Dylan Covers Week No 6: All Along the Watchtower - the Jimi Hendrix Experience
One of the unique things about Dylan's songs, was that his version was always so distinctive that it was impossible to copy. Without looking like - just that - a copycat; and therefore pretty stupid and ordinary. Hence the covers are usually unusual and distinctive in their own right.
It is entirely appropriate that the best Dylan cover of all time (and trust me - it won't be beaten) is "All Along the Watchtower" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. American guitarist Hendrix emerged like the Jesus Christ of rock and roll at the height of the sixties counter culture with a nigh perfect rock cv, having backed a host of soul greats including Sam Cooke, Wilson Picket and Jackie Wilson, been in the bands of the Isley Brothers and Little Richard respectively before being "discovered" in New York by Keith Richards' then girlfriend, Linda Keith, and then managed and brought over to the UK by Chas Chandler of the Animals. He was the child of soul and the blues coming like a messiah to reclaim his roots from the land that had taken them and popularised them as rock. With the usual messianic results.
Dylan's song is, as is often the case, an enigmatic narrative with no beginning and no clear end. As usual, there is no obvious meaning to the words, and no-one professes to know what they are referring to. Also as usual, Dylan has given little away over the years. But they contain an urgency and dynamism that propels the song along from which, in Dylan's version from his album, John Wesley Hardin, Dylan's harmonica gives the listener a rest. Hendrix does exactly the opposite, ramping up the urgency higher and higher until it is almost unbearable, manically supported by henchmen Noel Redding on bass and particularly the amazing Mitch Mitchell on drums, plus Dave Mason (of Traffic fame) beating out the iconic rhythm chords and Brian Jones on an assortment of percussive add-ons. All this creates the perfect backdrop for Hendrix's most inspired guitar breaks forever arching higher and higher, punctuating the conversation - and it is the conversation of a group who speak as though this could be the last drink of their lives - with desperate fatalistic ecstasy. The only way you can understand the power of Dylan's words and Hendrix's guitar combined is to turn the volume up and sing along:
"There must be some kind of way outta here said the joker to the thief there's too much confusion I can't get no relief
business men they drink my wine plowman dig my earth none were level on the mind nobody up at his word"
Ironically, all the live renditions of this song by Dylan have definitely been influenced by Hendrix's version, the phrasing is more emphatic, and guitar electric and soaring,
"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 stop talking falsely now the hour is getting late"
Really the meaning is as obvious as it is timeless: the words and the music are a scene from a night in a bar on the frontier post of a massive civilisation on the brink of collapse, a wall of a China, a Rihaku poem for our time updated, electrified as the very greatest rock for all ages.
"All along the watchtower princes kept the view while all the women came and went barefoot servants too outside in the cold distance a wildcat did growl two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl"