Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #106: All Along the Watchtower


A few months ago I went to see Watchmen, Zach Snyder's much-anticipated film adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel masterpiece. Much like Gravity's Rainbow or Finnegan's Wake, I'd always thought Watchmen was more or less unfilmable, and for Snyder to have made an adaptation that wasn't completely horrible is a commendable feat. That being said, the movie was overwrought, badly acted at times, and (almost amazingly) boring at times, no mean feat considering how exciting the graphic novel is. I bring this up not because I'm attempting to turn this into a movie review blog, but because at one point in the movie Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" pops up on the soundtrack - a soundtrack that just so happens to be littered with famous songs of the past 40 years, as a (somewhat cheap) way of using cultural touchstones to help the audience connect to the film. It's somewhat justified in this case - "All Along the Watchtower" lends the title to one of the book's chapters - but the simple fact that Hendrix's version has been used in so many damn movies for the same purpose kind of makes it look hackneyed.

It's sort of funny how that works - Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" has now become a sort of audio/visual shorthand for the 1960s, just as much an easy way to invoke that decade as showing the peace sign or talking about JFK. And it's even funnier that the song is used to invoke one rather specific version of the 60s - the flower power/hippies/peace and love 1960s, with the love beads and the acres of pot and all that. It's both something of a cheat, and a very clever way of summoning a mental image quickly. And it speaks a lot about the power of music that we can actually use these songs as shorthand for an entire decade, where we can hear something like "The Power of Love" and go "okay, that's the 1980s", or hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and immediately think of the 1990s. Sure, Hollywood has taken that identification to its logical lazy extremes - who doesn't sort of cringe thinking about The Big Chill, or any number of crappy Vietnam movies blasting the entire Time-Life collection over images of gunboats cruising down a river or grunts shouldering their automatic rifles in the heat of the jungle? But that's a co-opting of music that we should be used to by now; we should welcome something that can, if properly used, help condense the confusing and complicated sectors of our human existence.

I have been known, in the past, to have composed a few songs of my own; like about 99% of all songwriters that have ever lived, most of them were utter rubbish, with maybe one or two exceptions. But what I took away from the songwriting experience (this is gonna sound real obvious, but bear with me) is just how extremely personal that experience actually is. And I think that, by default, the songwriting experience in general is one that is extremely tied in to what kind of person the songwriter or songwriters actually are. Love songs are obvious; even writers of protest songs or historical songs add their own slant to the proceedings, choosing to take a viewpoint that (in general) matches their own, or writing about a figure or event in a way that shows either their approval or disapproval thereof. There are surely exceptions out there - one can only imagine the number of crass scribbled pop singles designed purely to sell records (and not in the good way, i.e. Motown's carefully considered pop symphonies), and I'm not sure "Imagine" is totally in line with John Lennon's otherwise skewed and acidic view of the world. But, for the most part, a song is going to have somebody's voice deeply embedded within it.

Which makes it all the stranger, then, when one of those songs takes on a meaning far beyond what the songwriter intended, when a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Hotel California" becomes more than just a song, so to speak. I'm reasonably sure that Bob Dylan, when writing "All Along the Watchtower", never dreamed that one of the rising superstars of music in that era would hear the song, love it so much that he'd adopt it into the metier of his uber-genius guitar abilities and his tremendously talented band, and have that song become a touchstone for the decade for over 40 years and counting. But I'm also reasonably sure that it is the rare listener of that song that ever pays much attention to the lyrics when they hear Hendrix's version of the song. I might be talking out of turn here, but the words to "All Along the Watchtower" are by no means the calling card of Hendrix's take; when we think of that song, we think of the thundering instrumental attack of the intro, the pounding, insistent thrum of Dave Mason's twelve-string rhythm guitar, and of Hendrix spinning off classic solo after classic solo. We tend not to think about the Biblical allusions all that much. That's just how it is.

