Works of Untold Genius: Foot of Pride. The school of abstract songwriting.

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…

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

actually mean?

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.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with approaching 6000 active members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

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.

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7 Responses to Works of Untold Genius: Foot of Pride. The school of abstract songwriting.

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    It is not the sound of the lyrics and music together, but the sound of the music and the lyrics together that creates the brilliance of the piece; the music is the objective correlative that evokes the associated emotion, but it is the death of Lenny Bruce that is central to the piece.

    You can read the lyrics on their own and know what they are about, but you cannot listen to the music on its own – no matter how beautiful – and know the piece is about a specific individual at a particular time in history.

  2. Baba Ganoosh says:

    Great article. Foot Of Pride is my favorite Dylan song and it always surprises how few people consider it the masterpiece that I do. Personally, I feel they are his greatest lyrics (as well as the greatest lyrics ever written) but as to why I feel this way… (shrugs)

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Atlas, let me attempt to lift the sky from off of your shoulders – the author’s imaginative theme appears to be:

    Don’t let an organization(that declares that it already has the certain answer to what truth is) trample on one’s own journey in that direction.

    Even though no absolute answer lies ahead , there’s no turning back once you have started down that road.

    How that theme is expressed is of utmost importance.

    The figurative use of language in the piece, abounding with symbolism and images, takes a firm grip on the reader/ listener’s own imagination.

  4. Ed McEowen says:

    I got to the end of it and I like what you righted.

  5. Stumpzian says:

    Excellent analysis/expression of Bob Dylan’s process.

  6. Matt L eone says:

    Well said. Foot of Pride is a work of genius comparable to his early surrealistic songs – Desolation Row, Chimes of Freedom, It’s alright Ma. The first time I heard Foot of Pride, I was gobsmacked just as I was hearing those 60s albums. It seemed as if a new thing had been invented, something never heard or thought of before. An opening few lines worthy of his very best – Desolation Row, Like a Rolling Stone, Changing of the Guards.

  7. Baba Ganoosh says:

    I think you’ve hit it Larry. Thanks.

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