By Tony Attwood
According to some the imagery in this song comes from the 21st chapter of the prophet Isaiah when a watchman on the watchtower sees two riders approaching. Here is the text in the King James Version.
6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
7 And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
8 And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights.
I am not convinced there is a connection here beyond the remembrance of an image. But I could be wrong. I am still thinking about it.
“There must be some way out of here”; a simple but powerful start to this commentary on being controlled by organisations, social mores and responsibility.
And as the song progresses the singer does indeed begin to find his way out of here. With a harmonica style that was to be repeated with the tale of the Man in the Long Black Coat, reality is painted and then moved. The door is opened.
And yet this is done with no changes to the simple three chord basis of the entire song – musically it is just one line over and over and over again, reflecting the painfulness of existence from which the singer tries to emerge. The music is the continuity of the control, the lyrics are the fight against that control.
Many of the lines have slipped into the cannon of comments used by Dylan fans – “life is but a joke”…. “this is not our fate”…. “the wind began to howl”…
And this is quite an achievement in what is for Dylan an astonishingly short song – just 130 words. Dylan can write more than that in one verse, let alone a whole song.
As the song continues it simple journey the connection between the lines in terms of the words breaks down, but the music remains the same – same reality different meaning. No matter where you try to escape to, that reality is always out there beating on your door.
And so in the end, two riders approach, and the wind howls – it is just a scene from a half painted landscape. Meaningless except that each line means something.
There’s too much confusion – everyone has a part of me – I will go somewhere else, and in the space of a few lines Dylan does just that. As he says, there’s no reason to get excited… none of it is real, and that’s why you only need one line, over and over and over again.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” Everyone is too tied up in social structure to look beyond. The music just goes around and around and around. And yet that simple three chord structure allows the voice and lead guitar to go where ever it wishes. We are controlled by society, but psychologically we can go anywhere we wish. No one can stop you thinking – after all, life is but a joke.
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