The preferred theme song of both old Cylons and young Popes is also the best artifact from 60 years of Dylanology.
As the consensus “all-time greatest cover version” (though I still prefer Hüsker Dü’s psychedelic thrash version of “Eight Miles High“) in rock history, there is absolutely no question that Jimi Hendrix’s reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” deserves every single accolade it’s garnered over the decades.
Like most of the best songs on John Wesley Harding, Dylan’s original “All Along The Watchtower” was mostly acoustic, completely chorusless with the only concessions to rock ‘n’ roll being Kenny Buttrey’s relentless snare drum.
And because of that, you hardly noticed how apocalyptic the lyrics were. And that’s the great trick of Jimi Hendrix’s version: he unleashed the musical apocalypse that was sitting right there in the lyrics.
The beauty of all this was that John Wesley Harding hadn’t even been out for a month before Jimi Hendrix decided to record it. But in that time, he’d clearly had a chance not just to grok it, but to figure out how to share what he heard in it to boot.
And so it begins with a staccato guitar, drums and some timely percussion from Brian Jones, and it’s huge, massive, world-toppling, attention-getting and completely wait, what is this, anyways, as Jimi tosses a quick little lead before calming down just enough for Jimi to deliver the first verse:
“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
Plowman dig my earth
None were level on the mind
Nobody up at his word”
Which of course, isn’t the first verse, exactly. In order for the words to scan with the rhythm of his version, he added the word “kind” to Dylan’s opening verse. Yup, he fucked with Bob Dylan’s sacrosanct lyrics, and totally got away with it. (Though I should point out that for all of the love that Dylan has poured upon Jimi’s version, he still leaves “kind” out if it.)
And since “All Along the Watchtower” doesn’t have a chorus, Jimi fills the space with guitar solos. The first one is short and sweet, relatively conventional and ending just in time for the second verse.
“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 stop talkin’ falsely now
The hour’s getting late”
And with a Mitch Mitchell drum roll, the second guitar solo gets going. And it’s a doozy, swirling all around the melody and then swooping between speakers before bursting into a full wah-wah assault, echoing and it envelopes from all sides lifts you straight into the final verse, which featured the best singing of Jimi’s all-too-short career.
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Outside in the cold distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl
And just like that, Jimi sets his guitar to Category 5 and blows away the rest of the song and pretty much anything else in his path with torrents of endless rain, the kind of rain that comes at you sideways and where the lightning is so close that you hear it before you see it. It’s so intense that the record doesn’t so much fade out as it temporarily overwhelm your hearing so as to trick you into thinking it faded out. But in reality, the apocalypse in the ending of “All Along The Watchtower” is ageless, timeless and out there, raging forever.
“All Along The Watchtower”
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