And that is something I think is worth thinking about the next time you see one of those movies that try to show something epic or grandly historical or whatever, and one of those iconic songs pops up on the soundtrack. These songs were not written in order for all of us to go "oh, okay, there's the era right there" or to plant some sort of marker in a period of time that now can seem distant and hazy to us young whippersnappers. Those songs were written for reasons only really comprehensible to the people that wrote those songs (and sometimes not even then), with meanings that can often be very meaningful and occasionally painful to the writers, and with emotions that burned powerful at the time of the writing of the song. And, in that sense, that piece of the person, that little window of their personality imprinted into the words and music, have now become co-opted for all eternity, a part of our own national consciousness just as much as a part of their personal consciousness. I'm not sure if that's always a good thing, but it's certainly a very meaningful thing. History, after all, is not created by robots, but by people doing things and moving along our world. And when that history can be encoded in three verses and four chords, that's something truly special.


It does occasionally behoove me to wonder what exactly it was that Hendrix saw in "All Along the Watchtower" and made him decide to record his take, one so instantly iconic that now Dylan has more or less made it his own, performing the song in concert with the heavy guitar attack Hendrix afforded it. It's possible that Hendrix heard that simple four (maybe even three) chord attack, with its haunting minor chords ringing out, and the equally simple studio arrangement, and figured that this was a good melody to hang his explosive solos upon. Perhaps he was just drawn to the starkness of Dylan's take, the same way that countless artists afterwards have been drawn to it, and have wanted to make it their own and add their own spin to a song that virtually has no spin to its own. Maybe the words and music just hit him the right way at the right time, who knows.

I suppose I'm kind of stalling for time right now - I've almost dreaded talking about this song as an actual song and not as a cultural phenomenon, simply because the lyrics have been picked over and picked over and picked over. Wikipedia links to an interesting analysis of the song, one that I might have picked up upon had it already not been thrown out there for the world to see. I'm reminded, looking at these analyses, of something Alan Moore (him again) threw out in his wrapup of From Hell, where he talked about just how difficult it is to find something new in the Jack the Ripper case, with over a hundred years and just as many researchers digging into a trail long gone cold. The Koch Snowflake, and I hope I'm getting this right, is essentially a series of triangles being drawn over and over in a certain way, creating an infinite perimeter within a finite, closed space. Moore states that the Jack the Ripper case is the same way - you can throw out as many theories as you want, but ultimately all you have is what we know about those horrible murders, and in the end you're only going to get so far in your analysis of the case.

I think of the lyrics to "All Along the Watchtower" much the same way. What we have is three verses, two of which are dedicated entirely to a conversation between two people who disappear in the third verse, nothing in the way of a story (you could probably make one out of the "two riders were approaching" bit, but that comes at the very end), and this feeling of cryptic, puzzling doom. Hendrix's arrangement, as explosive as it was, could only heighten the apocalyptic aura of the song - that aura was there from the very beginning. And yet we really have nothing when it comes to the song; the whole thing is almost like one of those Creative Writing courses where you have the first part of a story and are meant to create the rest of the story from there, only the whole "rest of the story" bit was junked completely. And without that rest of the story, the more inquisitive listeners have tried to create that whole tale out of what we have, leaning on the Bible verse from the Book of Isaiah, trying to sneak glimpses of Dylan's own life into the lyrics, and slapping identities onto the joker, the thief, the princes, and so on and so forth. Koch's Snowflake in effect - we can think up all the fanciful speculation we want, but those twelve lines are where that speculation ultimately begins and ends.

I mean, doesn't it seem like quite a bit to attribute a host of meanings to Dylan sitting down, putting pen to paper or fingertips to typewriter keys, and banging out the three verses of this song? Far be it for me to cast stones on anybody that attempts to dig into what Dylan's talking about, but let's back up for a second and imagine Dylan with that Bible of his, putting his finger on Isaiah 21:5-9, and reading those words over and over again. Suddenly something just pops in his head, the same way it must have happened for Sherlock Holmes whenever he solved a case; gears start grinding, puzzle pieces are fitted together, and something magic arises almost out of nothing. He sits down and writes out this song, maybe changing a word here and there, junking lines that sound a little too clunky, tweaking the chord structure, seeing if the song sounds better faster or slower. Sometimes we forget that songs don't pop out fully formed, but come together through a long and arduous process of editing, testing, and occasional blind faith. But in the end Dylan did finish that process, and we got "All Along the Watchtower" out of it - and maybe he can't even explain why, when you really get down to it, he wrote the song the way thaat he did. I don't think anybody really can.

