by Tony Attwood
Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the wicked remove me. Psalm 36:11
(Let me not be trampled underfoot by proud oppressors, or driven from my home by wicked violence).
In 1978 Bob’s songs reflect a troubled mind as he took on themes that we had never heard him explore before. Songs like Stepchild and Legionnaires Disease really seemed to have little link with the Dylan that we had come to know, varied though the themes of his earlier songs had been.
He finished the year with “Slow Train Coming”, which at least confirmed what we could have derived from these songs – that he perceived that a slow change was afoot. In retrospect it can sound like a religious song, but there is nothing religious in it… it is simply a song about change naturally happening. As such it is closely linked to “Times they are a-changing” which also did not speak about people rising up and creating change, but rather change naturally occurring and overtaking us all, whether we like it or not.
And then in 1979, for the first time ever Bob gave us the certainty – for here, for the first time ever, every song in one year was on the same subject: religious belief. It was a bit of a shock.
1980 started in the same way, and yet as I listen to the songs, already Bob’s mind seems to be wanting to go further. And as the overtly Christian message was left behind Bob gave us a collection as rich and diverse as he had ever offered. And remember this list of not a selection from that year but the songs listed in the order he wrote them…
- Every grain of sand God made this world
- Caribbean Wind End of relationships, the end of time, the end of all things
- Groom’s still waiting at the alter It’s all falling apart
- Yonder comes sin It’s all falling apart
- Let’s keep it between us Love – all we need is honesty
- Making a liar out of me This is me, this is where I have got to
You may disagree with my short commentary on the meaning of each of these songs but I am hoping you can see my meaning about their diversity. This was a set of quality songs equal in artistic merit to anything in those early years where one classic simply followed another – but the meaning of the lyrics was so much more complex.
And what then? What after this staggering year which ended with this extraordinary collection. Well, 1981 was a right mixture. I won’t set them all out again, but just look at songs 20 to 23 of 1981:
A love song, a celebration of a disreputable rebel who had just died, a purely Christian song, and then the ambiguous thief on the cross, which could be a Biblical tale or something symbolic, and quite, quite different.
Now at this moment we were still only one year on from what I have found to be one of the absolute high points of Dylan’s writing with the sequence from “Every Grain” to “Making a liar”. (You might recall my little conceit in which I imagine that Bob says he likes Untold, and asks me to create an album of his songs that has some unified concept. I give him “Bob Dylan 1980.”)
So what would he do next? Could he see the absolute genius within those songs? Could he recover it? Would he stay with religion? Would he go somewhere else? If so where on earth could he go?
In fact what happened was, in my view (and of course this is all just my view), that Bob Dylan pulled off one of his most remarkable moves in his career. And it was all the more remarkable because it came so soon after the 1980 collection.
Looking at his commentary on “Lenny Bruce” (in which he says he didn’t know why he wrote the song – but then went on to perform it regularly on stage and with enormous passion and emotion) and taking it at face value, I feel that he created that song (and almost certainly many others) by taking a promising musical phrase and a lyrical phrase and putting them together without worrying at all about the meaning. Indeed having listened to “Lenny Bruce is Dead” many more times than I care to recall, I’m certain that Bob read that phrase or heard it or just thought it up, and then put that highly memorable musical phrase with it and thought “That works.” The meaning of the words was irrelevant, it was just a great phrase. The music then naturally followed on and other lyrics were found to fit – not because Bob had a message to give, but because the overall feel of the piece SOUNDED right. Forget the meaning of the lyrics that so bothers Heylin and others. It just sounded right.
Of course the lyrics do have a meaning, they are not random words; but that is not the essence of the song. It is the SOUND of the lyrics and the music TOGETHER that creates the brilliance of the piece.
I think to a large degree the same is true with the songs at the end of 1980 – but if you are not 100% familiar with it and you missed my wild ravings over the piece, do listen to Making a liar out of me What makes this song work is the sound of the words and the rise and fall of the music, not any meaning that there might be in the lyrics.
Of course, I have no proof that Bob Dylan thought along such lines, or indeed if he thought at all about the songs he was writing – I get the feeling that a lot of the time an idea emerges and he writes the piece, and that’s that.
But I can say that in 1983, the idea which I have pursued in these articles, of giving each song a one or two-word explanation for its content, (love, lost love, surrealism, protest, faith etc) breaks down. In 1983 it doesn’t work any more. I just can’t do it.
Having run this series year by year since the late 1950s when Bob started writing, and laboriously totaled each subject area as we go, I’m stuck. But rather than give up I want to try and explain Bob’s new approach through looking for a moment at “Foot of Pride”. Dylan has never played it in public, and it did not make it onto any album except the first Bootleg collection. (Mind you, if he did play it now wouldn’t that be something for this little blog!!!)
But as a result of this non-performance, no copy of Dylan singing the song is available for me to offer on the blog, although Spotify has it, and you can register for free and play it that way if you don’t have Bootleg 1-3.
