By Jochen Markhorst
The scanty instrumentation and the old-fashioned, simple song structures of The Basement Tapes Dylan brings along to Nashville, where in October 1967, after a year and a half absence, he finally returns to a real studio to work on a real album. That will be John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s eighth LP.
The big difference with those Basement Tapes is in the lyrics. The songs in the basement are mostly made up on the spot, done in real time, are nonsense, funny, ceremonial (“I Shall Be Released”), cheerful and even childish. But for the lyrics of John Wesley Harding Dylan takes his time – they have been worked on, they were written well before the recordings – incidentally, an unusual modus operandi for the bard.
Just like on Blonde On Blonde, the lyrics are still suggestive and elusive, but also much more precise, more resolute and seemingly more understandable. “What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words,” Dylan says, according to Wikipedia, in an interview in 1968, “There’s no line that you can stick your finger through, there’s no hole in any of the stanzas. There’s no blank filler. Each line has something.”
The alleged interview itself is untraceable, but the quote does fit. Dylan now avoids the wordy decorations colouring songs like “Visions Of Johanna” and “Desolation Row” – according to this quote, every metaphor, all images, are functional. But even though the poetry is now precise, concise, clear – ambiguous it remains.
It is Kafka all over again. The Kafka who already in 1898, aged 15, had an idea of the literature he wanted to write:
“To describe reality in a realistic way, but at the same time as a “floating nothing”, as a clear, lucid dream, so as a realistically perceived irreality.”
(the so-called Laurenziberg-Erlebnis, in his Aufzeichnungen aus dem Jahre 1920)
And, like Kafka, Dylan does not shun references to and use of the Old Testament language.
Mother Beatty Zimmerman confirms that her Bob scrolls through the Bible a lot at that time. It is always open, on a standard in the living room, and Bob “is continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.” However, clear, demonstrable Bible references are not really here. In the book of Isaiah (20 and 21) there are a few images to be found (the barefoot servant, a few horsemen, a lion and a watchtower), but without further relationship with the lyrics. It is an inspiring chapter, apparently; the “sequel” of Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird, found in 2015, is called Go Set A Watchman – a quote from Isaiah 21.
The connection between the Bible book and Harper Lee’s youth work (it is actually Lee’s first work, the work from which Mockingbird was ultimately distilled) is fairly easy to identify. That cannot be done with “All Along The Watchtower”. A click with Kafka, with a story like Der Aufbruch (“The Departure”), is easier and clearer:
I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables. The servant did not understand me. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted. In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me and asked: “Where is the master going?” “I don’t know,” I said, “just away from here, just away from here. Away from here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my destination.” “So you know your destination?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you. Away-from-here — that’s my destination.”
The miniature illustrates on a microlevel the magical power of Kafka’s longer stories and novels. Clear, simple sentences, transparent, accessible language, masking the contents’ impenetrability at first. The discomfort gradually creeps in – something is off, here. It is only on re-reading one notices: in terms of content, no sentence connects logically with the previous one. The servant doesn’t understand him? He doesn’t understand “Get my horse”? Strange. Just as strange as mylord’s reaction thereon: he goes to the stable himself. And like this, it goes on. One absurdity, or rather: illogicality follows the other. The servant stops his master and interrogates him, the master allows himself to be stopped and also answers the questions – and those answers, too, are not in line with his own next answer.
Here, Kafka makes fairly explicit what the premise is of his great works: the omission of context. We will never know how and why Gregor Samsa turns into a beetle (The Metamorphosis), just as it is not revealed why Josef K. is arrested or what he is accused of (The Trial).
Dylan the Poet proceeds in a similar way, in this creative phase. Clear language, short, uncomplicated sentences, but the lack of context makes the narrative inaccessible, unrealistic; like a dream, like a realistically described irreality.
Apparently, the joker perceives the situation in which he and the thief are as threatening or at least uncomfortable, but the context remains out of the picture for the reader/listener – we only get confusion increasing, presumably metaphorical hints about the circumstances. His wine is drunk by businessmen, farmworkers dig his soil.
Even the comforting words of the thief are undoubtedly relevant in his reality, but extra stressing for the reader: this is not our fate. “This”? What is this? We won’t know. The camera swings, two riders arrive in the distance – or are they the joker and the thief, and does the flashback start here?
Others do find Biblical references (Revelation is popular) or can interpret biographically. The businessmen who drink his wine then are the record company big shots running off with Dylan’s earnings, for example, the ploughers who “dig my earth” are the artists who try to imitate Dylan. And the inevitable diary diggers, who manage to wriggle out something with Sara, Joan Baez or fumbling with other women (the wildcats). Verse lines are shuffled around at the instigation of Dylan himself, who in the interview with John Cohen (1968) says about this song: “Here we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order” – the third verse “in fact” being the first.
And a film fan points to the very coincidental similarities with the opening scene of the monumental The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966); two horsemen are approaching from afar, and lo, the wind is howling and behold, an animal (wildcat?) is snarling aggressively. (But alas: while the film was made in 1966, it was only released in the United States on December 29, 1967 – more than seven weeks after Dylan recorded his song).
Dave Van Ronk, who knows Dylan well, since his first steps in the New York folk scene, has fewer illusions:
“After a while, Dylan discovered that he could get away with anything – he was Bob Dylan and people would take whatever he wrote on faith. So he could do something like All Along the Watchtower” which is simply a mistake from the title on down: a watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can’t go along it.”
Which also makes curious about Dave’s opinion on Kafka’s most famous parable Vor dem Gesetz (“Before The Law”), from the novel The Trial (1925). A persistent countryman waits for years and years “before the Law”, because an adamant gatekeeper “cannot grant admittance at the moment”.
Probably wrong from the title on down, in Mr. Van Ronk’s eyes; “You can’t stand before the Law.”
Dylan’s tone and instrumentation are perfect. Three chords (in the uncomplicated scheme Am-G-F), drums, bass and a guitar, and an ominous, lugubrious harmonica part. Just like the lyrics, the music promises a climax, an all-encompassing apotheosis which, like the lyrics, never comes.
Most covers, and there are many, many of them, collapse under the tension and end up in a climax, artificially apply suspense (per subsequent verse step-by-step addition of instruments and melody lines is very popular), turning it into a narrative symphony.
Nothing wrong with that by the way – “All Along The Watchtower” is indestructible, every cover has an appeal. If not on an emotional, dramatic level, then at least on a physical level: it is a beloved feet stamper and head banger.
Multi-purpose too, apparently. The song is used in dozens of films, quoted in literature, newspapers and graphic novels, pops up in video games (in Ghost Recon, Just Cause 3 and in Mafia III, for example), Hendrix’ version is, along with Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” more or less compulsory in Vietnam documentaries, the song and the lyrics play an atmospheric or even dialogue-directing role in television series such as Lucifer, The Young Pope (see below) and especially Battlestar Galactica (a brilliant, Indian adaptation).
And across half a century it is a classic that has been covered hundreds, no thousands of times; from the Olympus (U2, Clapton, Neil Young) via the Tower of Babel (the song has been translated into every conceivable language) down to the school bands in the bicycle cellar: everyone who can hold a guitar succumbs.
The ultimate cover is, obviously, Jimi Hendrix’ masterpiece. Even Dylan himself acknowledges that Hendrix’ version is more powerful than the original. He not only expresses this recognition in writing (in the liner notes at Biograph) and orally, in the MusiCares speech;
“After he became famous, he took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too”
… but he demonstrates his admiration too, to this day – Dylan performs “All Along The Watchtower” usually á la Hendrix. And he often does so: he has closed hundreds and hundreds of concerts with it, it is his most performed live song (more than two thousand times).
Never changing the lyrics, by the way.
The Young Pope:
What else is on the site
You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members. (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm). Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.
On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article. Email Tony@schools.co.uk
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, links back to our reviews