“All Along the Watchtower”: An Alternate History

22 Mar

NOTE: The following is a complete work of fiction, save a stray fact.

“[A]t the conclusion of the last verse, it is as if the song bizarrely begins at last, as if the myth began again.”

—British scholar Christopher Ricks
on “All Along the Watchtower”

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”

Robert Zimmerman had heard the music all his life. Little fragments, half-remembered, from a lullaby his mother Betty used to sing at bedtime. The original lyrics escaped him, something about jokers and thieves. One line, however, remained crystal clear: “There must be some way out of here.” Something in that sentiment alternately frightened and intrigued him, even as child.

It returned some 20 years later, after the world had come to know and embrace him as Bob Dylan. He was a worldwide music icon by then, much to his surprise and amusement. Camera crews followed his amble, and sometimes he deliberately led them into walls. Writers too. They scribbled his every breath as sermons from the mount. He was so beloved that not even an infamous decision to “go electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was enough to cloud his mystique. It was equally true now, as he lived in self-imposed isolation from the fans and journalists who continued to hound him nonetheless. He was holed up in his Woodstock, New York, sanctuary, recovering from a motorcycle accident, or so the press dutifully reported. It wasn’t as bad as all that. What had really put him out of commission was that he’d heard those words again.

There must be some way out of here.

Over the last few months he’d been trying to piece the song together from memory. His mother wanted to help but was stuck for real details, aside from the revelation that she’d picked it up from her father. She supposed it was something akin to an oral family tradition, the lyrics elastic and adaptable, but the story remained the same. As far as she knew, it was the equivalent of a church hymn or a spiritual that traveled on the wind.

“I picked up as many reference books as I could find, really,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1969, “everything from tall tales of the Old West to medieval legends to even the Bible. So I went way back looking for it. [laughs] I couldn’t find anything. The closest I came was the Book of Isaiah, though it didn’t literally match the visions I had, which were crazy to begin with.”

Pressed for details, an already uncomfortable Dylan, in the words of interviewer Ben Fong Torres, “turned bone-white and began turning over words in his hands, as if carefully checking for holes.”

The thing is, the phrase and the story are older than even the Bible. If you think about it, it expresses a feeling that’s as old as we are, you know, humanity. The Book of Isaiah is about the fall of Babylon, the violent transfer of old-world thinking to a collective understanding of God as God of everybody, and if you’re not hip to that, so long. ‘There must be some way out of here’ — how do we get from there to here? How do we get to a better place? It’s an eternal question. I saw a few similarities between Isaiah and this image I’ve always had of travelers, these explorers from without and beyond, looking for a new home, so when I wrote ‘All Along the Watchtower’ I deliberately infused it with Biblical allusions calculated to mislead; otherwise, I couldn’t explain it. It was too weird, man, like science-fiction!

With “Watchtower” finally on the page, Dylan began assembling material for his first acoustic foray since Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, as well as his first new album, period, in 18 months. Inspired by his recent research, the song cycle revolved around folk legends and Biblical figures, which, the artist later admitted, “were like the template for all that folk-hero stuff, really.” There were music-biz allegories in the form of “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” the scammed and scammer, respectively. A Latin theologian materializes in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” Eli, the high priest of Shiloh, dispatches a “Wicked Messenger.” The memory of 18th century radical Thomas Paine haunts “As I Went Out One Morning.”

Perhaps most important is a figure long familiar in the contemporary imagination, Texas gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, a slippery outlaw who cast a long, romantic shadow over the evolving American West. It was Hardin’s name, augmented with a “g,” that would grace the LP issued in the twilight of 1967. Lillian Roxon later reflected on its reception in her seminal Rock Encyclopedia:

JOHN WESLEY HARDING gives some clues as to what happened in Woodstock, reflecting its (and perhaps Dylan’s) rustic calm. . . . The acid generation is somewhat disappointed . . . but there are plenty more who welcome the new tranquility.

That tranquility, Dylan later admitted, was due in part to his religious conversion and to the relief he felt at finally setting his childhood vision to rest. “I got it out of my system in ‘Watchtower,’ ” he explained to Kurt Loder in 1984. “I still experience it every now and then, but it no longer feels like my burden alone. It was like I’d done what I was, perhaps, ‘programmed’ — to use the modern vernacular — to do from the beginning: ‘This is the message. Do with it what you will.’

“And,” he chuckled, “almost immediately, someone did.”

If the so-called “acid generation” was less than enthusiastic about John Wesley Harding’s apparent step back, one of its top representatives heard plenty of promise in its bounty. Jimi Hendrix had gotten his hands on Harding and brought it to London’s Olympic Studios in January 1968, where he was recording songs for what would become the last Experience album, Electric Ladyland.

“Jimi was knocked out by ‘Watchtower,’ absolutely floored,” recalled former manager Chas Chandler in 1988. “He kept saying, ‘Listen to the words, the words.’ The line that really sold him was ‘Plowmen dig my earth.’ It was a pun to him. You could take it quite literally or hear the word ‘dig’ as ‘love.’ He thought that otherworldly beings landed here eons ago and approved our planet as suitable for their purpose. ‘What purpose is that, Jimi?’ ‘To live, man. Do their thing. Make life possible.’ I’d ask if they were aliens. ‘Are aliens among us, Jimi? Little green men?’ [laughs] Really taking the piss. But he’d shake his head and laugh like I didn’t get it.”

“Jimi talked about space travel a lot,” Experience bassist Noel Redding chuckled in 1995. “You could say it was an obsession. He would tell me that we were descended from space travelers. He said they were the original gods and they lived here on Earth after their home planet was destroyed. That curious ‘…And The Gods Made Love’ mess which opened our record was supposed to be about the birth of modern man. It was the sound, Jimi said, of a ‘descending spacecraft.’ ”

Jimi himself elaborated for the BBC in April 1969:

Q: On the new album you’ve recorded Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”—

A: Yeah.

Q: –and it’s really quite amazing, but not like Dylan’s song at all. What attracted you to it?

A: Well, I think Bob’s the greatest poet of all time, and “Watchtower” is probably the best song he’s written yet. He’ll write more, I’m not sayin’ he’s finished, but I mean that’s about as groovy as words get. And it’s a message anyone can dig, especially right now. We gotta find a way out of Vietnam, we gotta find a way out of the ghetto, we gotta find a way out of our own minds. I dug what the cat was sayin’ and I felt it was something that needed to be, y’know, uh, AMPLIFIED. [laughs]

Q: How do you feel about the song’s Biblical quality?

A: It’s a good story. [laughs] But I’m not really thinking about the religious aspect when I sing it or play it. I’m more into spirituality, which is different from religion; whatever gets you off, if that’s an authentic response for you, that’s cool. Church isn’t my thing — really, it’s just another institution, like school, with rules and, uh, dress codes, and it’s not really all that tolerant of anyone of a different mind, whatever your intention. Anyway, when I heard the song for the first time, it spoke to me as a, uh, a, uh, the origin of the human race as I see it, which is hard to explain unless you’re hip to an alternate vibe.

Q: Which is?

A: That we started here, but we’re originally from somewhere else.

Q: You mean other planets.

A: Yes, other planets. Dead ones, vanquished ones, tall ones, skinny ones. [laughs] See, some of those planets up there are just ghosts, y’know, abandoned neighborhoods we used to call Earth. We left when conditions got hairy, or when it couldn’t sustain us no more, or when someone swooped in and kicked our ass. So we’re all a mix of different surviving species; this is just our current form.

Q: Wait a minute: you’re saying we’re aliens?

A: No. See, that word is a human construct. We use it to describe what we refuse to understand. It’s a derogatory word, really. “That’s foreign.” “That’s weird.” “That’s alien.” Right? We’re not aliens. There are no aliens. Just wanderers and nomads looking for a place to crash.

Q: But if this happened, according to you, at the beginning of our history, how did they get here in the first place? How was space travel even possible? We’ve only developed it ourselves within the last decade or so.

A: See, you’re confusing “ancient” with “primitive.” Where these cats came from, technology caused the problems in the first place. They had the best of intentions, but they couldn’t be trusted with the promise of infinite possibility. It eventually got away from them. So when they came here, they gave up everything they had, to keep history from repeating itself. Of course, that was a long, long, long, long, long, long, long time ago. Once the original settlers died off and were forgotten, progress was inevitable.

Q: Sounds like Earth was almost a vacation destination.

A: Yeah, man. Like a big Holiday Inn. [laughs] But it’s only a matter of time before we gotta split this world and go find us another. It’s like — remember Peter Pan? The Disney one? “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” Like I said, we fuck up when we think of “All Along the Watchtower” as an ancient parable, like “Whew, glad that’s in the past.” It’s a warning for all times.

As it turned out, Jimi left for good long before the human race did. He died on September 18, 1970, in London at the age of 27. Discussing the tragic loss 30 years later, former Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, who continued to back the legendary guitarist after their band’s 1969 dissolution, mused, “It was sad for us all. Unbelievable, really. One moment he was here, the next he wasn’t. For a young man of such extraordinary talent to leave so soon when he still had so much to offer was devastating.

“But, in retrospect, I think he might have realized his time among us was short, so he said musically everything that was necessary. Electric Ladyland was his grand statement and, really, quite an epitaph. The title was a reference to a recurring dream he had, of a planet inhabited by a race of people, half-human, half-machine. ‘Good and evil lay side by side while electric love penetrates the sky.’ Absolute poetry. And he believed it was a real place. Who knows? Maybe it was. You never knew with Jimi. He never quite seemed entirely of this world, right? It’s like he said: ‘If I don’t meet you no more in this world, I’ll meet you in the next one/Don’t be late.’ And you know what? I’ve a feeling he’s there.”

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4 Responses to ““All Along the Watchtower”: An Alternate History”

  1. julia March 23, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    I followed the link here from the BSG forum, and was enthralled and delighted by the post. I feel like a bit of a dunce for asking this, but…does the title “An Alternative History” mean that, well, this isn’t the “true” history of this song, but actually a poetic imagining?

    Thanks for it in any case!

    • coryfrye March 23, 2009 at 5:07 pm #

      Thanks for reading! Yes, the piece is fictional, but no, you’re not a dunce. I’ve had a couple friends ask the same question. (One, in fact, was disappointed to learn the Hendrix BBC interview wasn’t real.) So I’ve added a disclaimer to avoid further confusion.

      Basically, I started with the question: “What if the show’s mythology was real? What if its events did produce our Earth?” To explain “All Along the Watchtower,” I recast Dylan as a descendant of the Final Five and gave Hendrix the Kara Thrace/Starbuck assist.

      That said, “An Alternate History” is seasoned with a few tiny facts. The Christopher Ricks and Lillian Roxon quotes are real; Bob Dylan’s mother was indeed named Betty; he was involved in a 1966 motorcycle accident, though the extent of his injuries are unknown (some felt it was an excuse to vanish for a while); he wrote furiously during his downtime; the “John Wesley Harding” album was released in late 1967; “All Along the Watchtower” is said to have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah; Bob did find religion; and Jimi did play an advance copy of “Harding” for his compatriots.

  2. Laura September 8, 2015 at 4:59 am #

    Hello, ok, just to be clear, none of the interview text is sourced from real transcripts? Cheers, Laura

    • coryfrye November 23, 2015 at 9:03 pm #

      Correct. I wrote it all.

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