Song: “Man in the Long Black Coat”
Album: Oh Mercy
Release Date: September, 1989
As they passed their fourth and fifth decades of public attention, a number of my favorite musicians, including Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Neil Young, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson looked back on their respective careers with autobiographies. Each and every one of their books would prove to be excellent reads, and all well-reflected the given author’s personality. Each also reveals the great memories of these second-career authors. Put them all together and you have a pretty darn good cross-section synopsis of the Rock and Roll music world in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Five or so years ago - in the span of what would equate to a college semester - I would read most of these books, including Dylan’s (Chronicles: Volume One), Townshend’s (Who I Am), Young’s (Waging Heavy Peace) and Richards’ (Life). Going in, I was curious about a lot of things, and for the most part that curiosity was satiated. One of my big-ticket items of curiosity was studio-album oriented. I wanted to get a better sense of how some of the greatest rock and roll albums of our time came to be. How did the stars align in such a way that elevated the final product above the fray? How did the individual songs come together? Who raised their game? Where was everyone’s head space at during the production? How did the interpersonal dynamics effect things? How did that period of either rising or declining popularity of the musicians who contributed factor in? How did the lyrics come together? How did the music come together? What made that moment in time unique?
In one single chapter of his book, Bob Dylan did the best job out of all these musician-authors of addressing those fascinating questions. One big reason Dylan nailed it was in the way he approached Chronicles. The book was unlike any autobiography I had ever read. Rather than a chronology of his life, he plucked out specific periods for self-scrutiny (in turn, leaving plenty of in-between space for future ‘Volumes’). And there were only five chapters in all, which was brilliant, because it gave Dylan breathing space to dive into details. Not the type of detail that can get watered down if an entire book is dedicated to one topic. But just enough to make things tantalizingly interesting.
The singular chapter I’m referring to is titled “Oh Mercy”, which is about the making of the masterful Bob Dylan album of the same name. All the questions I pose above were answered in this chapter. Dylan has a reputation as being a bit opaque and mysterious. This is not what you get here. There is clairvoyance, and open honesty about the struggle of pulling Oh Mercy together. The reader is brought behind the scenes in a number of ways, and so can get a taste of what it takes to create something from scratch; something that in the end can be truly lasting. One take-home message is that all good things require effort. When that effort is particularly significant, once you’ve been through it a handful of times - whether successful or not - human instinct can have us shy away from doing so again. You have to grab yourself by the bootstraps and persevere somehow. Often it takes considerable introspection. Sometimes it takes compromise. These are some of the key points that Bob Dylan articulates both directly and indirectly in this chapter.
Oh Mercy (the album) was the first Bob Dylan album that hit me hard upon its release. In the years prior, I was primed for a strong Dylan album out of the gate: My rock and roll ‘education’ had finally reached this stage of awareness. But throughout much of the 80s, there would be nothing that even hinted at a great album from this extremely talented artist. This did not only apply to Dylan, it was the case with virtually all of the iconic 60s musicians. What was it about the mid-80s that sapped them of their mojo? The Rolling Stones Dirty Work, released in 1986, was disjointed at best. Bob Dylan’s mid-80s efforts, Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded, were not much better. The Who released the disappointing It’s Hard and then called it quits. Neil Young seemed to be going completely off the rails (Trans, Re-Ac-Tor, and a handful of other unmemorable efforts). You would think this burn out/fade-away would have happened in the 70s. But no, the 70s were actually pretty productive for most of these 60s icons. The creative dormancy did not go into effect until the big hair MTV 80s. Perhaps there’s only so much sustained shelf life for a rock and roll musician or any musician/artist for that matter. Someone should write a master’s thesis on it.
But then, quite incredibly, as the 80s curtain began to mercifully close, there was a momentum shift. Creativity was on the rebound for a number of long timers, who were now entering their 4th decade of being in the public eye. Within a handful of years we would get The Travelling Wilburys self-titled Volume 1 (sounds familiar), Lou Reed’s New York, Leonard Cohen’s The Future, and three amazing albums by Neil Young (Freedom, Ragged Glory, and Harvest Moon). And of course there was Oh Mercy.
What was it about Oh Mercy that elevated it above its immediate predecessors? For one thing, Bob Dylan appears to have admitted to himself for the first time in his career that if he was going to accomplish something significant this time around he was going to need help. Much of that help would come in the form of Canadian record producer/musician Daniel Lanois who would assert his own creativity in the studio like no other individual Bob Dylan has worked with before or since (including when Lanois produced the masterpiece Time Out of Mind in 1997, which is the only other collaboration he has had with Dylan. In that case his contributions appear to have been more subtle).
