Originally Published: 2 July, 2012.
What makes Dylan truly great is that he constantly evolves musically and continues to write songs that stand up to his early genius. As I have focused on his early work so far, in this post I will focus on two of Dylan’s later works, ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’. Listen to a live performance by Dylan in 1984 of ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ here. Watch Dylan’s official music video for ‘Not Dark Yet’ here.
These songs are songs which can only have been written with the experience of age. Dylan’s world-weary whiskey-soaked voice is perfect for these songs. ‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’ as a phrase and the song as a whole encapsulates the process of aging perfectly. There is a distinct air of world-weariness which pervades the song, particularly in lines such as, ‘Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain, Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain’.
However there is a strength that comes from this world-weariness and cynicism, the strength of self-reliance and independence. This can be seen in ‘I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies, I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes’.
Joan and Bob Hug.
The last phrase, ‘I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes’ is the ultimate affirmation of independence, an realisation which can only come after a lifetime of broken promises and broken relationships. The strength that comes from this realisation can be seen in the use of the word, ‘steel’, in ‘Feel like my soul has turned into steel’.
‘Not Dark Yet’ is an evocation in song of an ancient withered face. Both the strength that comes with age and the psychic battering one must endure over a lifetime are evoked in, ‘Feel like my soul has turned into steel, I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal’.
‘Every Grain Of Sand’ fuses biblical imagery and illusions to William Blake’s poety with Dylan’s own unique vision. The line, ”Every Grain Of Sand’ may have been inspired by Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’; ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour’. The Blakeian theme of innocence and experience flows throughout ‘Every Grain Of Sand’. Dylan’s the doorway of temptation echoes Blake’s ‘The Doors of Perception’.
Like, ‘Not Dark Yet’, the theme of ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ is that of a man ruminating on his life. However whilst the narrator in ‘Not Dark Yet’ seems to have some peace and is looking back on a life, the narrator of ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ is very much caught up in the present and its troubles. It’s a song about the moment, the flashing moment, which slips through one’s fingers like quicksilver and is as hard to hold onto as a grain of sand.
Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Hamburg ’84.
This focus on the present is shown in the lyrics, ‘Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake, Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break’. Whereas the narrator in ‘Not Dark Yet’ is able to look back at the mistakes of the past, the narrator of ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ has no desire to. This may be a reflection of the fact that Dylan was much younger when he wrote, ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ (circa 1981) than when he wrote ‘Not Dark Yet’ (circa 1997).
The same feeling of world-weariness mixed with acceptance of being alone in ‘Not Dark Yet’ is also present in ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ with ‘In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space, In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face’.
Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Hamburg ’84.
Both songs have the theme of going from ‘rags to riches’ with ‘I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night, In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light’ in ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ and ‘Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree’ in ‘Not Dark Yet’.
There is a stronger sense of morality in ‘Every Grain Of Sand’, seen in lyrics such as ‘Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair’ and ‘In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand’. This may be a reflection of the song being written during Dylan’s Born Again Christian period. Significantly, in ‘Not Dark Yet’ death is alluded to as ‘It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there’, which is combines an image from nature and the literary device of light and darkness as well as having religious connotations. Both songs are an important part of the Dylan canon and stand up to his greatest masterpieces.