When Bob Dylan disappeared from the hectic music world following a motorbike accident, he had a chance to reflect on the scene that had hounded him towards a dark place of despair. When he emerged, it was with sweeter tones. Having given up smoking and with a clearer mind, Dylan arose in some sort of relaxed spiritual spring following his break with his John Wesley Harding record.
No song symbolised his deep introspective approach quite as profoundly and memorably as ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The song is shrouded in the mystique of a biblical overture, but if I was to throw my penny into the hat, it seems to be about Christ upon the cross and the two thieves conversing on either side of him. I could be wrong, but it proves an important point regardless: it is the ambiguity and philosophical scope of such songs that make them stand out as masterpieces in the world of modern music.
With ‘All Along the Watchtower’ he provided a message that usurped spiritual vapidness and despondent nihilism that pervaded an era of despair in America. In favour, he presented a note of fullness and forgiveness through an attitude of hope and the joyous sequestering of cynicism that comes from looking for solace beyond the despairing insular world of the watchtower. In short, it is a song that basically says the world is rough, but don’t despair, you’ve got to look beyond your own watchtower.
It is this sort of lyrical depth that endeared Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, who turned out to be somewhat of a charming fanboy. As the guitar God once remarked of his songwriting hero: “All those people who don’t like Bob Dylan’s songs should read his lyrics. They are filled with the joys and sadness of life.”
“I am as Dylan, none of us can sing normally. Sometimes, I play Dylan’s songs and they are so much like me that it seems to me that I wrote them. I have the feeling that ‘Watchtower’ is a song I could have come up with, but I’m sure I would never have finished it,” the guitarist continued.
The result is a masterpiece that Bob Dylan even preferred to his own and amended the structure of his initial track for later live performances to be more like Hendrix’s, explaining: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” adding: “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
So, there you have it, Dylan liked it so much that he even felt that the song somehow now belonged to the man himself. You can’t get much higher praise than that. Especially considering that Dylan usually preferred covers that stayed faithful to the structure of his original. As Dylan said of his favourite cover of his work, Johnny Rivers’ version of ‘Positively 4th Street’: “Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’s version had the mandate down – the attitude, the melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it.”