Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower

For a long time I have been fascinated by All Along the Watchtower – one of many songs written by nobel prize winner Bob Dylan that invoke a special atmosphere. It was recorded on November 6, 1967, first appeared on the album John Wesley Harding, and has been included on several of Dylan’s Greatest Hits compilations.

A performance at Woodstock 1994:

According to Untold Dylan, it is the song that Dylan performed live the most times (over 1.000!, counted up to September 2019).

Interpretations of All Along the Watchtower

There may be various ways of interpreting the lyrics. Bob Dylan Song Analysis suggests it is “about attitudes towards corruption and privilege”. Others see it as a conversation between the devil (joker) and Jesus (thief; reference: bible, “thief in the night”, e. g. Peter 3:10). The same topic is also suggested with the opposite reference: Jesus as the joker (Tarot; Jesus at the cross next to the “good thief”).

Reaching the borders of the earthly realm

From our perspective, the song describes the moment a spiritual seeker realizes that nothing in this world can satisfy his inner longing. He has reached the border, reminiscent of a famous scene in the great movie Truman Show (at 3:40; Truman = true man = seeker of the truth).

Looking for a way out of this fake world

Now he is looking for a way out of this fake world:

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

He does not receive the answers he is so desperately looking for from established institutions. Why are we alive, what shall we live for, what is life worth?

Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth

The protagonists are outsiders, they haven’t found a comfortable place in society (and probably wouldn’t feel at home if they had): a thief and a joker. But they are not on their own: many people feel similarly.

No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

The cup of experience has been filled often enough – they do not want to keep playing the old game over and over again. So it is about time to embark on a new path. Honesty is a key attribute now, especially in the sense of self-knowledge.

But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

It is crucial to stay alert, to dive into the magic of the here-and-now. They will not postpone fulfillment to some vague “later” which never comes. There is no time to waste.

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

The outer life continues (“the show must go on”) while their inner focus has shifted. The watchtower serves as a landmark, a boundary stone.

Flammarion engraving
Flammarion engraving, Paris 1888, for Flammarion’s 1888 L’atmosphère : météorologie populaire (p. 163); colored by Heikenwaelder Hugo, Wien 1998; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cover versions of All Along the Watchtower / Jimi Hendrix

Like many other Dylan songs, this one has been covered by various artists, including Neil Young, U2, Pearl Jam, Grateful Dead, Bryan Ferry and Carlos Santana. The author himself highly praised Jimi Hendrix’ version:

Dylan has described his reaction to hearing Hendrix’s version: “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” In the booklet accompanying his Biograph album, Dylan said: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way … Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”

Wikipedia (March 15th, 2020)

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