Few would question the greatness of the song “Every Grain of Sand,” from 1981’s album Shot of Love. Even those great many who didn’t get that album acknowledged that Dylan had penned a classic for the closing track.
As quotes go, there’s a relatively famous one from Leonard Cohen, responding to someone’s review of Shot of Love, where the reviewer had dismissed the record as containing “only one masterpiece,” in “Every Grain of Sand.” Cohen exclaimed, “My God! Only one masterpiece. Does this guy have any idea what it takes to produce a single masterpiece?”
“Every Grain of Sand” is also noteworthy for one of Dylan’s most conspicuous lyrical revisions. The released version has as its closing couplet: “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Off-hand, I don’t know that there is a single live version where he sings the couplet that way (though my knowledge is not exhaustive). Instead, in the versions I’ve heard, it’s “I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan … .” However, this wasn’t a change so much as a change back, illustrated by the demo version that was released on the Bootleg Series Vols 1-3 (the version with backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and a distant barking dog). On that, which was recorded in September of 1980, the line is: “perfect finished plan.” So he rethought it for the Shot of Love session, and then thought better of it again.
Oddly, I think “reality of man” sounds better, while “perfect finished plan” expresses the thought better, and finishes the song better in some sense – but who knows if this was part of Dylan’s own decision process.
The Shot of Love version features one of Dylan’s most poignant ever recorded harmonica solos. Somewhere in the fog of my memory I recall hearing a radio interview with one of Dylan’s backing singers (back in the 1980s) where it was said that Dylan himself had in mind to use a saxophone solo on that song. He was entreated by everyone to play his harmonica instead, and thankfully did so, producing the treasured take that was released.
A very nice live version, I think (though without harmonica) is this, which is also the most recent one, from November 27th, 2005 in Dublin, Ireland.
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 a perfect finished plan
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.