Foot of Pride: Bob Dylan’s rambling masterpiece which tears us limb from limb

By Tony Attwood

The original review of Foot of Pride was written in 2009, one of the early reviews on this site.   I’ve come back to in 2017 largely because in between we’ve created a list of all the main songs Dylan wrote and recorded in the 1980s, and I’ve been filling in the gaps in the reviews.

And in doing so it struck me what a curious mixture of songs wrote in 1983.  Here is the sequence of composing, as far as it can be put together, around the time of Foot of Pride

Neighbourhood Bully is a song about Israel – but not necessarily the Israel we know. It might be it might not.  The “Tell Me” is a lost love refrain.  Foot of Pride is based around a funeral as he reflects on the notion that “judgement is mine”, and the fact that an awful lot of people are going to burn come judgement day.

And then he’s off and away criticising the American government for its treatment of Julius and Ethel, who were electrocuted for giving away state secrets on the making of nuclear weapons.

It’s quite an interesting run of songs, and maybe this is why, no matter how you approach Foot of Pride, there’s something very odd about it.  According to the booklet notes that came with Bootleg 1-3 it is very rarely commented upon, and one can understand why.

This is not to say that it is not all absorbing – which is what Dylan clearly found given that he recorded it around 40 times and still couldn’t find a version that he liked.  His explanation (that the song would not stay in tempo and always speeded up slightly) is certainly born out by the version we have from the Bootleg 1-3 collection, but it is also reported that Dylan recorded the song in a multiplicity of styles, as if he couldn’t decide what to do with it.

For me, the version we have is just fine.  But if you want to hear an alternative the Lou Reed version is on Spotify.   I love Lou Reed’s music and found many of his interpretations extraordinary and invigorating, but no, not this one.  I’ll stick with Bob.

Musically the song is a variant 12 bar blues – but greatly extended.  In B major you get the B, B, E, B section that you’d expect, and then a chorus section with the repeated “Well there ain’t no going back” bit.

The 12 bar format was created for the simplest of popular music forms – the blues.  It is the chordal format for “Well I woke up this morning, blues falling down like hail” – that simple yet elegant statement of falling into the abyss – which is what Dylan is portraying here – from this point there ain’t no going back.

The 12 bar blues therefore was never intended for a set of lyrics as complex as this song, nor for the highly variable line lengths and internal rhymes, but that is what Dylan gives it.  He stretches the old blues sequence and then stretches it again, just as he did on “I once knew a man”.

And clearly Dylan believes in this song, because he gets the delivery of the lyrics dead on all the way through, and the band know exactly where to go – except for that slight change in tempo.

Just look at the opening verse

Like the lion tears the flesh off of a man
So can a woman who passes herself off as a male
They sang “Danny Boy” at his funeral and the Lord’s Prayer
Preacher talking ’bout Christ betrayed
It’s like the earth just opened and swallowed him up
He reached too high, was thrown back to the ground
You know what they say about bein’ nice to the right people on the way up
Sooner or later you gonna meet them comin’ down

and then wonder how it could be that something like this has never ever been performed by Bob in concert.  Just listening to the way in which he sings the chorus lines is so enormously powerful.

But at the same time, there is no clarity here.  What exactly does

Like the lion tears the flesh off of a man
So can a woman who passes herself off as a male

mean?  It probably means something, or it has gone beyond meaning, but I don’t get it.

Some reviews of this song focus on the religious content – and of course the notion about the people who are self-possessed, self-obsessed, inward looking, defensive… all being those who are going to suffer come the second coming is fair enough, but that first verse really doesn’t quite fit, and the people we are hearing about change from verse to verse without any explanation.

What it reminds me of – and it is a strange think to think about when hearing a piece of Dylan obscuranti – is the cover of Strange Days, by the Doors.  All these freaks and oddities, there for no reason – except that the days are strange.

