All along the watch tower: this song makes no sense

By Tony Attwood

I am seeking to evolve a theory that a lot of Dylan’s lyrics actually have no meaning at all and that rather than being seen as songs in which the meaning is deliberately obscured, they should be seen as atmospheric pieces, akin to abstract pieces of visual art.

This view, I feel, is one that many writers have deliberately veered away from, simply because it makes it harder for them to write long and seemingly learned pieces which reveal hidden meanings.  Take away the notion of meaning, and an industry collapses.

And I feel somewhat emboldened in that view by the fact that it is rarely explained why any artist should deliberately make his or her work more obscure.  Surely the artist uses images and juxtapositions to enlighten and to give insights which are hard to give in other ways, not simply as representation, or at the other extreme, the increase of confusion.

Added to this is the fact that Dylan’s lyrics regularly change, and there is often uncertainty as to what the “definitive” lyrics are, if there are any definitive lyrics at all!

And some of these variant lyrics can get quite a lot of publicity.  Today, as I write this, I typed into Google “All along the watchtower lyrics” and without going to a site was given this by Google itself at the top of the page

there must be some kind of way outta here
Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief

Business men, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the line
Nobody offered his word

Which isn’t how I have known them at all.   The site Genius which has lots of lyrics on it and seemingly has editors who take a fair amount of care about what they put up has

"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
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth"

Lots of differences, including the addition of punctuation.

The official site has

“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, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

Same lyrics this time, but different line divisions, different punctuation.

And both are interesting (for me if no one else) because I have always heard the joker’s statement ending with the word “relief” after which I take it as Dylan commenting rather than the joker.   Obviously, I’m wrong.  Or they are.  Or we all are.

But still a problem remains: what on earth does this mean?  (And I would add, if it means nothing, then why do so many commentators believe that lots of other Dylan songs mean something even when the meaning is obscure?)

We don’t know anything about the joker or the thief, nor why they are in communication, nor what they represent, nor why they (or at least the joker) feels trapped, and why his possessions are being used in a way that he doesn’t like.

“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, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel 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”

So the thief is trying to calm the situation down, and yes this is getting quite interesting but then suddenly and with no explanation the theme moves and we have no more joker or thief, but instead a watchtower, some princes, some women, some servants, a wildcat and a couple of riders.  Oh yes and we know about the weather.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

In essence, it is a painting in words of which we can make no sense because we are given no context, beyond the fact that this is an album in which a number of songs are three verse, 12 line compositions.  It fits a format, it would make quite a good painting, and after that there is no certainty that any of it has any meaning or symbolism at all.

Indeed, go on the internet and you can find pictures called “All along the watchtower” – which are for sale.  (I’m not reprinting it here, for copyright reasons, but you can click and see).

So my concern is that the notion that some of Dylan’s lyrics are abstract pieces is rarely if ever considered.  It seems to me (and it really is just my thoughts on this) that there is quite an industry built on putting meaning into all Dylan’s songs, where in fact quite often none might exist.

Now to be clear, this is not to say that the images don’t come from somewhere.  Dylan might well by quoting, copying, delving into his subconscious, or referring to other lyrics.  But that’s not the issue.  The issue is, is the song “about” something.   I would put forward the notion that no it is not – and that this applies to lots of Dylan songs.  It is an abstract, or perhaps one could say “an atmosphere”.

We can use our minds to make it be about something – of course we can because our minds are very inventive things.  But that is not the same as Dylan writing about that thing.

Now, if you have time, take a look at this video – and contemplate not just the performer, but the setting, and the people passing by.  When I do that the abstract meaning of the song changes.  It becomes a reflection of the extraordinary talent of the guitarist, and that he is performing in the street for passers by who take no notice.   It seems to fit, but I am not sure how.


  1. One of the riders that approaches the biblical Watchtower be Tony himself, who gets paint splashed in his eyes, and falls off his horse.

    Tony’s “abstract painting” articles make no sense at all; it’s author seemingly unable to distinguish the difference between eyes and ears.

    Supposing you have an original hand-written copy, and not even then, the original recorded version of a song is best taken as the ‘canonized’ version of lyrics as no one knows who the scribes are who put down the words on paper or whatnot – who may not even be well acquainted with Dylan songs at all, for all we know.

    Because Tony can make no sense of the song, ‘we’ too must surely realize that nor can ‘we’.