"All Along the Watchtower" has been feted as one of the greatest songs of all time, and as much as I think that reputation comes from Hendrix's definitive reading, I would say that just as much credit comes from those lyrics and the sense of mystery that inhabits those words. The vast majority of art is very clear-cut at its core; you think of a classic film like The Maltese Falcon, a great song like "God Only Knows", or a brilliant painting like Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates, and you can understand where they're coming from and what they're trying to get you to think or feel. But then you have something that doesn't push your buttons in that way, something that defies our traditional understanding of artwork, and it causes us to scratch our heads and go digging in our local libraries (or, ahem, Google) to help us reach that level of understanding. Dylan's catalog is full of songs that stand just beyond the reach of easy comprehension - I've been lucky enough to write posts about them that people have enjoyed reading - but rarely has he written a song in that vein that's so simple, so pared down and seemingly common in language and form, that still manages to frustrate us like the mythical word on the tip of our tongues. And it doesn't matter if those words are sung over a gentle acoustic backing, over heavy electric firepower, or with a classical backing - they still confound us, and beckon us to come and listen one more time, so that we might be able to understand.

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Md23Rewls said...

I wonder why Dylan never went back to the rustic-acoustic arrangement of the song, instead choosing to Hendrix it up whenever he does it live. A lot of people will say that Hendrix's version is better than the JWH original, but I am not one of those people. As thunderous and apocalyptic as Hendrix's legendary version is, Dylan's is far more chilling and real. There's something in that starkness that is foreboding and menacing, something that gets lost in the artillery fire of Hendrix's guitar. For me, Dylan's calm before the storm is more gripping than the storm itself.

You summed it up perfectly near the end of your post--a lot of Dylan, most of Dylan, lies just beyond what is easily definable or what you can easily put your finger on. His best songs are in some complete "otherness" that doesn't exactly make sense, but hits those buttons nonetheless. It's why Springsteen could never be the next Dylan. His songs are rooted in extremely tangible things--racin' in the street, working for the bossman, trying to escape your life. They're about what they're about. Even when Dylan's about what he's about, he's also not. You take Blood on the Tracks, an album that is reasonably accessible at first glance, but if you actually break it down, it's still in that Dylan world that exists all to itself, where everything's in another lifetime.

Reinaldo Garcia said...

Several years ago, I published a commentary on the song, in which I equated it with a Mobius strip: The third verse goes straight into the first verse, and the song can therefore be sung into infinity.

spearchamp said...

I can't profess to which version of the song is better; they both have their merits. Suffice it to say that it's the sign of true genius that a song can be interpretted in several ways . . . and the varying interpretations have their own power.

Cymbaline said...

As is often the case with Tony's wonderful blog...
the comments are as intriguing to read as the main text!

Uberbiker said...

Dylan discovered long ago (and I agree) that it is much better to create a framework with lyrics that allows the listener to hang their own meaning. He has taken this idea to its pinnacle with "All Along the Watchtower". It is one of my favorite songs to perform. I have an acoustic and an electric version. It is always well received. "A Simple Twist of Fate" is an example on a song that is about halfway there.

Heather said...

Another intriguing cover to hear on this song is the one done for the Battlestar Galactica series that was reimagined a few years back. They took his song and put a very middle-eastern slant onto it, so that it sounds like something that came out of Turkey or Persia or perhaps even India. It certainly gave it a different sound. The writers certainly played with the lyric's meanings, too, as they wrote the scripts for the show, weaving the song very tightly into the show, so that it wasn't shorthand for a decade, but became a signal for something else entirely. It was really quite fascinating to watch and gave an entirely different level of depth to the series.

David George Freeman said...

Well is this the greatest song every written? Must be up there. After you have finished reading this fine essay come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to why it may be number 1.