It is a litmus test of musical adulation that you always recollect the first time you heard a particular piece of music. The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix was when I pestered my father into buying me a Polydor tape. After having been initially taken in by the dark sounding vocals of Jim Morrison and the even darker machinations of Ray Manzarek on ‘L.A. Woman’ (one of the first rock tapes I had listened to) boredom set in a while later, due to constant play of the same tape (how long could the riders last out the storm?). The Hendrix tape, titled ‘The Ultimate Experience’ purchased at a princely amount of Rs 95 circa 2000 was post-acquisition safely docked into my first and only Walkman (a black and red BPL) and with tingling fingers I pushed play. After the initial buzz of the spool opening up, there erupted a semi-frantic strumming of an acoustic guitar (the credits on the back of the tape pointed that it was a 12 stringer c/o Dave Mason, more famous for being a co-founder of Traffic) with a drummer warming up the intro, then an even frenzied but ever so relaxed attack of electric fret magic and finally a smoky voice breaking into, “There must be some kind of way out of here…” The song was All Along the Watchtower. Interestingly it was written by another legend-Bob Dylan.
The song having been penned by the ‘lyrical/poetic power extraordinaire’ has seen its various interpretations by rock critics to Literature professors. The most popular analysis of the song is that of the allusion to the ‘Book of Isaiah’ who is also incidentally known as the ‘barefoot servant’. One of the reasons cited for this is the background of the time when Dylan wrote this song. All Along the Watchtower and the rest of the tracks which appeared first on the 1967 album John Wesley Harding was written post his famous motorcycle accident in the previous year, a year for quiet introspection, recuperation and a growing interest in the Bible.
Another theory, though the allegory is quite a stretch of imagination but definitely more visual if the lyrics are listened to carefully, is that of the mythology of the American West where, in the final lines we hear of ‘Two riders were approaching/ And the wind began to howl.’ Dylan known for his political shenanigans could also have made implicit references to American foreign policy especially with respect to Vietnam. My own interpretation is that of a world fast deteriorating of values and ‘the joker and the thief’ being the only super-hero characters who can fight the sins and stupidity of man and prevent a social apocalypse. However one reads the analysis, the song itself is quite sparse and taut, three verses long and a narrative which changes chronological timing in such a way that the end of the last verse is actually when the whole story strangely begins. Commenting on the story-telling involved Dylan stated in an interview with the folk music magazine Sing Out! in October 1968, “I haven’t fulfilled the balladeer’s job. A balladeer can sit down and sing three songs for an hour and a half… it can all unfold to you. These melodies on John Wesley Harding lack this traditional sense of time. As with the third verse of “The Wicked Messenger”, which opens it up, and then the time schedule takes a jump and soon the song becomes wider… The same thing is true of the song “All Along the Watchtower”, which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order.”
All Along the Watchtower however does not stand out as a classic today due to Dylan himself. That job of reinterpreting and clearly redefining the sound-scape of this song, branding it into our collective consciousness has to be entirely credited to Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix came across the song when he heard it first being played at a party thrown by Dave Mason. The same night he recorded it and it was released on the phenomenal Electric Ladyland album in 1968. The Dylan-esque folk is replaced with a raw, screeching, urgent, rock and roll edge. Structurally the song changes tempo with Hendrix gradually shifting gears after each verse ends, in search for a higher note. The finale breaks through with him reaching for the final note which he repeats over and over, not only indicating the ‘howling wind’ but also of dark and ominous times ahead, leaving the listener a bit disoriented and yet it ends, like the lyrics without a resolution. Dylan himself was blown by Hendrix’s rendition and added the end guitar solo whenever he played it afterwards. 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.”
Being a Dylan song it has seen its various interpretations from- The Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead to The Killers and Phish. Dave Mason who famously introduced the song to Hendrix did his own cover version. U2 covered it with an additional verse at a couple of live shows. It is also featured in a scene of their rockumentary Rattle and Hum. It’s a Dave Matthews Band favourite since their inception, often playing it as a closing song to their concert or an encore, in usual DMB style starting off slowly, picking up intensity after the second verse, extended solos and a fantastic finish. Neil Young does an interesting version with Booker T. and the M.G.’s at the Dylan 30th Anniversary Celebration at Madison Square Garden. Eddie Vedder & the Million Dollar Bashers did a fab cover for the OST of the Dylan biopic by Todd Haynes, I’m Not There. It also has a Greek version by Dionysis Savvopoulos titled “Paliatsos kai listis” which translates into ‘the joker and the thief’!
Excerpts of lyrics appear in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s seminal comic book series Watchmen where chapter 10 is titled “Two Riders Were Approaching”. Hendrix’s version is played during the same scene in the film adaptation. The same version also appears in various movies most notably- Forrest Gump. The Simpsons featured it in two episodes involving Homer’s mother. The song also became a thematic motif and plot element in the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. The Australian band Wolfmother paid tribute to Dylan and his lore with their hit single ‘Joker and the Thief’. With such pop culture influence and interest from the music fraternity it is little wonder that All Along the Watchtower according to the site http://hisbobness.info/ beats Like a Rolling Stone to the number one most played song at concerts by Dylan.
Dylan’s indictment in the song stood strong in the 1960’s when he wrote it. In recent years at his live performances he ends the song with the following words- ‘None of them along the line/ Know what any of it is worth’, a reference maybe to the current state of political and socio-economic turmoil. Same words, different times or maybe the same times as well. And that’s probably why the song endures.
You can listen to Dylan’s original here. This is the best we could manage with Sony pulling most Dylan material off the net. Nevertheless, below are some other tribute videos. And you can find the lyrics of the song here.