The Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower” from his album John Wesley Harding tells an ominous yet incomplete story based loosely on biblical scriptures. In the song, which relies heavily on the use of imagination, a joker and a thief walk together in the night towards the city walls that they were cast outside of. Inside the city, they claim, are businessmen drinking the wine of others, Princes marveling at the view, and barefoot servants. The thief urges the joker to keep his patience as they approach the city, saying that they have been through enough to know that they can see beyond the great joke that is life. The song, which has no choruses, builds and releases tensions strictly based upon the listener’s imagining that the joker and thief are descending on an important pilgrimage. The third chorus hints at the growling of a wild beast and the howling of the wind, implying that an epic battle is soon to take place. The entire song follows a repetative chord structure of Am-G-F and the music only really builds when “the wind begins to howl”; here the “storm” is represented by the emergence of the harmonica solo.
The introduction to the Hendrix version immediately identifies his interpretation of Dylan’s songwriting: the song starts right in the middle of the action with a simultaneous drum crash and G chord (as opposed to Dylan’s Am-G-F progression), but establishes a start-and-stop cycle that swells and builds, only to halt.
Looking back at a famous cover from the classic rock era, it is easy to dismiss the potential controversy that could have arisen from music fans and critics at the time. There were more than enough examples of artists and labels poaching the work of others and marketing it to suit their own needs. Worse even, many instances were done specifically to cash in on the talent of artists who couldn’t sell their own work due to the bigotry of others. But the “remix culture” today has somewhat dulled our senses of authenticity, especially after the rise of hip-hop. It was then that we watched A Tribe Called Quest co-opt an entire Lou Reed song, as if somehow by 2013 we wouldn’t pretend to be surprised when Jay-Z mimics a Nirvana classic in his song or Kendrick Lamar benefits from the deep pockets of Jimmy Iovene and Interscope to buy him excellent indie songs for him to sample (on “The Recipe” and “Money Trees”, respectively).
Yet this is a rare instance where the sheer power of the tribute is open for all to hear in the music, and the listener can become aware and sure that Jimi Hendrix is just showing his appreciation for the classic Bob Dylan song. Even though Hendrix released his version a mere 6 months later on the much anticipated album Electric Ladyland, I do not think that Hendrix was aiming to exploit Bob Dylan. Rather, I believe that Hendrix was trying to reinterpret the message that he received from Dylan’s songwriting and use it as inspiration for his own art. Hendrix already had an established history of covering an extremely wide variety of music from songwriters of many different backgrounds (Muddy Waters, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones), and as we read last week in Werner’s article, even Bob Dylan himself wasn’t immune to the influence of other cultures, especially early R&B artists.
It is refreshing to look back at music that is consciously marketed as one artist’s reinterpretation of another artist that he/she admires. Hearing an iconic guitarist add another dimension of mystique to powerful lyrics is a reminder of the effect that great art has on all people, even if those people happen to be great artists themselves.
“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.
Research Method (aka audio source): Jimi Hendrix “Smash Hits” LP, Bob Dylan “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1” LP