The Never Ending Tour – the absolute highlights: ”Every Grain of Sand”

By Tony Attwood

In this series I select my favourite performance by Dylan of a particular song from across the years of the Never Ending Tour – using of course the recordings selected from the mega-series which Mike Johnson is compiling for us and which has now reached episode 128.

In those 128 episodes we have 17 recordings of Every Grain of Sand, and I have just worked my way through them with increasing despair, not finding one that I could really say stands out.   Of course, this is my personal view, and really, who am I to judge what Bob does?   But even so, I still feel moved to consider the recordings, and wonder.  Because if you were to go through each one I think you might reach the same conclusion as me: that Bob has been trying between 2009 and 2013 to find a way to deliver an alternative version, but without success.

Except for once.   This one recording from 2007 stands out to me, head and shoulders above all the others.

Every grain of sand

While some of the alternative versions sound to me as if Bob had an idea and then let it happens, this version appears to have been worked out in detail.  It is as if the composer has gone back to the original and asked himself: what does this song mean?  Why is it here?  Why do I want to perform it?

And here he finds an answer.   While other versions virtually dispense with the melody completely, and indulge in endless repeats of one melodic line, here it is as if he has returned to the meaning rather than simply having a need to get through the lyrics.

I am not saying that this version is perfect; I am not convinced by the notion of the six repeats of specific chords, but even so this is a great step forward from other versions.   Even the harmonica solo seems to fit.

Indeed what we have is a song that has all the components of a song which keeps my interest, no matter how often I have heard it.    But now compare the above with this version from 2009 in which the lines are called out and the harmonica used between the lyrical lines.  It just feels to me as if this version arose from a desire to do something different with the song whereas the 2007 version above actually solves the problem.

This is not to say that I think the 2007 performance does the song its full justice, but I think it does get closer and does give some further insights into the lyrics.

Indeed I guess my feeling about this song comes particularly from the lyrics which I do find really moving

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the seaSometimes I turn, there's someone there, other time it's only meI am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished planLike every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

That contradiction of moods where on occasion one feels completely isolated but other times part of world, sharing all its joys and sorrows with everyone else…   I think these lines reflect that thought perfectly, but somehow on stage (and this as ever is just my thought) Bob doesn’t quite maximise the potential of the song.  But with the 2007 version, in my view he does get that much closer.

My guess is that the problems that I perceive with the performance of this song began with the album recording, which is very fixed and rigid in its rhythm and for me doesn’t have the sway and relaxation that the lyrics seem to demand.  So, extending guess upon guess, I think in the live performances Bob has been trying to move on from the rigidity of that recorded version and give us something more in keeping with the swaying motion of the lyrics.

Of course, I’m just an outsider listening in, but my view, for what it is worth, is that the perfect live performance of the song is yet to be found.

The (very personal) Absolute Highlights series

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