But we do have a recording of Lou Reed’s performance. Here it is and the lyrics are below along with some further discussion…
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 Well, there ain’t no goin’ back When your foot of pride come down Ain’t no goin’ back
Now of course you can turn this into a religious piece if you hear it that way, and I am sure you can find references in the Bible to explain some of the lines. But I would argue you are going to be stretching the bounds of possibility here to make all those lines connect together – and then to link it all to the Psalm or the oft accepted conversion into modern English to mean
“Let me not be trampled underfoot by proud oppressors, or driven from my home by wicked violence.”
And if so, we are still left with the question, what is Bob doing writing about being trampled underfoot by proud oppressors?
I am further swayed towards my explanation that what Bob is doing is something he has oft done before, but is now taking it to a higher level (that is finding musical and poetic phrases that just sound good and putting them together as a painter puts together colours and shapes in an abstract painting). And I am emboldened to argue this by the fact that this is what pop and rock has so often done. After all what does
Whop bop b-luma b-lop bam bom Tutti frutti, oh Rudy Tutti frutti, woo Tutti frutti, oh Rudy Tutti frutti, oh Rudy Tutti frutti, oh Rudy A wop bop b-luma b-lop bam bom
When I started writing this series of articles about the literary themes of Dylan’s work each year it was because a quick review had led me to conclude that although the protest side of his work was limited, and far smaller than two of the three central themes of popular music (love and lost love), many people still saw him as a protest singer. And it was only as we approached the religious period, and more specifically its end, and I started to look ahead that I realised that there was another theme that arose, in the post-Christian period: the abstract which I am describing here. Or if you wish, the meaningless. (I prefer abstract so I’ll stick with that).
But what’s more, now I have got to this point, I rather suspect that Bob has touched on this form of writing before, and when I get to the end of this series (which at this rate will probably be somewhere around 2030) I will endeavour to go back and unravel this. He did after all have a Kafkaesque period around the time of the essentially meaningless “Drifter’s Escape” But for the moment I offer “Ain’t no going back” as an example of an abstract composition.
Hear ya got a brother named James, don’t forget faces or names Sunken cheeks and his blood is mixed He looked straight into the sun and said revenge is mine But he drinks, and drinks can be fixed Sing me one more song, about ya love me to the moon and the stranger And your fall-by-the sword love affair with Errol Flynn In these times of compassion when conformity’s in fashion Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in.
There are so many lines here that I can only describe as “utterly gorgeous.” I don’t know any other phrase. How else do you describe, “Say one more stupid thing to me before the final nail is driven in” which comes after “conformity’s in fashion”?
I shall leave you with the rest of the song, to contemplate what I am trying to describe. The School of Abstract Songwriting.
But before I do, may I suggest one thing. This is not about interpreting each line – it absolutely doesn’t work that way because the lines often don’t connect. Just as with a Jackson Pollock painting there is no point is looking for the meaning of a red splodge of paint here, or a green line there, so there is no point trying to say the retired businessman named Red clearly refers to… [insert an example]. It is not about meanings it is about the sound of the words.
That is the genius of what Dylan created at this point. The sound of the music and the sound of words creating an abstraction of meaning. I am starting to think we should indeed approach some of Dylan’s work in the same way that we approach a Dylan Thomas poem or a Beethoven string quartet.
There’s a retired businessman named Red Cast down from heaven and he’s out of his head He feeds off of everyone that he can touch He said he only deals in cash or sells tickets to a plane crash He’s not somebody that you play around with much Miss Delilah is his, a Phillistine is what she is She’ll do wondrous works with your fate, feed you coconut bread, spice buns in your bed If you don’t mind sleepin’ with your head face down in a grave Well, there ain’t no goin’ back When your foot of pride come down Ain’t no goin’ back Well, they’ll choose a man for you to meet tonight You’ll play the fool and learn how to walk through doors How to enter into the gates of paradise No, how to carry a burden too heavy to be yours Yeah, from the stage they’ll be tryin’ to get water outa rocks A whore will pass the hat, collect a hundred grand and say thanks They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in Sing “Amazing Grace” all the way to the Swiss banks Well, there ain’t no goin’ back When your foot of pride come down Ain’t no goin’ back 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 Well, there ain’t no goin’ back When your foot of pride come down Ain’t no goin’ back Yes, I guess I loved him too I can still see him in my mind climbin’ that hill Did he make it to the top, well he probably did and dropped Struck down by the strength of the will Ain’t nothin’ left here partner, just the dust of a plague that has left this whole town afraid From now on, this’ll be where you’re from Let the dead bury the dead. Your time will come Let hot iron blow as he raised the shade Well, there ain’t no goin’ back When your foot of pride come down Ain’t no goin’ back
If you have got to the end of this, thank you. If you found it a quarter as interesting to read as I found it to right, you’ll have had quite a good time.
Untold Dylan: who we are what we do
Untold Dylan is written by people who want to write for Untold Dylan. It is simply a forum for those interested in the work of the most famous, influential and recognised popular musician and poet of our era, to read about, listen to and express their thoughts on, his lyrics and music.
We welcome articles, contributions and ideas from all our readers. Sadly no one gets paid, but if you are published here, your work will be read by a fairly large number of people across the world, ranging from fans to academics who teach English literature. If you have an idea, or a finished piece send it as a Word file to Tony@schools.co.uk with a subject line saying that it is for publication on Untold Dylan.
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You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture. Not every index is complete but I do my best.
But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page. I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information. Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.