The song is held by many as one of the holiest songs in the rock and roll pantheon and many have tried to cover it in their own way. Soon after its conception it became a kind of anthem for the Vietnam generation, but it wasn't until Jimi Hendrix covered it that it became arguably the greatest rock and roll song of all times. The magic he bled into the song has never since been duplicated.

Lyrically it may appear thin at first, but that is when you look merely at the length and not the depth. Dylan's lyrics have a way of saying far more than they appear to say. Bob Dylan writes poetry and sets it to music. He writes poetry that rides above and beyond what anyone else in the modern era has written. He was simply one of the first true poets to realize that popular music was the essential way of bringing poetry to the masses. He always knows what he is talking about and he always sees more than most are capable of seeing and does it without really trying. Dylan has given us more complicated messages over his decades on the crest of the wave, but this song was driving home the point while everyone was wondering what the point really was.

"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, plowman dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth"

I was ten years old when the American military forces pulled out of Vietnam. I can only relate through the stories I have been told and the words that have been spoken. There was, and still is, a man named Joe Harrington who was able to weave stories of his Vietnam experience in ways that no one could ever really write down. Sometimes the written word simply cannot relate the same message that the spoken word does. I would have loved to have written down Joe's words and have him speak them before an audience. He radiated something I can never replicate. He experienced something I cannot even begin to understand, even as a concept, and I've been dead. He was court martialed for refusing to go into battle. His unit was supposed to be detached for some operation and he told his commanding officer that he could not go. A vision had come to him the night before. "Everyone is going to die and I'm not ready to die. No one will make it back. You have to call it off. It is all for nothing. What is the point?" He was locked up and later removed from the United States Army for his defiance. His entire unit was killed that day including his commanding officer.

"No need to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who think 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"

Joe Harrington worked for the state parks department and as a relief carrier for the United States Postal Service. There were four people at the post office who didn't think he was insane. Actually, we loved his insanity, but we knew he knew how to turn it off. He worked two jobs, was married to a woman who preferred bingo to work, and had five kids. He did all he could for them and in fact did far more than he was truly capable of. He was beyond burned out, but he kept pushing forward. The United States Army had admitted him into the reserves because they needed soldiers with real wartime experience. He served one week a month in the hope that someone would help him deal with a case of severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He knew the boys in his unit well and they had been boys then. He turned away from them and heard second hand that their deaths had come in accordance with his vision. It was not an easy thing to deal with.

The four people he worked with that related to him were named Dave, Larry, Kevin and Keith. I would be the Keith in question. Larry and Dave were Joe's age and both had avoided military service in Vietnam in their own way. Larry had a host of medical problems that he worked into being ruled unfit for service. Dave was already in the Coast Guard and had managed to stay in U.S. waters for the entire conflict. Kevin was my roommate. We smoked a lot of dope and talked about the way things could be if someone wanted the world to start making sense. Joe dealt us all a card. Larry and Kevin were jokers. Dave and I were thieves. An odd group, consisting of three men in their fifties, a guy in his thirties and another in his twenties, we went out together to restaurants and hockey games. We talked. We talked about ideas and we talked about life experience. Dave insisted we try eating calamari and drinking Scotch. We found answers, but mostly we just found more questions. The tales that were told at our regular meetings could fill several volumes if I could remember them all. We were always standing right along the watchtower. We paid attention. Sometimes we paid too much attention. The truth can make you blind.

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

Dave died in 1997, shortly after I moved to Florida. He passed the torch to me in a style only he could have passed it with. Larry was crippled in a work-related accident that I went to war with the United States Postal Service on Larry's behalf, and lost. Kevin stopped fighting, moved in with his girlfriend and smokes enough grass and drinks enough beer to dull his mind enough to fall asleep. Joe still keeps plugging along, working two jobs and trying to support his often ungrateful family. Three years ago I fell into a new group of friends who have worked hard to conceive, write, construct and film a television show called The Harrington Show. I found a new joker, but I am still the thief. Dave made sure I always knew that. He reminded me that I am more than most, but only when I move forward. Too often I am standing in place. It takes a lot of energy to keep watch along the watchtower, but it must be done.

We ride. Always and forever now. I live with many reminders. Whenever I want to quit I remind myself to do it for Dave and remind myself that Joe Harrington deserves to be remembered for something other than being a burned out old Vietnam veteran that too few bothered trying to understand.


Lyrics by Bob Dylan
As originally appeared on the 1967 album John Wesley Harding
Used completely without permission.
Hey, Zim refuses to take my calls.

I hearby put forth my personal take on All Along the Watchtower.

Paul Williams, a famous Bob Dylan critic and fan who wrote many articles for musical-type publications starting in the 60's, propounded in his review of John Wesley Harding that the album has "wheels within wheels" and "generating spheres", provided we know "how to tilt them". I am not sure if my proposed wheel is on the outside, inside, somewhere in the between, or anywhere at all, but I will still proceed fearlessly.

