WRITTEN BY Bob Dylan
PERFORMED BY Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix
APPEARS ON John Wesley Harding (1967); Electric Ladyland (1968)
NOTE 1 Dylan was so taken with the Hendrix rendition that he performs that arrangement in concert to this day. NOTE 2 The melody and lyrics to "All Along the Watchtower" played a critical role in the final season of the SciFi channel series Battlestar Galactica. NOTE 3 Sony has removed from YouTube all videos all Dylan's original acoustic arrangement, so I can't include that here.
Many Dylan fans and scholars conclude that "All Along the Watchtower" is a middling song that achieved classic status only because of Jimi Hendrix' epic cover version. The lyrics, they argue, are impenetrably cryptic and depend on metaphor that makes no sense: Dave Van Ronk wrote -- irrelevantly and incorrectly, it seems to me -- that "a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can't go along it." Van Ronk believed that Dylan's reputation allowed him to get away with lyrics that anyone else would have pilloried over.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree, starting with the obvious point: The lyrics are quintessential Dylan and no one else could have written them. Dylan recorded "Watchtower" in Nashville as part of the sessions that produced John Wesley Harding, the first album released after his 1966 motorcycle accident. Although the details of the accident remain obscure, it apparently inspired Dylan to turn to the Biblical and apocalyptic imagery that populates both John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes, the sessions for which actually preceded Harding. The succinctness and directness of "All Along the Watchtower" stand out on an album of songs notable for their elliptical symbolism and elusive meanings that often seem just barely out of reach.
Dylan's original acoustic version (unavailable for linking) is ominous and evocative, with its last line ("the wind began to howl") giving way to a stark and icy harmonica solo. The song emphatically rejects the nihilism that Dylan sees at the heart of commerce:
Businessmen, they drink my wine. Ploughmen dig my earth.The joker and thief are outsiders who recognize that modern life creates "too much confusion," Cassandras warning the rest of us that "the hour is getting late." In fact, the song is laden with portent: "There's too much confusion," "let us not talk falsely now," "princes kept the view," "a wildcat did growl."
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth
Who are the mysterious two riders? I see them as a tabula rasa upon which listeners can impose their worst fears of a society that defines success by wealth and position. For no reason supported by the lyrics, I've always imagined Dickens' children Ignorance and Want grown up, mounted, and on the offensive. But that's the marvel of the song: It conjures your most acute dread, which in turn impels you to not talk falsely and to pace the watchtower of your existence, ever alert for the two horsemen.
"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief
"There's too much confusion. I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine. Ploughmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
"No reason to get excited," the thief he kindly spoke
"There are many here among who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate.
Let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late."
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching; the wind began to howl.
Bob kicks butt around the mid-90s:
Jimi at the Isle of Wight in 1970:
Battlestar Galactica Watchtower montage here...