It is a really interesting song, not least because of the quality of singing and playing, but above all if you listen to it too much, instead of insight and awareness, the only thing you are left with is madness.  When Dylan says, “I’m going to look at you, til my eyes go blind,” you want to say, “Oh if only I had thought of that.  When he says, “Your time will come, let hot iron blow as he raised the shade,” you are thinking, “I am so glad I never thought of that.”

Coming back to this review, which as I say I wrote early on in the history of this site, and listening to Dylan and Lou Reed’s performances, I keep thinking of the line “Let the dead bury the dead”.  It is a Biblical line of course, but Dylan somehow makes it sound like it is one of his own, which is amazingly clever (and as you will appreciate if you have been reading the reviews on this site – I’ve read an awful lot more of the Bible while writing these reviews, than I had done for many, many years before).

Ultimately the behaviour of mankind as a whole and individual members of mankind, disgust Dylan, as I guess they do most of us.  So powerful and so overwhelming is this recording that beyond that I am not too sure it matters exactly what Bob is saying.

Even after writing over 350 reviews of Dylan songs I still can’t find the right things to say about this wonderful, strange, confusing piece, which comes from such a wonderful, strange, confusing moment in Bob’s compositional existence.

So let me finish by quoting another writers review in full.  Maybe you’ll find that gets closer to the meaning of it all…  This from Allmusic.com   I hope they don’t mind.

“Originally recorded for the Infidels sessions in 1983, “Foot of Pride” is one of the most explosive and venomous songs Dylan has ever written, with the artist spitting out lyrics and verses cascading with potent imagery. As typical of Dylan’s songs during this period, he mixes the spiritual with the secular, with lines such as “Preacher talking ’bout Christ’s betrayed/It’s like the earth just opened and swallowed him up” are echoed throughout the song. Essentially a moralist song about the various wrongdoings of man, and then the chorus is a warning: “There ain’t no going back/When your foot of pride goes down/Ain’t no going back.” Although the song delivers many eminently quotable lines, it is much too long and rambles in places, and it is perhaps understandable why Dylan chose to leave this off Infidels. The artist himself has never performed the song live in concert, although Lou Reed did a justly famous rendition of it at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert, mastering the half-spoken/half-singing delivery of the verses expertly.”

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here

 

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32 Responses to Foot of Pride: Bob Dylan’s rambling masterpiece which tears us limb from limb

  1. patsludden says:

    Tony,

    You’re writing them quicker than Bob did! lol

  2. zimmy1 says:

    I always thought Dylan was talking about someone or something?as he mentions “they” so many times.In my mind i always thought it was something religious, good or evil im not sure.

    They sang “Danny Boy” at his funeral and the Lord’s Prayer
    they’ll choose a man for you to meet to nite
    They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in
    They got some beautiful people out there, man
    They can be a terror to your mind and show you how to hold your tongue
    They got mystery written all over their forehead
    They kill babies in the crib and say only the good die young
    They don’t believe in mercy Judgement on them is something that you’ll never see
    They can exalt you up or bring you down main route Turn you into anything that they want you to be

  3. Paul Latini says:

    It is a great song, beautifully performed.

  4. Chuck Gibson says:

    There’s a reference to “foot of pride” in Psalm 36, verse 11, in the King James Version.

  5. zippy says:

    I would have thought the dead person (referred to as “he,” through the song) was actually a woman, presumably bent on climbing the hill of power and influence. Commentary perhaps on the shameful political power games, traditionally the realm of men, which were and are increasingly becoming a blood sport for women too.

    All together I think this is one of his best, in my book. He’s hammering all the right notes and criticizing the worst in society, the plutocrats and politicans who make and break young up-and-comers, like the young lad/lady in this song, without a thought.

  6. anthony aardvark says:

    This recording never fails to elicit the little madness of which Tony refers. Indeed, Dylan’s performance sells it. “There ain’t no goin’ back…” feels as much a threat as a belief.
    Though the aphorism about meeting the same people on the way up as you will when they’re coming down must be ages old, I can’t help but think that he’s quoting Ralph Kramden when he sings it.
    Dylan covers a lot of ground. I love this song too.

