“all along the watchtower” and the beauty of creating
Let’s start simple: Bob Dylan is a Nobel Prize winner. Bob Dylan, with the flip of an amp switch, changed the course of popular music forever by merging folk and rock at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Bob Dylan is also a strange religious zealot who has expressed less-than-savory views about women and once portrayed an n-word spouting racist in a song about boxing without batting an eye. He’s complex, he’s talented, he’s revolutionary, and, according to my neighbor (who claims to be the granddaughter of Pete Seeger and to have met most of the ‘60s folk vanguard along the way), he’s a pompous jerk.
I mention all of this to make it clear that I know exactly what kind of a person I’m reckoning with when I talk about Bob Dylan. Simply put, he’s kind of a bad dude. But he’s also, in my estimation, the most talented artist of the last hundred years—and I say artist as opposed to musician very intentionally, because, yes, Bob Dylan deserved his Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s responsible for what is probably my favorite song of all time, a song remembered not as his but as Jimi Hendrix’s: “All Along the Watchtower,” a 12-line folk ballad that’s uncharacteristically brief by Dylan’s standards.
I’m not the first person to speculate over the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics; YouTube is filled to the brim with speculative takes on what “All Along the Watchtower” is really about. Some people think its central characters—“the joker” and “the thief”—are Dylan and Elvis. Some people think the entire story is a Biblical parable. Personally, I believe the verses are Dylan talking to himself—an internal dialogue focused on the creative process. As an aspiring writer and poet (as well as a songwriter by moonlight), the song’s message—at least as I’ve interpreted it—extends far beyond its political foresight and becomes a kind of guidebook, a road map to being a creator. Pull up a lyric sheet and follow along.
The song’s first verse is spoken primarily by the imprisoned “joker,” who more or less uses his allotted time to a) perpetuate an escape fantasy, b) complain about being beaten down by the world, and c) call everyone else a bunch of ignorant, sightless fools for not realizing the value of living. Yikes. As a person who too often expresses worldly cynicism myself, though, I recognize a lot of familiar ideas in the joker’s words—a desire to write off existence as pointless, to accuse other people of being less than me, to spend my time poking fun at them because finding real fulfillment is impossible. It’s an unhealthy mindset, but sometimes life gets to feeling brutally torpid and the act of creating (whether it’s writing, painting, or chemical synthesis) can seem pointless, futile. This is Dylan’s lazy side, Dylan the cynic, Dylan the narcissist. It’s a sad way to open a song.
The second verse is sung from the perspective of a “thief”—an occupational choice that is not made lightly. Over the years, Dylan has been accused of plagiarizing the work of other artists, both from within the folk tradition and outside of it. And, of course, we would do well to remember that more or less all white artists since the early 20th century (if not earlier) have been creating within genres appropriated from black traditions. Pearl Jam stole from black people. Bon Iver stole from black people. Get it through your heads, people. By personifying a part of himself as a thief, Dylan accepts a certain responsibility for his art’s history, acknowledging that even when he is capable of overcoming his cynicism, he’s engaging in creative larceny—an admission which, though clear-sighted, is quite sad in its own right and more or less tells the joker to cut the shit. He “kindly” (sarcastically, I think) reminds the joker that plenty of people are comfortable living as though life is “but a joke” (nice dis, thief) but goes on to insist that such indolence is “not our fate.” Then he tells the joker to put a sock in it because “the hour is getting late.” Here, Dylan’s Jekyll reminds his Hyde that a person with his creative gifts and a destiny to live up to (and a legacy of theft to make up for) isn’t allowed to simply tap out; Dylan has to give his all as a creator because his success as a white male artist is the ill-begotten product of a broken system and only someone with his command of language can tear that system down.
In what might be the greatest mic drop in lyrical history, Dylan then proceeds to do exactly that in the space of only two lines. “All along the watchtower,” he brays, “Princes kept the view / while all the women came and went / barefoot servants, too.” If you don’t see why that’s a perfect description of the fucked up patriarchal institutions that have dominated world government for the better part of all historical memory, try listening to it a few thousand more times until it sinks in. Here, Dylan fulfills his purpose as prophet, overcoming his cynicism to circumscribe history in eighteen words—you know, like a badass. Dylan then changes course and tells us that “two riders were approaching,” which most interpreters believe to be a reference to the joker and the thief. I think so too, but there’s a double entendre here—“riders” sounds an awful lot like “writers.” Apparently, Dylan never intended it to be heard this way—see the lyric sheet—but it’s fun to imagine how this reconfigures the song’s meaning. It’s also fun to imagine the joker and the thief as one man, Dylan himself, riding a steed across a windswept plain like some weird beatnik knight, curly locks thrown out backwards, ready to irrevocably fuck up the royal social order. How’s he going to do it, you ask? Why, by singing “All Along the Watchtower,” of course.
And thus does the circular myth of Dylan’s opus close itself, the joker and the thief conversing in perpetuity, the song’s beginning its end. It’s a deeply egotistical moment, with Dylan figuring himself as messianic, a divine figure. But it’s also an inspiring sentiment, not because it dismantles political history in the space of twelve lines (although it absolutely does that), but because, political overtones aside, it’s a song about what it means to be an artist. It’s an edict, a song about why creators must create. It’s a prophetic reminder, a reason to wake up every day and labor to speak what you believe. Whether you’re a biologist or a poet, and whether or not you think that his Nobel Prize was earned, you have to admit—that’s what all good creation should do.