In 1985, Cameron Crowe asked Bob Dylan about the song “Every Grain of Sand” for the Biograph box set. Dylan said:
“That was an inspired song that came to me. It wasn’t really too difficult. I felt like I was just putting words down that were coming from somewhere else, and I just stuck it out.”
Bob Dylan – the king of the humblebrag! In looking at the images evoked in “Every Grain of Sand” and the obvious master craft on display, it’s hard to take Dylan’s modest contention that “it wasn’t really too difficult.” But Dylan has remained consistent in describing his writing process as a channeling, or that he serves as a vessel, delivering the lyrics from another place.
The idea of creation and the source of that creation is the theme of “Every Grain of Sand.” Dylan writes in the song, “There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere.” Dylan cites a vague “somewhere” here in the words of “Every Grain of Sand” as well as when talking to Cameron Crowe about the process of creating that very song. The mysterious “somewhere” in the text of the song gestures at Dylan’s various modes of expression: the written page, the recording studio, the concert venue, the radio. Whatever the output of his process, his songs are always “Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.” This sounds like a thesis statement for Dylan’s entire process.
The second verse establishes the inspiration behind Dylan’s “dyin voice:” the Master or God:
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand
This is God’s omnipotence writ large. Dylan is seeing God in everything, whether it is in his own anger when recalling the worst moments of his life (e.g., “I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame”) or desperation (e.g., “the hour of my deepest need), contrasted with the simple beauty of the world, the gentleness of a trembling leaf, the enumeration of every hair, and “every sparrow falling.”
For Dylan, the mystery of creation is a sort of cat and mouse game with God. The key moment of the song is when Dylan sings in the last verse: “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea / Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.” Dylan knows that God’s “ancient footsteps” are always there with him when he is creating as he attempts to capture in words the feeling of God (i.e. “the motion of the sea”). But he also knows that the results of his creative process can be varied. A song can be a true celebration and expression of God (“there’s someone there”). Alternatively, sometimes a song leaves Dylan all by himself (“it’s only me”). He is alone and exposed, left “hanging in the balance of the reality of man.” For Dylan, “Every Grain of Sand” is not only a celebration of God, but it’s also describing how Dylan himself feels about his relationship with God in the act of creation.
“Every Grain of Sand” is the last song on 1981’s Shot of Love. As I explored in an earlier post, this album marked Dylan’s turning away from solely singing about God and starting to look towards secular concerns and themes in his work again. While Shot of Love still contains songs of faith, it also includes an elegy to Lenny Bruce, 15 years after the comedian’s death. In the immediate aftermath of being born again, he only performed his Christian-era songs in concert. By 1981, older songs such as “Like A Rolling Stone” were again featured in setlists. After Shot of Love was released and the 1981 tour was completed, Dylan changed direction. There was no tour in 1982, and the songs that he recorded in 1983 were far less direct about God and faith in comparison to the songs of the 1978-1981 period. Heck, Dylan made it clear about the new direction by calling the 1983 album Infidels.
“Every Grain of Sand” serves as an elegy, a goodbye to singing solely about God. It’s the last song on the album and has an anthemic quality reserved for Dylan’s greatest songs. Perhaps Dylan felt that in this piece of writing, he had finally captured what he wanted to say about God and God’s place in Dylan’s vocation as a writer and performer.
There is an earlier, demo version of “Every Grain of Sand” that needs to be discussed.
The Shot of Love version is a big band sound with guitars, pianos, and a saxophone and features two full verse harmonica solos. Dylan is ensuring that he is using all of his available resources to deliver a full, powerful statement. On the other hand, the demo version is smaller in accompaniment – two guitars and backup vocals by Jennifer Warnes. (An aside: Warnes at that time was known for her beautiful work singing with Leonard Cohen, another accomplished writer with – ahem – nontraditional vocal stylings.) The demo is decidedly offhand in what it captures. This version starts in one tempo, but immediately speeds up to a different tempo, suggesting that Dylan is still playing with the delivery. Once the musicians lock in, the song is decidedly gentler than the Shot of Love version, but no less powerful. Dylan is singing in an upper register and delivering the words with feeling and passion and supported beautifully by Warnes. The demo was finally released on 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, ten years after it was recorded.
I remember listening to the demo version for the first time and about halfway through, I thought, “How is this not the version that was released? This is perfect.” And then a dog barks. The musicians push through and keep playing. The stupid dog barks again. The take is not able to be used. Perhaps they tried again, but couldn’t capture that original feeling of the first run through and the session was abandoned. We talked about the idea of the “person from Porlock” in our “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” post, the inadvertent villain who ruins art. This time that villain is a dog, tarnishing a beautiful version of one of Dylan’s greatest compositions.
Photo by: Scott Bunn