An interesting point I should point out, before I begin, is another observation from Paul Williams, from his article "God Bless America" (which is the same article I quoted from, above). (You can find all his Bob Dylan work, by the way, collected in a book called Watching the River Flow, which I highly recommend.) Paul philosophised that the order of events in the song were somehow distorted, reversed, or jumbled up. Admittedly, he did so under the influence of LSD, but Dylan did say -10 months after Williams had his article printed- that: "The song opens up in a slighty different way, in a stranger way, for here we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order".

Here's my wheel: It seems that Bob makes many references to jokers and jacks of hearts across his work("And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace" from Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts from Blood on the Tracks, Jokerman from Infidels), so I reckon he sees himself as the Jack or Joker, maybe for personal reasons between him and his lady. And I reckon his lady is the thief (perhaps because she stole his heart?). Now, you know how sometimes when you're out somewhere with your SO, friend or spouse, and there's someone, or maybe even a whole team, who completely disregard your presence and try hitting on your companion? That's my wheel. The princes watch for their next lay. That's why "all the women came and went"; they are the conquests, the ravaged and the won. The thief is next, and as she approaches the coyotes, they get ready to pounce. This could be the feeling Bob gets at a party with his thief, as other men take interest in her and try to pry her away from him.

When the thief says "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke", I think this is refering to the prince's carefree attitude towards sex. But Bob and his lady "have been through that", and it is not their "fate" to continue the free-love ways of their past. "The hour is getting late" could mean that their relationship is too developed to let each other sleep around, and indeed, that sounds probable considering the theif is reassuring the Joker that there's "no reason to get excited" because she is not interested in the surrounding princes who wish to take over her province.

But before Bob's lady says this, Dylan has a paranoia attack. He wants to leave, maybe because his baby is getting along too well with someone, or something that would provoke his worry. "There must be some way out of here!" he yells. At the same time he's confused, because he's not sure where he stands with his thief now that's she's surrounded by these other men. He boils over with a mix of jealousy and overreaction: Businessmen are drinking his wine. Ploughman are digging his earth. It's like an invasion of Princes taking over his land and all it's goods, but they don't know her like he does. They only want to "plough her earth" (as Dylan likes to call it). They don't want to talk to her. They don't know what she's worth as a person rather than a one night stand.

The reversal of events leads to more interesting speculation. Is it one story that can be repeated in a cycle for evermore? The two riders approach castle after castle as they ride through their lives side by side, or is one story in a skewed order? Perhaps it's different in each wheel, but I think the fact that it ends with the growling wildcat and the howling wind, as they get nearer to these wine-drinking earth-ploughing degenerates, is not a good sign for the future.

Incidently, I'd like to just take a quick peak at the much-loved Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. "Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide/ To show you where the dead angels are that they used to hide." Sounds familiar doesn't it. I reckon Dylan is alluding to his own poem, because the Sad-eyed lady is also the very same thief from "All Along the Watchtower". From Desire's Sara we know that Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is written for Dylan's wife, Sara ("Stayin' up for days in the Chelsea Hotel,/ Writin' "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for you"). It wasn't long after John Wesley Harding came out that Dylan was writing about his divorce in Blood on the Tracks. Could it be that Dylan predicted the breakdown of his marriage?

One final note, and that is the relationship between the thief's line "There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke", and the name of the Joker. I think this could also be the difference between Bob Dylan and his wife Sara.

It's nothing new to suggest that Bob Dylan invites the mantle of prophet-seer, savouring its possibilities, though, ultimately, emerging from the flames of epic self-importance only to throw that mantle down again in a flurry of burlesque, thereby saving his popular entertainer cred as well.

In that sense, Dylan is regularly called a media-age Isaiah: shouting his heart out to people of Judah, scared shitless of their vowed enemies and captors the Assyrians, that whatever the outcome of their mortal plight, in the cosmic scheme the Sons of David are going to be punished for their own wickedness or backsliding, not someone else's. The modern Isaiah warns us to "bite the bullet and look within for dignity." He really has a grand view of human history then, locating the real threat not outside, but rather Jokerman's "enemy within."

I think, though, if we look past the irony: there's a basic level in which Dylan essentially accepts the hoary mantle of Prophet of the American Sublime. You don't have to tell me Dylan's songs are multivalent and ambiguous (therein lies their appeal) and his characters and stories fluid and shifting, unpindownable. But, with that little proviso in mind, I think I know a way to interpret a lot of what I want to call Dylan's apocalyptic or millenial strain of thought, to make it really coherent and poignant.

