Last week, as mentioned in my previous post, I went to see Bob Dylan in concert in Cardiff. He finished his set with the song Rolling Stone Magazine readers voted the greatest rock song of all time, “Like A Rolling Stone“. His penultimate song was “All Along The Watchtower“, which he originally recorded on his 1967 album “John Wesley Harding“.
Soon after Dylan recorded this song, Jimi Hendrix recorded a very different version on his album Electric Ladyland. Apparently, upon hearing Hendrix’s version, Dylan said he preferred the cover, and from then on performed it more like Hendrix’s cover version than his own, original version.
In the 1987 U2 film “Rattle & Hum”, the band performs “All Along the Watchtower” in an impromptu live performance in San Francisco, from the back of a flat-bed truck. If the dialogue before they go out is to be believed, U2 haven’t even practiced the song before they go out, and spend 2-3 minutes trying to figure out the chords to the song.
Most people prefer the Hendrix or U2 versions to Bob Dylan’s original. I love those versions, but to me the Bob Dylan original version is my favourite. Why? Because of its starkness, its simplicity. The lyrics only amount to 12 lines, but this is Rolling Stone Magazine‘s description of the song in its May 2011 edition (where it lists the 70 Greatest Bob Dylan songs – “All Along the Watchtower” comes in at number 5).
You could say that jokes and theft are the twin poles of Dylan’s art, and this 12-line masterpiece about a joker (who believes he’s being robbed) and a thief (who thinks everything’s a joke) penetrates straight to the core of his work. “Watchtower” is among Dylan’s most haunting tunes: Built around an austere arrangement and Dylan’s spooked croon, it starts out like a ballad that’s going to go on for a long while. But as soon as the joker and the thief get their opening statements, the song ends with an ominous image – two riders approaching – leaving listeners to fill in the blanks.
Jimi Hendrix’s definite reading of “Watchtower” is one of the few Dylan covers that has permanently affected the way Dylan himself plays the song. Hendrix started recording his cover within weeks of John Wesley Harding‘s release, fleshing out the song into something stunningly intense. “He played [my songs] the way I would have done them if I was him,” Dylan later said of Hendrix.
Here are the lyrics of this masterpiece, all 12 lines of them.
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
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
“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 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”.
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.
So, which is your favourite? Dylan’s, Hendrix’s or U2’s?