    The songs are deliberately obscured to a certain extent in order to get the listeners / readers involved in what the meaning may be, but certainly not intended is that there be no meaning therein at all.

    This is a well-established literary technique; the human mind always searches for meaning even in an unusual arrangement of words , however hard that word ‘meaning’ itself may be to define.

    But there is no use pointing this out to Structuralist Tony over over again because he has his mind made up, and has no inclination to think otherwise.

    Focusing on various dubious printed versions of a song, on Google no less, to support an ‘evolutionary ‘ analogy is grasping at straws.

    I have seldom found printed lyrics that do not have at least some mistaken words for sure in them, and within imposed punctuation marks lies the deceptive Devil himself.

    The industry of ‘what does that mean’ is constructed by Dylan himself, admitted or not, which he likely garnered mostly from his Bible studies.

    Words cannot by defination be abstract paintings, however they be defined.

  2. Abstract: (of art) achieving it’s effect by grouping shapes and colours in satisfying patterns rather than by the recognizable representation of physical reality
    (Dictionary of Canadian English)

  3. Now if Tony were to climb back on his horse, wipe the paint out of his eyes, and assert that there’s a partial similarity, an analogy, to be made between an abstract painting and a person who’s good with words and keeping things vague, I’m sure he’d be allowed to enter through the gates of the Watchtower.

  4. There must be someway out of this mess, and maybe Tony manages to find it by using the word “akin”…..that’s what I usually do (lol).

  5. my copy of dylan lyrics lists the song in the index, but page is missing in the book.

  6. I generally agree with you, although I would say most Bob Dylan songs are indeed about something, namely Dylan himself. But I often find a Dylan song has much more impact viewed as a blurry whole than subjected to a line by line exegesis, as is true of an Impressionist painting. Speaking of paintings, as I think I’ve commented elsewhere, I feel Bob, as his career has gone on, has been writing songs that are inspired or guided by the aesthetics of various movements in 20th century painting, be they Cubism,Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. I’ve also analogized the 21st century songs to the boxes of Joseph Cornell.

  7. Why not view the final stanza as a repeat of the situation? That is, the song beings with the 2 riders engaging in conversation. And then, at the end, The Joker and the Thief are the two riders, approaching . . . the song itself may be suggesting the cyclical nature of history, the rise and fall of nations, etc. What was discussed millennia ago by cultural jokers and thieves (outlaws) is similar to what would be said today. Certainly, the lines from Isaiah 21, 61:5 (whirlwind, vision, watchtower, lookout, chariots, horses, alert, “And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers”) might counsel such a view. To me, the format is genius, in that Dylan constructed the song, so that its message is timelessly relevant. Dylan’s reference to “the wind began to howl (as in Ginsberg’s HOWL) can be summed up by Micah 1:8: “Because of this I will lament and wail; I will walk barefoot and naked. I will howl like the jackals and mourn like ostriches.”

  8. In the case of Watchtower, many have noted the parallel between the last 2 stanzas and the passage in the Book of Isaiah about the fall of Babylon. In 1967, when the song was written, the USA was full of tumult related to Vietnam in the main, and of course the summer of love in San Francisco was perversely mirrored by the 6-day War, which may have impacted Bob’s state of mind at least as much. So I can see how a Biblical passage about two messengers bringing news of the fall of Babylon would have resonated.

  9. The first 2 stanzas of course seem to contain the standard complaint of the Artist about the Suits. I take the joker and the thief both to be Bob, and the splitting of a single character, or the fusion of 2 separate ones, is a standard device in rewriting scripts.

    I interpret the combination of the 2 very different halves of the song to signify that Bob was thinking about whatever he was unhappy about, and then in the 2d half, stepping back from himself and reflecting on the more monumental problems in the world.

  10. As Bogart says at the end of Casablanca: “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

  11. Gosh… ‘I don’t understand, so it must be gibberish’. That’s the stupid stuff artists have to deal with I guess. Mark T, I thank you for just a bit of light here, cause the hour is getting late. This Tower of words of Tony is collapsing, I used to like some of his writing. No wonder that I don’t visit this site that much anymore, and I even wonder why I comment, it might be the last time, and yes let’s listen to that song. Greetings anyway.

  12. Words CAN be abstract and there is a whole poetic/literary school that accepts this.

  13. “I can’t get no relief” says the Joker. ‘My job is providing Comic Relief for others, but I am absolutely tense myself’: a variation of the Clown with a Face of Tears theme. I have been more and more thinking of many of Dylan’s lines having very precise meanings–someone’s comment on this site that the “jealous monk” who associates with Einstein in “Desolation Row” is biologist Gregor Mendel has very much been one of the catalysts for closer reading of the Bobster on my part. Anyway, let me say that this particular song seems to me a fairly straightforward tale of apocalyptic confrontation, though replete with deep mystery. Better not to hide from the basic confrontation: “come let us make our visit”, as our protagonists do. (I’m quoting the possible source of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” because I’m excited to discover that in that poem, which Dylan appreciated, “come let us make our visit”–the central drama of Watchtower–comes just before “all the woman COME and GO [my emphasis, of course]/speaking of Michaelangelo”.

  14. Yes, I’ve got a couple of articles coming up simetime that assert Dylan does apply the tenets of Cubism/Dadaism to words by switching points of vew to capture a sense of movement, and calling on the nonstatic dreams of the unconscious, but not that he creates anywhere near to something that could be considered an abstract painting that relies solely on colour and shapes to render an emotional response if nothing else.

    In representational painting, and even abstract art, meaning (whatever that word means) can be searched for, but without her speaking or singing , Mona Lisa’s portrait is for the most part is frozen in time.

    Mona with her moustache still smiles still but she does not sing.

  15. The hour’s getting late …
    But the owl of Altena flies at twilight (lol)

  16. it’s one of Dylan’s greatest songs. makes perfect sense regardless of which verse is first, second or third.

  17. As Dave Van Ronk once pointed out, the title doesn’t make any sense. You can’t move along a watch tower. In “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” he misuses “whom” (that man whom with his fingers cheats and whom lies with every breath.) Trying too hard to sound literary or Biblical or something.

  18. Some people need to chill and allow the guy an opinion. You are insufferable.

    As for “whom”, it fits. As does “died and was dead”.

  19. Picky: The tower could be connected to a wall along which guards walk

    The first two ‘whom’s” likely just mis-spoken, not deliberate ~ corrected in 3 sentences that follow:

    The man who(m) with his fingers cheats
    (ie, the man who cheats with his fingers)
    And who(m) lies with every breath
    And who eats but is not satisfied
    Who hears but does not see
    Who fills his mouth with laughter

  20. Correct would be (object of a preposition):

    The man with whom his fingers cheats
    And with whom every breath lies

    But then the sense becomes even “worser” out to make

    That’s just the way the English she is spoke

  21. The middle stanza is the hinge of the song, closing off its first half and launching the second. The first two stanzas are made up of self-centered talk, whining really. The second two stanzas contain neither talk (the only sounds are inhuman) nor any of the first-person pronouns that pepper the first 2 stanzas, but are predominantly visual. The first couplet of the middle stanza kicks the preceding lines into the past (“we’ve been through that”) and the second couplet reproves them as it returns to the present tense(“Let us not talk falsely now.”). And immediately the urgency of the present is asserted (“the hour is getting late”). But, as the rest of the song shows, not for the joker/thief alone, as he is / they are never named again, but for the larger population looking beyond their borders anxiously.

  22. Friar Tuck is a better candidate for being the ‘jealous monk’ as he doesn’t realize the gravity of the situation.

  23. The song is a Mobius strip. Twist and paste the end to the beginning, then listen until it begins to make sense.

  24. All along the watchtower makes perfect sense if you know where the song was derived from! A good percentage and the most important part of the song was derived from Isaiah 21:5 – 21:9

    The joker and the thief part is taken from

    Isaiah 21:2 |
    A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth.

    As to the Joker & Thief’s identity you’ll have to ask Mr. Dylan. I’m sure he was referring to somebody as in “like a rolling stone” the line:

    You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat I believe diplomat is
    referring to Andy Warhol.

    Isaiah 24:10
    The city of confusion is broken down: every house is shut up, that no man may come in.

    Isaiah 20:3 |
    And the LORD said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia;

    So if you read through Isaiah Chapter 21 you’ll find the business man, plowman and most of the references to the lines in the song.

  25. I’ve got some articles a-comin’ to Untold that compare the Tower song to a footnote referring to Isaiah.

    Bob wrote it on his sneakers, and he hung them on the wall.

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