I’m planning to sing All Along The Watchtower at tomorrow’s Coconut Rawai open mic night, a song I really love. Bob Dylan wrote it the same year (1967) that Like A Rolling Stone was written, a song I’ve played since I was a busker 40 years ago now. I played that one at the last open mic night and it’s thought to be about the vanity and shallowness of people in Andy Warhol’s circle, maybe about Andy himself (the Diplomat with the Siamese cat?).
All Along The Watchtower is a very different song lyrically and is full of doom and foreboding. Dylan is probably the “joker” and his manager the “thief” in the lyrics. The “Watchtower” is straight out of the 21st chapter of The Book of Isaiah: “Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield…. Go set a watchman, let him declare what he sees. And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen…”
It’s thought to be about Dylan’s fight at that time with CBS and his manager to get a fairer royalties rate for his songs, being written while Dylan recovered from a motorcycle accident. Dylan was also under pressure at that time to write more songs because of his huge new standing in American society. It wasn’t a happy time for him.
Dylan’s original recording is very basic, so basic one never hears it played. However, this song has been covered so many times, most famously by Jimi Hendrix. It’s a popular jam song where guitarists can show off their talents (not me, however, as I’m lousy at lead.) It’s difficult to bring anything new to it in any arrangement as it is musically such a simple song. At least that means we’re spared a reggae version I suppose …
No, the strength of Dylan’s songs is undoubtedly in his lyrics. Apart from maybe Peter Hamill of Van der Graff Generator, no one is in Dylan’s league when it comes to this. No other musician has ever won a Nobel Prize for them. No one. Dylan is unique.
Not many people make much effort to understand historically what is going on in this gifted songwriter’s mind. It’s not difficult today with Wikipedia to help us do so.
However, as I am a history enthusiast, I will be saying a few words in explanation before playing this song to the Coconut Rawai audience.
It seems only fair to such a lyrical genius as Bob Dylan, in whose shadow all songwriters will forever stand.
There must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Business men, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the line
Nobody offered his word
No reason to get excited
The thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But, uh, but you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Well, outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl