By Tony Attwood
“All directions at once” is a series which looks at Bob Dylan’s writing as it evolves over time, rather than focusing entirely on individual songs or albums. The index of all articles is here. The index has been updated and has section headings added which may make this mega series easier to follow. I think it’s worth a look, but then I would. I wrote it.
Anyway… moving on…
We have reached the early 1980s…. The last article in the series was “Dylan post Angelina” and took us as far as the writing of “Dead man, dead man”. The Christian era is over, and the extraordinarily brilliant transition era from “Every Grain of Sand” through to “Angelina”, has delivered a stunning array of works of genius, and now once more Bob seemed somewhat unsure where to go next.
But the period of 1982/3 in terms of Dylan’s writing is weird. Not weird in the sense that each of the 17 songs composed is individually weird, but weird in that they seem to be coming from and heading out in all sorts of different directions. It is in fact, the absolute “all direction at once” era.
And yet I do recognise it is possible to argue otherwise because there is a certain cohesion about the meanings within the songs.
In the build up we had the purely Christian songs of 1979, then the move into songs that do not always seem religious in nature, but which can be interpreted that way (from “Every Grain” onto “Making a Liar” etc) in 1980, and then in 1981 works of genius such as “Angelina”, songs which divide opinion such as “Lenny Bruce,” (which are clearly not religious), and then after that a song such as “Jesus is the one” – one of a number of songs that are not particularly well remembered.
And now we have a variety of offerings. Jokerman, the first composition of this period, has the feel in part of Caribbean Wind – and indeed Dylan has said it was indeed written in the Caribbean. Although we might well feel that this is another song about the end of all things, the message is more about the futility of mankind’s ways than it is about the utter certainty of how it will all pan out.
Yes there is some Biblical input in the songs but it is combined with a style of writing that leads to an uncertainty of meaning. And when one thinks about it, these two notions are poles apart. With a religion such as Christianity, the fundamentals are certain. We know what happened in the past with Jesus Christ, and we know what will happen in the future with Armageddon and the Second Coming.
But the “Caribbean Wind” style of writing removes the certainty of meaning and seems to take us to the opposite end of the spectrum. Which is why I and I (again written in the Caribbean period) is interesting: it appears at one level to be trying to balance the two – the religious feel and the uncertainty. But then, maybe, uncertainty wins and Dylan travels in other directions indeed.
However Clean Cut Kid (written at this time, but held back in terms of an album release) and Union Sundown (again from this period) take on other directions – the latter returning to Dylan’s earlier concerns about America’s poor; a theme expressed so often across the years.
But still he doesn’t settle for next out of this mixed mixed bag of compositions we get the universally acclaimed Blind Willie McTell. This is indeed a hard song to decipher because the music of Dylan’s song has no relationship with McTell’s own work. I don’t mean the song should sound like a McTell piece, but it just seems to have no link to his work at all.
What’s more it doesn’t have any relationship with the next song (Don’t fall apart on me tonight) either – nor indeed with very much else around this time. It just stands out alone, an absolute monument looking down on (almost) everything else that Dylan composed across these two years. And the simple fact that we have at the very least 35 cover versions of it suggests its universal appeal.
As we know McTell came out in two versions – the acoustic and the electric – and each tells a different tale of a blues singer who reached far greater fame through this song than he ever achieved as a composer and singer. We get no sense of McTell as the great 12 string slide guitarist, of the man with so many different names it is hard to keep track of them. What we get is the man whose music was rediscovered many years after his passing (he died in 1959 aged 61).
The arrival of this song with no clear build up that we can hear in Dylan’s music, and no references back to it after, is one of the great mysteries for anyone who wants to understand Dylan’s method of writing at this time. Although maybe it is just possible to see Jokerman as the opposite of Willie McTell – the Jokerman telling us what isn’t true, Willie McTell telling it really as it is. But…
But… I fear I am stretching the point here for if I am going down this route then Man of Peace like Jokerman is a “false prophet” song since Blind Willie is the only one who tells it true, the other’s don’t. But I’m not sure if that adds much to our understanding or indeed if that isn’t stretching everything in this curious year, one step too far.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that Dylan was once more finding he could write in all sorts of different ways and he was most certainly enjoying the experience. Especially as he realised that he could write about more or less anything he wanted and both record company and fans would accept it. Sweetheart like you goes one way Someone’s got a hold of my heart goes another, then there is Neighbourhood Bully off doing its own thing again, and then Tell Me is utterly different again – an experiment in writing a song of (possibly) unrequited love. You want “all directions” this is it.