  7. Ian Marshall says:

    Your reference “Your time will come, let hot iron blow as he raised the shade,”

    I think it is symbolic of the firey furnace or hell when somebody dies. Sometimes a furnace is within a container and to access it you have to open the door or lift a shutter, so i think it is about the end of a persons life who hasnt lived for christ and is scoffing at God and loving the pleasures of carnality. “Your time will come”

  8. Joseph Griffiths says:

    Apparently this song was written shortly after Dylan ceased being a Christian. Read the lyrics again with that in mind and you may understand what he’s talking about better. Very cynical…

  9. L. Jon Small says:

    Re: zimmy 1’s attempted partial lyric reference –

    “bring you down main route”? main route?! What does that even mean? How does it fit the rhyme scheme? Am I the only one who thinks the following works a little better?:

    They can exalt you up
    Or bring you down, bankrupt
    Turn you into anything
    That they want want you to be

  10. jackstraw says:

    It was 1983 man! Reagan was president! Terrorists! Hijackings, hostages! Lesbians and TV evangelist! “They’d like to take all his money from sin,build big universities to study in,sing amazing grace all the way to the swiss banks” I get it! Haha! He was just finished with his religious kick…it topical with the times! He smoked a shit load of hash and observed.

  11. Baucent says:

    Packed with Biblical references for those who can see them, this is Dylan’s attempt at a Psalm. As pointed out “Foot of Pride” comes from Psalm 36, and like the Psalmist he rants at the wicked, the hypocrites, the rich. Probably he wasn’t satisfied with it since it never made the cut.

  12. steven twyford says:

    Gay pride?
    Is it a anti gay song?

  13. Kimberly says:

    This song has just recently opened up for me. I never liked it very much until very recently. Now I can’t get enough of listening to it. I love the words, his vocal delivery, those sharp harmonica breaks. I think Chuck is correct in quoting Psalm 36:11. I would question Joseph’s assertion that Dylan “ceased being a Christian.” We do not have evidence that he “ceased being a Christian” in 1983 or at any point. Tony, I think your writing on this is excellent. This song is bottomless, like all of the best Dylan songs. And when we listen to it, we should keep this in mind: “May the foot of the proud not come against me, nor the hand of the wicked drive me away. See how the evildoers lie fallen – thrown down, not able to rise.” Psalm 36: 11-12 (NIV)

    Keep the analyses coming, Tony. I love reading your stuff!

  14. Kimberly says:

    Also: ‘Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”‘ Luke 9:60

  15. hans altena says:

    I learned to know this song through the record Last Infidels Outtakes, where the backing band sounds blurred, and anyway they hardly know what to do with the structure, only the organ manages to add some tension, and the bass ads some licks, but as if in a rap Dylan’s singing carries the whole song and goes to any unexpected corner the simple melody and rhythm tried to hide, making it into a swaggering powerhouse. But more important, it is one of those songs from the beginning of the eighties where Dylan taps into that same universe of floating images as he did in 65 until 67. It started during the Shot of Love sessions, with Carribean Wind and Angelina and lasted until Brownsville Girl, though there he already applied a much more rational approach, just as in Blood on the Tracks. The difficulty in getting into this dense poetry lies in the fact that in the sixties he delved into the folk roots, complete with biblical allusions, street slang and beat writings that had its origins in surreal and experimental high literature, together it formed a whole that enabled us to understand although sometimes only through intuïtion. In the eighties he became more scriptural and in the same time applied the abstract approach he had learned in the days of Tangled up in Blue, where his rational way of putting it together helped him form a story with it. Here no normal storyline applies and neither do the images flow together, rather more they collide, because this time the field he covers is that of a religious seer and a poet from the realm of rock he himself created and these two impersonations of his gemini nature contradict. It wouldn’t be until Time out of Mind and especially Love and Theft that he found a way to synthesize things by starting to act as a grifter of ideas and images, mashing them together in his mambo of songs that seem to stem from eternity’s well, with an old time feel and a radical modern method of cut and paste. But back to the song at hand, once we have accustomed to the almost schizophrenic nature of the poem and open our ears to the lyrical and intense singing an apocalyptic landscape unfolds where every fragment of the destroyed environment tkes on an ominous meaning, calling for a redemption of the mind. Dare to descend into this maelstrom and maybe you find some reason. For instance, yes, I presume the first victim of Dylan’s wrath is a feminist lost in a man’s world she wanted to adapt to to get as high (low in Dylan’s opinion) as the men themselves, and from there on a calvacade of persons lost in vain passes before our eyes while the singer gives voice to many that pass by this carnavalesk row of people doomed to fall. No need to get into the details, they are quite explicit if you are not hampered by a deficit of poetic imagination and avoid trying to connect what has fallen apart, this burning world before our eyes. Right now as refugees flood over our borders of old Europe, I cannot help but find reason in this strange but powerful song.

