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.