Dylan in 1980: moving from the Christian songs into beauty and confusion.

by Tony Attwood

Dylan had spent the whole of 1979 writing primarily Christian songs and continued this theme into 1980.  

All of the early songs of the year were clearly Christian in message and Property of Jesus was perhaps the most overt, but then in that contrary and intriguing way that Dylan has, he suddenly produced Every grain of sand which could easily be interpreted not a religious song at all, but a song of despair about religion.

The problem with the song is we never know who the Master is: is it the Christian God or the Taoist master such as the mystical Lao Tsu, to give one other example.

What makes this so interesting is that this is a song of convoluted and obscure imagery and messages straight after “Property of Jesus” (which in terms of the year’s history) is as clear as it gets.

The second verse of “Every grain” contains some of Dylan’s most elegant poetry within one of his most elegant of melodies…

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

As I said in my review of the song, William Blake (who was clearly a major influence here) wrote “We are led to believe a lie” and I think this beautiful reflective song has this notion at its heart.  Just consider the lines.

Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

My task in reviewing the song was just that, to review the song, and not specifically think what else Dylan was doing in that year.  Thus in response to the lyrics of this exquisite piece of music I wrote “To me these are not Christian questions, but questions from a man who is interested in a much deeper philosophy that asks questions relating to the very nature of man without having the God-given certainty of the answers….. Dylan is gazing into the doorway, not just of temptation, but of his own future.”

As I say, I wrote that little comment without at the time having a clear list of the order in which Dylan wrote songs this year,but I think it is incredibly interesting to note that Every Grain was then followed by the majestically confused and confusing Caribbean Wind – the review of which I have just reworked.  The lines of this song have been changed so many times that nothing makes sense any more.  Maybe that was the point.

But the confusion theme does help us understand that Bob himself at this time was confused, and he keeps the confusion going with Groom’s still waiting at the alter.  Indeed lines such as

Prayed in the ghetto with my face in the cement,
Heard the last moan of a boxer, seen the massacre of the innocent
Felt around for the light switch, became nauseated.
She was walking down the hallway while the walls deteriorated.

could just has easily been written into one of the many re-writes of Caribbean Wind as destined for the Groom.

And we get more of it with the next song Yonder comes sin  (also one that was seemingly abandoned).  It is extraordinary that Bob could devise these extraordinary pieces of music one after the other, and then abandon them all.   The Year of Abandoned Masterpieces indeed – and he keeps going with at least a couple of versions of Let’s keep it between us.

But Bob is never anything if not contrary, so he ended the year with … a piece of gospel.  City of Gold.  Make of that sudden change what you will.

I don’t know what to make of it, nor do I know what to make my song of the year from this amazing collection.  Caribbean Wind is the automatic reaction, but if there was an LP that had that track, followed by the Groom, Yonder Comes Sin and Every Grain I’d just let it go through auto-repeat until the neighbours called the police to tell me to stop.

What is on the site

1: Over 360 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

One comment

  1. Hi Tony,

    FWIW here’s my simplistic take. For students of scripture it’s obvious who Bob is referring to in Every Grain of Sand.

    Bob has been quoted as saying “I am a true believer.”

    Even true believers question their faith at times……. i.e. Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me. I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man.

    It’s my opinion, but from Highway 61 to today he’s held up his end of the bargain to the God of Abraham. Who else could the Commander in Chief be that he was referring to in response to Ed Bradley on 60 minutes? What did his Daddy say about the possibility of becoming so defiled in this world…? My 2 cents.

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