  16. harvey gower says:

    A lot of insight here –enjoyable reading. My favorite verse is one with the Eroll Flynn reference and the final nail driven in.

  17. Kevin Porter says:

    Totally agree with L John Small over the word “bankrupt”
    “They can exalt you up or bring you down, bankrupt
    Turn you into anything that they want want you to be”

    And I’ve always thought that the closing lyric was:

    “Your time will come. Let hot irons glow while you lay in the shade.”

    It’s a prophesy of eternal damnation in hell after death for those who complacently fail to address the sinfulness in their lives.

    Foot of Pride seems to me a good companion song to Jokerman.

  18. Tony says:

    All I know is that Lou Reed absolutely killed this song at Dylans Bday bash it was totally amazing, I never read much into his mind, but I love Dylan all the same.. Poet indeed

  19. Paul Lasecki says:

    I have read in more than one place…that Dylan wrote this song in part as a reaction and to express his disappointment in the hypocrisy he eventually saw in some of the leaders of the Vineyard Church. Remember when Dylan first got saved he threw himself completely and totally Intuit he made it 100% commitment going to church every day and bible study every day for months and months. At a certain point, the reports go, Dylan started seeing hypocracy in the only organized Christianity he had been exposed to and some of the lyrics reflected some of the reason why Dylan abruptly cut ties with the vineyard Fellowship.go.

    Some of my favorite some of Dylan’s best images and lyrics here…. I always loved the economy of the line about singing Amazing Grace to the Swiss banks….. And the line about a whore passing the hat around and collecting $100 and saying hey thanks.

    There are so many other great lines in this song right now the only one I’m going to mention is the one it goes there are some beautiful people here man they can be a terror to your mind love that line I absolutely love it I love Dylan’s reading of it and at Bob Fest Lou Reed’s delivery it is classic as well……Gosh…great lines just keep popping into my head…..the rhyme sequence of in these times of compassion when conformities in fashion…… Genius

  20. Alfred Valstar says:

    A very, religious, Christian, poetic song. People that say ‘ceased to be a Christian’ are wishful thinkers. Pay attention to Tempest and get your answer there.

  21. Larry Fyffe says:

    Pay attention to the lyrics of Foot of Pride: Dylan is
    really annoyed at organized Christians for trying to make a fool out of him in order to fill their coffers. Appatently, Dylan says the same thing in ‘I Once Knew A Man”: “Tried to take me for a ride”.

    Of course one might still respect Jesus as a person while refusing to go back and conforming to the demands of a church that corrupts Christ’s teachings for financial gain.

