Bob Dylan Countdown #117: “All Along The Watchtower”Posted: February 15, 2012
One of the great unanswered questions in the Bob Dylan story is just what would have become of “All Along The Watchtower” had Jimi Hendrix not turned the song into the classic rock standard it is today. Would it be anywhere near as well-known as it is now? Would we still all be wading through the allegorical stew of the lyrics trying to figure out what is going and why? Or would it be just another album cut for Dylan obsessives like me to ponder and the rest of the world to ignore?
As I’ve said before, I prepared this list based on the original renderings of the song or, in some cases, the Dylan versions that have become definitive. The version on John Wesley Harding is more propulsive than the other songs on that album, which is a little like saying a turtle is more propulsive than a sloth. Those songs were muted by design, so for one to break out of the pack, it needs to be something special melodically or lyrically.
It’s OK, I guess, melodically, although I don’t think people go around humming “All Along The Watchtower.” Lyrically, its main calling card is its beguiling impenetrability. Basically, you’ve got a discussion between the joker (harried and frustrated) and the thief (philosophical and practical), followed by the last verse’s threatening vision of oncoming battle, capped by the thrilling final line: “Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” A lot of cool individual lines throughout, but all together, a head-scratcher.
I’m sure there are some people who would argue that Dylan’s version is better than Jimi’s because of its subtlety; it insinuates subtly while Hendrix pounds the apocalypse into our brains with his furious guitar. I don’t think those people are right necessarily; there’s a reason why Bob performs Jimi’s version in concert. But it is a valid argument.
I feel like Dylan’s original version is perfect in this spot. It’s not an epic or a work of astounding skill and insight, but it is far deeper than what most songwriters can hope to accomplish. Bob said a thunderstorm inspired its creation, and, all Biblical and other interpretations aside, that might be the way to think about his version: As a mysterious, sudden storm that disappears almost as quickly as it arrives. Hendrix’ version is more like a tornado inside a hurricane in the middle of a meteor shower.
Take your pick, but let’s agree that Jimi Hendrix deserves a great deal of the credit when we consider the durability of “All Along The Watchtower.”