Back in 2011, as I contemplated an every-other-year focus on my favorite musicians and the memories their music inspires within me, I made the conscious decision to toggle that focus between bands and solo musicians. And so, first out of the gate was 50 blog entries on the Rolling Stones (“Stepping Stones” in 2012). Next came the Neil Young “Forever Young” series in 2014, followed by the Who-inspired “Under the Big Top” series in 2016. Now it’s Bob Dylan’s “Master Blueprints” (I’m not sure what I’ll be calling my Beatles series, slated for 2020). Anyhow, the reason I did it this way is that I see a distinct difference between musicians who succeed mostly on their own and those who succeed as a collective unit. I concluded right off that I would need to bounce back and forth to keep my own juices stirring.
I’ve known all along that I’m a bit more fascinated with collective creativity than what comes from one individual alone (with rare exceptions, including Messrs. Dylan and Young). There are more variables with collective creativity. More dynamics. More fluidity. This is why Oh Mercy, as a Bob Dylan album, is so intriguing to me. Dylan was allowing others (particularly Daniel Lanois) into his creative space. As he explains in his autobiography though, that paradigm shift came with angst and setbacks and futility and energy-draining days where little was agreed on or accomplished. I think Bob Dylan knew what he was in for. He sucked it up and made it work. So did Lanois.
What did Daniel Lanois bring to the table? Well I’ll say this… Oh Mercy sounds like no other Bob Dylan album (same for Time Out of Mind). Dylanophiles could argue that none of his albums sound like any other, but this is particularly the case for Oh Mercy. It’s extremely ethereal, which is in direct contrast to how one would describe the meaning of each and every one of the 10 songs on the album, which are all extremely heavy. This was likely the struggle that had to play out in the studio: Bringing together these two polar environments. The end result: It works.
Of all the ethereal and the heavy that the listener is bombarded with in the songs on Oh Mercy, the most ethereal/heavy of them all has to be this week’s Master Blueprint, “Man in the Long Black Coat” ( https://vimeo.com/80491883 ). And of all the songs that Bob Dylan describes how they came to be in Chronicles, this one stands out in extra potent detail. He tells of how the drawn out sessions in New Orleans were nearing an end but there was still room for several more songs on the album. Dylan felt he had to get away from it all for a bit, and so he and his wife took a 2-day motorcycle ride southwest over the Mississippi River and into Louisiana Bayou country. On the second day, as Bob Dylan describes it “a gaunt shack called King Tut’s Museum caught my eye” (it ended up being a general store of sorts). Dylan went inside while his wife sat out on the deck and he proceeded to have an extraordinary exchange with the proprietor, an ‘old timer’ named Sun Pie (who did most of the talking). You would have to read Chronicles to understand how it plays out, but in essence, the entire 2-day road-trip experience, culminating in this exchange, is how “Man in the Long Black Coat” germinates. Afterwards, Bob Dylan got back to the studio, and in no time, he, Lanois, and several New Orleans cats would be putting the icing on the Oh Mercy cake.
I’d like to close this entry with several acknowledgements…..
Other than the 2 Linda’s I met in Hibbing last month (see Master Blueprint # 10), the biggest fellow Bob Dylan enthusiast I personally know is Mike Major; a Canadian colleague who lives in Sherbrooke, Quebec. We’ve collaborated and met quite often over the past 3 years. Whenever we exchange emails we include a Bob Dylan quote in closing. We also have been known to sing a bar or two when the mood is right, say after a long day of meetings. The song we refer to the most is “Man In the Long Black Quote”, especially the bridge. When we do this we take turns with the lines, which go:
And it’s true sometimes you can see it that way
People don’t live or die people just float
There was dust on the man in the long black coat”
Added side note for my concerned brother: These lyrics do not reflect mine or Mike's views (particularly that 3rd line).... but it is intriguing to contemplate that there are those out there - Sun Pie for instance - who feel that way. In Chronicles Bob Dylan called "Man in the Long Black Coat" his "Walk the Line", so I'm pretty darn sure he's not in that 'people-just-float' camp either. A credit to brother Joe as well for recognizing the similarity with a line in Forrest Gump: “I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. “.... which prompted my "Walk the Line" recall.
Acknowledgement # 2: Of all the great tidbits of Bob Dylan’s life’s journey that he describes in Chronicles it was that 2-day motorcycle journey which resonated most with me when I first read it. Since it had been a while, I felt that I needed to refresh my memory somewhat on the details of that short story before writing this entry. I picked the book up at a local library (originally, Chronicles was lent to me by good friend, Jeff Strause) and began reading from the very beginning of the 80 page “Oh Mercy” chapter. The re-read definitely helped.
After I read it though, I came to a rather unexpected realization: That there’s a fair likelihood I’ve been unconsciously attempting to emulate Bob Dylan’s autobiography style in these blog entries. In his book, a somewhat unique philosophy plays out in Dylan’s words and accounts where it appears as if he’s often compelled to follow through with inklings of thoughts that may at first seem somewhat inconsequential to those around him, but later pan out to be much more significant. In other words, he’s driven to make meaning out of what first may appear to be peripheral to the moment. He follows his muse and then encapsulates it all in a way that cuts to the core. Apparently it’s an approach that is having an effect on my end.
With that, it’s a wrap.