It's nothing new to suggest that Bob Dylan
invites the mantle of prophet
, 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.