Here is the sequence of songs in the order they were written….
- I and I
- Clean Cut Kid
- Union Sundown
- Blind Willie McTell
- Don’t fall apart on me tonight
- License to Kill
- Man of Peace
- Sweetheart like you
- Someone’s got a hold of my heart / Tight connection to my heart
- Neighbourhood Bully
- Tell Me
… and I simply can’t see connections between many of these songs. They really are exploring here, there and everywhere – and there is nothing wrong with that. But to have so many directions in such a short space of time is very, very unusual in an artist. It is as if he Bob really did want to throw aside the shackles of the year or two of Christian songs, and just go anywhere and everywhere else.
And I do think it is worth listening to “Tell Me” and considering that “Neighbourhood Bully” was the song written before it, and then noting that the song that Bob composed after was “Foot of Pride”. Which is really where this whole meandering episode is going.
The multiple recordings of “Foot of Pride” that we are told were made at this time (it was probably the Dylan song that was recorded more times by the composer than any other) have not been made available. In fact we only have two versions: the one from the 1983 recordings (which isn’t available for reproduction here, but if you have Spotify you can play it and it is on the Bootleg series 1-3), and the Lou Reed version.
Here’s Lou Reed…
As to what are we to make of it, consider…
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
I’m not ready to try and explain that. But the theme of the corruption of the Christian church is there for all to hear
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
And it does seem like this is the end of times…
Ain’t nothin’ left here partner, just the dust of a plague that has left this whole town afraid
In the end, as I have listened to this extraordinary piece of music over and over across the years, I always come back to the same point: if you create something of merit – no matter how spectacular or how simple – you have done it, and there really is nothing wrong with being proud of that. But that is no cause to stop. You can’t undo the past, and you can’t live in the past. There ain’t no going back; take pleasure in what you have achieved, move on.
Or put another way, “Don’t let them bring you down,” – ‘them’ of course being the critics.
And that was the way I came to grasp an understanding of this year and this almighty, staggering, brilliant, overwhelming song. Bob had been brought under the influence of Christianity, but ultimately had found the preaching and teaching and rule-making too much for him. And now in Foot of Pride, this amazing and yet mostly forgotten masterpiece, he was simply saying “no”. The world we live in has nothing to do with the image that he had in his mind during his Christian period. Bob had had that Christian period, but we move on.
Psalm 36:11 proclaims “Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the wicked remove me”. The general interpretation is “Let me not be trampled under foot by proud oppressors, nor driven from my home by wicked violence.” It is a plea that one should stay safe, and not suffer unjustly, but it is not (as is sometimes suggested) that one should not be guilty of the sin of pride. It is a simple desire to stay safe.
And what makes “Foot of Pride” such a fascinating composition is not just that it is such a stunning and challenging musical work, but that it was written just after “Neighbourhood Bully”, which may be about Israel, and “Julius and Ethel” which is about the Rosenburgs who were alleged to have given US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
In short: the past is done; move forward; there ain’t no going back.
And there is also one little footnote to Foot of Pride that I must throw in. Heylin notes that Dylan said that he had difficulty keeping the time in this song, and that it always speeds up, which is a major reason why Bob recorded it so many times. Heylin, always wanting to point out Bob’s mistakes, confusions and deliberate misleads, suggests that this is completely untrue on the recording we have.
Now I’ve always known that Heylin knows nothing of music, and if you want proof just listen. The one recording we have been allowed to listen to speeds up and up. And I don’t say that as a special criticism of Bob and the gang – it is a problem with many songs, but most particularly this one because of the very nature of the music. He would have needed a conductor in the studio directing him to overcome the problem. And that is almost certainly why it was never released.
Nothing at all, not a single thing, prepares us for “Foot of Pride”. And nothing in Foot of Pride prepares us for those subsequent songs, the unique “Julius and Ethel” and two final returns to religious thoughts – “Lord Protect my child” and Death is not the end”
This really is a year of Bob going in all directions as he searches for themes and ideas. And what gifts he gave us along the way!
If I ever met Bob and had five seconds to say something, I’d say, “Thank you for Foot of Pride”.
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