a reminder that no one can write about Dylan’s songs like Dylan, but it also hints that the chords of the song dictated the writing of the lyrics, which may have then guided Dylan’s vocal delivery. He wanted everything to fit and to create a “hypnotic effect.” He goes on to write:
“‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ was the real facts. In some kind of weird way, I thought of it as my ‘I Walk the Line,” a song I’d always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master.”
As Dylan says, “I Walk the Line” is an odd comparison for “Man in the Long Black Coat”:
The songs do not sound alike; the Cash song is in a major key rather than minor and the instrumentation for both songs are worlds apart. Dylan seems to hint that the similarity lies in the “mysterious and revolutionary” nature of the lyrics. Instead, could it be that, for Dylan, Johnny Cash himself is the title character in “Man in the Long Black Coat”? After all, Cash is famously nicknamed the “The Man in Black,” wearing all-black wardrobe for public appearances and even recording a song called “Man in Black.” Cash knew the Bible well and cited it often in conversation; Dylan sings in the song: “Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote.” Consider the photograph of Cash on the cover of his album American Recordings. He certainly looks the part of the character that Dylan creates in his song, the type of man who could swoop into town with a “face like a mask” and steal one’s wife with his only word spoken being the word of God.
A Recliner Notes reader commented in response to the post on Acid Westerns that “Man in the Long Black Coat” should be added to the list. Because of the setting of the song as described in the lyrics and the attempts to capture the sound and feel of New Orleans in the recording, the song fits solidly in the Southern Gothic tradition of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and early Cormac McCarthy. But the song also belongs in a related, but different category. Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained was a remake of and a tribute to the 1966 Spaghetti Western film Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci. Tarantino said that the script for his movie was developed at the same time as he was attempting to write a book about Corbucci. Tarantino later commented on the inspiration for his own film:
“I was writing about how [Corbucci’s] movies have this evil Wild West, a horrible Wild West. It was surreal, it dealt a lot with fascism. So I’m writing this whole piece on this, and I’m thinking: ‘I don’t really know if Sergio was thinking while he was doing this. But I know I’m thinking it now. And I can do it!’”
Tarantino said that he wanted to create a “Southern” rather than a Western. This Southern would be inspired by the Spaghetti Westerns, but instead set in the pre-Civil War Deep South. Tarantino commented that his Southern would:
“deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like Spaghetti Westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.”
Tarantino has his own style and sensibility and Django Unchained as an ultra-violent revenge fantasy certainly fits his oeuvre. “Man in the Long Black Coat” is not a Southern in the way that Tarantino defines it in the quotation above. Dylan is not reckoning with America’s original sin of slavery in his song. But the feel of “Man in the Long Black Coat” brings the sense of a Spaghetti Western in its story and setting that is straight out of the South. So as Acid Westerns have a fatalistic nature at their core, so too would an Acid Southern. Somewhat tongue in cheek and playing off of Tarantino’s invention of a Southern, let’s borrow that idea and create a new musical sub-sub-genre called Acid Southerns with “Man in the Long Black Coat” as the inspiration. See the Spotify playlist below for more examples.
Image: Maurice Garland Fulton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons