All Along the Watchtower
The other day I plugged the iPod to my stereo, and since my wife's ears
normally bleed at most of my music, I tried to find something she would
like. Arriving at consciousness during the 80's, her favorite group is U2,
and the iPod graciously began to play some of their tracks.
It began playing, All Along the Watchtower from the "Rattle and Hum"
album, which is probably my favorite song of theirs. Of course, they didn't
write it, that's a Dylan. But listening to U2's redo, made me want to spin
The nice thing about an iPod is the ability to look at your musical
collection from many angles, and when I asked for all songs that began with
"All Along" I was amazed at just how many versions I had.
Sure I had 3 versions from Dylan, and of course there was the famous
version done by Jimi Hendrix. But I have a great version from the Dead, and
a version by Dave Matthews with Trey Anastasio (Phish) playing one of his
typical guitar solos. Pieces of the lyrics end up quoted in other songs …
Clearly this is one of the most redone songs in the "rock" genre, and with
good reason. It's good.
The song itself was birthed from the tension of the 60's, but the theme is
classic. In fact, the theme itself was probably inspired by the Dylan of
the Old Testament, Isaiah. In his vision and prophecy of the destruction of
Babylon by the Persians, he says:
And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in
the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights. And, behold, here cometh
a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said,
Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath
broken unto the ground. (Isaiah, chapter 21:8-9)
But Dylan, the master minstrel, doesn't begin with this sort of vision. He
instead begins with the tension:
"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."
The tension is described by two archetypes… the Joker (or Fool) and the
Thief (or Devil). But this dialectic seems to have been reversed, for it
is usually the Thief who complains. But the Joker is bemoaning society and
"Businessmen, they drink my wine,
Plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth."
While the corporations drink his wine (his blood or life), the workers are
oblivious, for none of them have the right values.
I read somewhere that the Joker in this story could be compared to Jesus on
the cross having the discussion with one of the thieves next to him. For
the Thief is sympathetic, and reiterates the lost values of society (that
treats Life so lightly) and reminds him of the truth:
"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."
The tension, however, is not released. We are still not sure where this
conversation is taking place, but the Thief's words are almost a
foreshadow. But now the scene changes completely from a dialog to an
All along the watchtower,
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went,
Barefoot servants, too.
While this image places the story in a place in history, the symbols are
pretty clear… Princes on guard represent the army, the women represent
the upper classes and the servants represent the common man. Here we see
the established society on the defense. Against what? Dylan continues:
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Danger is coming. Nature or the earth itself is rising up. Its a coming
revolution… an eschatology. And it isn't till the last line that the
Joker and the Thief return:
Two riders were approaching,
The wind began to howl.
The riders are bringing a different set of values, they will be bringing
the truth, and it will be upsetting the establishment.
The poetic images and characters unfold like a Tarot spread with the Fool
and the Devil confronting the Emperor culminating with the Tower. But the
aftermath from the Tower's fall is always still to come.
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