By Tony Attwood
Writing the second version of this review it struck me what a curious mixture of songs Bob 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. “Tell Me” is a lost love refrain. “Foot of Pride is…
One suggestion is that it 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 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.
You can hear it via Spotify if you don’t have the album, but otherwise try this version from Lou Reed.
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.
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 Well, there ain’t no goin’ back When your foot of pride come down Ain’t no goin’ back
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 thing 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 performance, 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.
It is a wonderful, strange, confusing moment in Bob’s compositional existence which still had me baffled when I re-wrote this review I chose to finish by quoting another writer’s 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.”
And then, in 2020, during the coronavirus lockdown, I got it. Or at least I think I did. It takes the notion of pride, and the way that those against you will use your pride to bring you low. But there ain’t no going back.
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 – there ain’t no going back. You have achieved that. Now you move on.
Or put another way, “Don’t let them bring you down.” And that was the way I came to grasp an understanding of this year. Bob had been brought under the influence of Christianity, but ultimately had found the preaching and teaching and rule making too much for him [this is just my opinion of course]. And now he was simply saying “no”. This world doesn’t fit the image that he had in his mind during his Christian period.
But that’s been done. There ain’t no going back. One might even say, “Don’t let them bring you down.”
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