There’s a voice inside my head. It is a nasally voice, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter. It is up there in my head for good. I can’t shake it. I’m not sure I want to anyway. The voice is caustic, healing, infuriating, compelling, soothing, agitating… Subterranean. The words the voice speaks spell out the inner landscape of my mind; I can see my life spelled out in those words. When I see them written out on a page, I hear the voice again, I’m brought back or forward or present to a certain moment that gets created or recreated or rewritten again.
I suspect I am not the only one who has this odd connection with Bob Dylan and his words and his music. When I was properly introduced to his music in my teens, something changed for me in how I understood just about everything. The outer landscape of the world, the inner landscape of me: Dylan gave me a different frame of reference for these things.
Artists inspire artists, art begets art. Dylan the artist is one of the Giants in my own life in this respect. I cannot underestimate the impact of this singer/songwriter/poet/philosopher/preacher/conman/troubadour on my life. Of all the music I listen to (and it’s A LOT of music!) Dylan remains the foundation for me, my Five Books of Moses, my Law. If that sounds like it has spiritual significance, well, “Amen, brother!”
I know this probably sounds a bit nutty to people who only know Bob as that odd little musician with a voice that sounds like a cow with its leg stuck in a barbed-wire fence (Bob’s own description of his voice, by the way). Or if you only know him by the handful of songs they play on the radio. I understand your confusion. I make no apologies. Likely there is something in your life, some influence, some musician or writer, that has profoundly affected you to which I would respond with a quizzical face and a erudite comment like, “Hunh?” We all have something or someone we treasure that seems to others to be quite plain. Or just plain weird.
For me it’s Bob. It will likely always be Bob. So it is fitting that for my birthday Monique bought me the book above, “Bob Dylan, The Lyrics 1961-2012”. I once owned every Dylan album – on vinyl – from his eponymous debut in 1961 to “Empire Burlesque”(1985), plus a couple of bootlegs to boot: a total of about twenty-five records. Now the largest section devoted to one artist on my shelves of CDs is Dylan; about twenty-six of those. The book covers every song he wrote and recorded over those years and over the course of thirty-one albums.
As I paged through it, I was struck not only by how many songs I knew, but how the voice began singing in my head, the certain inflections and emphases placed on words and phrases; the times he whispers, the times he yells, the times he sounds so sweet and the times his voice grates on you like sandpaper. It’s the Dylan experience that either draws you in or drives you away, or both. And, man, I love him for it!
Every Dylanphile has their favorite song, of course. My guess is that they are almost always based on the uniqueness of that person and how that song impacts them on a personal level. For me that song is the first one I sought out in the book to read in its entirety and pour over the lyrics again. It comes from a time in Dylan’s creative and personal life in which he received perhaps the greatest criticism and scorn, his so-called “Christian” phase. Fans will tell you that he has always had a spiritual edge to his music, always had references to the Bible and to other scriptures, always written the words of a seeker or a doubter or a true-believer. It was the overt Gospel quality of the music, the evangelical tone, the in-your-face message of the corner street-preacher that pissed so many people off. It was not the only time in his life that people thought Dylan had lost it.
The last of his now-called “Christian Trilogy” of albums was called “Shot of Love”, and it contains perhaps one of the best-written and sublime songs in his entire oeuvre. For me, as a person who is both a man of faith and an artist, it struck a chord in me years and years ago that still resonates. I’ve printed up the song below for you to read.
I don’t expect you to be converted to the Gospel of Bob. But I do hope you’ll be better able to understand how this eccentric genius can impact so many through his words and music.
Every Grain of Sand by Bob Dylan, from the album “Shot of Love” (1981)
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair
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
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 the journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand
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 the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand