Friday, April 9, 2010

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower

SONG All Along the Watchtower 


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.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth
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."

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...


  1. I've always loved the Hendrix version myself. I have fond memories of this tune; a buddy and long-ago housemate of mine and I used to do all-night jams on this. And since he was the lead guitarist in a reggae band, those jams could get pretty funky; "All Along the Watchtower" sounds pretty good with a reggae beat!

  2. You asked for it, you got it!

    Have you seen Battlestar Galactica? The dialogue in the last season is littered with references to AATW.

  3. Heh, heh! That was certainly interesting! Never heard of Heyoka before though; interesting that a reggae band would be named after the Lakota sacred clowns.

    I don't own a TV, so I've missed the whole Battlestar Galactica thing.

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  6. I mailed you on this long time back, saying something along the lines of ....

    Would this thing be be almost forgotten about entirely, were it not for Jimi's magic?

    The view I always had was that Dylan didn't really think too much of the thing until Hendrix revolutionised it and almost made it into a different thing entirely! This is evidenced in how Dylan performs the song live - musically it's always more Jimi than Bob! So are most of the covers I've heard.

    The lyrics are kind of sketchy really - and strangely at the same time somewhat overblown (although the last portentous and enigmatic couplet is amazing!) Bob probably knocked them up right there in the studio.

    It really seems the song needs the Hendrix style musicality to flesh it out.

    As to the lyric ... this oozes imagery from The Torah and its mutated twin, the so-called "Old Testament" - and, importantly, Revelations of course!

    For me, the song conjures up an array of such images ... from the annihilation of the corrupt, depraved Sodom and Gomorrah ... to the two thieves crucified either side of Christ (one was known as 'The Good Thief' - perhaps the second was a joker?!') ... to (mostly) Armageddon and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

    In that vein, the song's perhaps a castigation of Capitalism - which everyone in the West seems to forget/ignore is founded on false idols and thus an absolute anathema to the Bible's fundamental teachings ('There is no God but God' etc etc) - and here righteous vengeance is about to be applied by the Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Capitalist / Bourgeois/ Masonic infidels, with the thief and joker (a gypsy perhaps) being excluded as they live outside that system and don't succumb to it's sinful lure.

    A Beckett/Pinter type post-modern image too strikes me where perhaps it is in fact the joker and the thief who are themselves the Horsemen of Doom on their way to "work"!

    Or maybe the whole thing's just based on some crazy drug trip Bob had and means nothing!!