Now picture the conversation of "All Along the Watchtower" as taking place during the crucifixion, with Jesus and the Thief a la Mathew 27, bearing in mind the echoes and overtones of Isaiah, explicitly 20, 21:5-9, & 25,Deuteronomy 28:30, & Revelations 3:3 & 16:15-16. A thief, being crucified with Jesus, heckling through his own intense agony, makes a bitter joke to the effect of "Where's your God now? Why not save us, if you're really the savior?" Christ responds by allowing the thief to be saved. Why save the thief?

The contradiction of an evil soul being arbitrarily saved has vexed years upon years of theological defense. Was it to prove a point? Others, Pontius Pilate for one, ask same question but to no avail. So Jesus is not simply one-upping the thief, getting the last laugh. Rather, Jesus is showing the Joker precisely the opposite: that "life is not a joke", a horrific accident, in a gesture of supreme sympathy. The thief might therefore deserve proof by salvation because he experiences the horror and pain of crucifixion and his doubts maybe hold more existential weight.

Imagine then that the beginning of the song, the attitude of the Joker (who, yes, is a thief...I'll get to the recursive and doubling aspects of these characters in a second) is ironic because he cannot possibly concieve "a way out of here" and knows that neither can his interlocuter. The Thief, then, does the impossible, and grants just such a way out. The Thief is all too easily associated with Jesus to anyone even a little familiar with scripture, via Mathew 24:31 and Revelations 3:3 & 16:15-16 specifically. I'm of the school that Christ is taken to be metaphorically related to a spiritual thief based on the ancient Classical association of death as thief. And Jesus rules Death. That is, no one can know when their time is up and when the thief of death will come in the night to steal your soul. So Jesus qua Thief reveals to the Joker the mysteries of the universe. And this is where the song gets truly weird, and rewards multiple listenings even maybe more than it's currently overplayed (courtesy of Jimi Hendrix) status allows.

So Christ accepts the thief into himself, the thief atones with the father, and the Joker and the Thief become one and the same, different aspects of the same whole.

You can visualize the conversation taking place on the cross. But you can also visualize it ocurring during the Last Judgement. Like Milton's theodicy, binding up the Fall with the Ressurrection and the Second Coming, Dylan dramatizes the mystery embodied in the contradictions of divine predestination and foreknowledge combined with divine omnibenevolence, by making the crucifixion entail the last judgement.

So the song becomes cyclical and multivalent. The characters blend into each other, the great biblical events form a mystical unity. The Joker is the 1) thief on the cross Mathew 27 2) Christ as spiritual thief, Jokermen, jester, holy trickster, clown, fool 3) artist as entertainer expressing wish for escape and relief from "confusion" and didactic judgement 4) provacateur attacking the unjust status quo established by businessmen and their ploughman fuctionaries.

So this trippy stuff can all be elucidated by a quick line by line analysis:

"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."

Confusion = Deut 28:20 Businessmen = Tyrian merchants of Isaiah, symbols of reckless, decadent commerce and plutocracy. Wine = used for sexual & alcoholic debauchery rather than sacrament of praise Ploughman = no better than the businessmen, not romanticized as a self-sufficient and innocent down-to-earth rural ideal. The produce of the earth is not evenly distributed, not even through the agency of the millions upon millions of less fortunate ploughmen, but hoarded by an insular few and enforced by a system of labor designed to ensure the weakness of the exploited.

So these opening lines in the voice of the Joker as Christ, second time around now, are ironic and invoke the dilemma of Babylon's mass exploitation of our spiritual life, which is, of course, intimately tied to our material conditions. Imagine the Joker riding with the Thief saying these lines very sarcastically in a mockery of helplessness and escapist fantasies. Picture the Joker, knowing the "hour is getting late", aware of the inevitability of the apocalypse, making fun of the Princes in the Tower who are shitting their pants at the sight of him and the Thief (maybe the same faces as Jesus and the Thief on the crosses, or maybe the faces mixed, constantly switching) riding towards the Princes of babylon, of Assyria, of every government, seat of power, or organ of control in human history. Two riders approaching, and hell coming with them.

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 Watchtower, the Princes = Isaiah 1:21-23, Isaiah 21:5 "kept the view" = watched from the towers/held the status quo The women came and went = T.S. Eliot, "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", "In the room, the women come and go/ talking of Michelangelo" Michelangelo's a pieta being the apothesosis of suffering smothered and disarmed by the genteel women. Dylan adds the bawdy pun, adding sense of sex being twisted by these shallow women into an unholy antidote for dread and pain. Barefoot servants = servant of the lord, "nobody is clean", not princes, women, or servants, cf. Isaiah's drunken prophets. Slaves went barefoot in antiquity. wildcat = American species Two riders = Isaiah 21:5-9, the Joker and the Thief the wind began to howl = Jermiah 51:1 "destroying wind", Isaiah 21 whirlwind from desert, Isaiah 13 howls of pain, cries for help.

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