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.