All Along the Watchtower

There must be some way outa here, cried the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.

I fell in love with “All Along the Watchtower” the first time I heard the John Wesley Harding album. (It’s still one of my favorite Dylan albums.) But like so many of us, it was Jimi Hendrix who made this into an indelible, central part of the our personal soundtracks.

It’s a strange song. It’s written backwards – the last line could easily be the first: two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl. The characters are looking for a way out at the beginning, but it seems like it should be the end.

A few months after Dylan released the song, Hendrix tried it out. The result was a thunderous, electrifying guitar explosion that fulfilled the song’s apocalyptic potential. Instead of Dylan’s storyteller vocal, Hendrix sings it like he’s out there on the watchtower when the wind begins to howl, a desperate watchman at the rampart. The rhythm guitars (Dave Mason is playing a 12-string acoustic) turn Dylan’s simple strum into a slapped, crackling force, like timbers snapping. And the topping is Hendrix’ astonishing guitar lead, personifying the howling wind.

Dylan says this is the best cover version of any of his songs. Some people say this is the best cover version of any rock song. I’ll buy that.

But it’s that first line that drew me in, from the first hearing. “There must be some way outa here.” (Actually, Jimi turns it into “there must be some kinda way outa here.” It works.) It’s the vision of being on the rampart in the middle of nowhere, with wildcats prowling, riders approaching, and the wind blowing hard…there must be some way out. Who hasn’t been there?

I was there, on my own private watchtower, a teenager desperate to find something else, someplace else. Perhaps that’s why Watchtower was one of the first songs I learned on guitar…I needed to sing it. Still do. Whenever the wind begins to howl.

The passage of years helped me understand that in 1969-70, this was what I needed, a way out of a time when nothing made sense, and a place that was oblivious to the madness. Suburban life in the late 1960s had the feeling of a place you would stumble on if you fell down a rabbit hole, where nothing was quite real, and you wanted to find the way out, back into the sunshine. I knew it at the time, but I couldn’t articulate it.

Dylan’s words and Jimi’s anguished voice and thrashing guitar said it best.

Is there a song lyric that would sum up your formative years?


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