  22. Larry Fyffe says:

    *Apparently

  23. Larry Fyffe says:

    Oraganized religion is the work of rebeller Satan, the red devil:

    “There’s a retired businessmsn named Red,
    cast down from Heaven, and he’s out of his head”
    (Dylan: Foot Of Pride)

    And the Whore of Babylon:

    “And upon her forehead was a name written:
    ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots/
    And Abominations of the Earth”
    (Revelation 17:5)

    “They got ‘Mystery” written all over their forehead”
    (Dylan: Foot of Pride)

    It’s not a good idea to take Dylan for a ride.

  24. Larry Fyffe says:

    Though Christians turn themselves inside out trying to save Dylan for themselves, the songwriter appears to advocate, under the influence of poets William Blake and Andrew Marvell, between the physical and the spiritual needs of human beings, represented in their day by the humours or the elements of earth, wind, fire, and air:
    That is to say even as the priests debase love and sex, corrupt religion glorifies greed and money:

    “Ain’t nothin’ left here, partner/
    Just the dust of a plague that has left the whole town afraid”
    (Dylan: Foot Of Pride)

  25. Larry Fyffe says:

    “But at my back, I always here/
    Time’s winged chariot hurrying near/
    And yonder alk before us lie/
    Deserts of vast eternity/
    Thy beauty shall no more be found/
    ….And your quaint honour turn to dust/
    And into ashes all my lust/
    The grave’s a fine and private place/
    But none, I think, do there embrace”
    (Andrew Marvell: Coy Mistress)

    A theme of a Metaphyical Poet, encountering
    the discovery of objective science that the
    Earth is no longer the centre of God’s creation.
    A Romantic poet admired by Dylan,
    picks up on this theme:
    “When will return the glory of your prime?/
    No more, oh, never more”
    (Percy Shelley: Lament)

  26. Larry Fyffe says:

    *(corrections) ….balance between the physical….
    …yonder all before….

  27. Larry Fyffe says:

    Indeed, there are more literary references in
    Bob Dylan’s song lyrics to this effect that one can shake a Nobel Prize in Literature at:

    “And here face down beneath the sun/
    ….The always rising of the night”
    (Archibald MacLeish: You, Andrew Marvell)

    “If you don’t mind sleeping with your head face down in the grave”
    (Dylan: Foot Of Pride)

    From Marvell, a poet far ahead of his time, comes
    Dylan’s deliberate technique of inserting plausible multiple-meanings via the wording of lyrics, not to mention his choice of music, which is a characterisic of the style associated with bringing of the reader/ listerner into the work of art through Post-Modernist ambiguous playfulness.

    “Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer/
    It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”
    (Dylan: Not Dark Yet)

    Not unlike the English Romantic, the even now more respected poet John Keats than in his day, attests Christospher Ricks, of Boston University in his book ‘Dylan’s Visions Of Sin’, the noted literary scholar thereby backing up my assertions to quite an extent, I would think.

  28. Larry Fyffe says:

    Lasecki certainly agrees in his well-thought out
    comment above; one should know their song well before they start singing!

  29. Larry Fyffe says:

    Of course in above comments that should be ‘hear’, not ‘here’. And ‘all’.

  30. Wendy says:

    As mentioned , Psalm 36 is where “foot of pride” comes from Biblically from the NKJV and if you also have a Bible Commentary handy , you can read much into the song…Many of his Biblical references become a little clearer when you consult a commentary. Very interesting…Indeed!

  31. Chris says:

    Hi, I am a librarian and just stumbled across a book published in the 1950’s called “Foot of Pride” by Malcolm Hay. Apparently it is about Christians persecuting Jews. Here is an excerpt from a Kirkus review, ” a sweeping indictment of a Christian civilization in its treatment of the Jews from the early days of St. John Chrysostom to Hitler and beyond.” Maybe Bob was familiar with the book and was expressing his disillusionment with Christianity? Long live Bob, he keeps us all guessing!

  32. TonyAttwood says:

    Chris thank you for that. I had never heard of that book, but the link sounds very reasonable

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