“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 life,
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.
The next big release after Sgt. Pepper wasn’t any effort to better it, but rather to stand in contradiction to it. This was Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding, its simplicity of presentation in stark contrast to most of the psychedelic albums released during Christmas season. Dylan asked that the album be released without fanfare, reportedly because he felt that pop music was too hyped up at the time. And it was. The competition was relentless for finding aural universes that no one had heard before. Pop artists were seeking the divine vibration from beyond the astral plane. There was no way Dylan, recovering from a severe motorcycle accident that took him out of the competition throughout 1967 could or would even desire to get even further out in sonic effects. With his mentor Woody Guthrie put in his grave in October 1967, Dylan returned to his original inspiration, writing surrealistic lyrics on top of traditional folk song structures, accompanying himself with harmonica. These new lyrics drew heavily from the Bible rather than French symbolists and Beat poets, but for the most part still participate in the psychedelic tradtion of altered consciousness. They carried a tone reminiscent of the Prophet Isaiah and sometimes spoke of things on the edge of comprehension. In John Wesley Harding, Dylan offered a lyrical tradition deep in American consciousness, deep in the consciousness of Judeo-Christian societies, and turned pop lyrics to (often quasi or pseudo) religious content for a couple of years following: the Beatles' Lady Madonna and Let It Be, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the Rolling Stones' Sympathy with the Devil all develop Christian archetypes that Dylan returned to the popular imagination. The Band cultivated extensively the field that Dylan had plowed. Dylan did not look East, to the guru, to the Other for his answers. He looked into the violent imagery of the American history itself, finding resonances with the Children of Israel. To upset the artsy fartsy hippies, he even ended John Wesley Harding with some simple country love tunes rhyming moon with June. I hated him for it.
Wikipedia reports that in a 1968 interview Dylan said of the album John Wesley Harding "What I'm trying to do now is not use too many words. There's no line that you can stick your finger through, there's no hole in any of the stanzas. There's no blank filler. Each line has something." In a 1978 interview, Dylan said that outside of the two final songs of the album, “the songs were written out on paper, and I found the tunes for them later. I didn't do it before, and I haven't done it since. That might account for the specialness of that album.” [Quoted by Clinton Heylin in Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited (2001), p. 287)]
Dylan himself has made a big deal out of putting the end verse of All Along the Watchtower at the beginning of the song. I am less struck by the inversion of the traditional expectation of setting the scene before a conversation commences. The conversation between the joker and the thief begins without context, and doesn’t seem to require one: “There must be some way out of here!” in this manner immediately addresses whatever context the listener finds himself in. It expresses the desire of psychedelia’s alternate consciousness. Placing the setting at the end of the song suggests an echoing out of the dialogue between the joker and the thief over the chance happenings in the landscape. It’s as if it’s a conversation that human existence roundabout is having while living in a dangerous world. The landscape reminds me of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Canción de Jinete (Song of the Horseman).
So what is the conversation human existence is having? The joker seems to represent someone who takes himself too seriously and feels unappreciated for the work he has done. He’s ready to quit; all the effort one puts into life never seems to come to anything; it all gets misunderstood and misused. I imagine the thief to be Death itself. The thief reassures him that he is not alone among people who feel “that life is but a joke.” Still, he advises the joker that he is old enough to know better, that indeed such thinking is an indulgent lie. Underneath striving there is still survival, as one keeps daily watch to protect one’s household, ever fearful that the day approaching will bring bad news.
It’s ironic that All Along The Watchtower, in contradiction to the roiling psychedelic competition of late 1967, from an album that almost single-handedly began to turn the pop aesthetic away from technological experimentation, should serve as the template for one of the greatest last classic psychedelic songs to make it to Top 40 radio. It was reinterpreted (with a great deal of technical manipulation of sound) by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and hit the airwaves in September 1968. Dylan, who Jimi Hendrix greatly admired, through his song All Along the Watchtower gave Hendrix the only Top 40 single he and his group ever had in the U.S. This song is the last time Bob Dylan is included as a performer in the psychedelic tradition; however a couple of songs he wrote (the other being Manfred Mann's Quinn The Eskimo) are yet to come in this collection, as Dylan continued to exert an influence.