Friday, July 5, 2013

All Along the Watchtower and John Hinchey's Like a Complete Unknown

If anyone is interested in simply studying the poetry of Bob Dylan, that is, to study his songs and their lyrics as poetry, I highly recommend John Hinchey's Like A Complete Unknown. Hinchey at one time taught literature at Swarthmore College and has been long time editor of the Ann Arbor Observer. He brings insights that often might escape the casual listener, especially as regards Dylan's more surreal and ambiguous songs, an ambiguity that seems to be a hallmark of his career.

What Dylan does that many, if not most, great writers do is to derive insight and imagery from direct observations of literal, concrete things, much like French Impressionists and the resurging "en plein air" art movement.

Hinchey himself is a vibrant writer, so writer-critic wrestles with songwriter-artist in this 270 page overview of Dylan's poetry from 1961-1969. Hinchey stated his intention to write four subsequent volumes, a decade by decade panoramic overview of the tapestry that Dylan has woven with words, though I'm not sure how far these winds have carried him.

I find it interesting that Hinchey called Dylan's John Wesley Harding album "the comeback of all comebacks." (Years later Dylan critics would point to Time Out of Mind and say the same.) It is an album very different from his previous series of in your face snarl and vim, following on the heels of Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. Harding was not my favorite Dylan album at the time, in part because I didn't care for the recording quality. It felt thin. But the songs have a lot of meat.

The most evocative song in this collection, and most memorable in part because of Jimi Hendrix's wonderfully haunting rendition, is "All Along the Watchtower". From the first line, it carries you into a vivid sandstorm of expectation.


ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER

"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."


All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Copyright ©1968; renewed 1996 Dwarf Music

So, what does it mean? Here we are more than forty years later and the song still intrigues. Who are the joker and the thief? What is the moment in time that is being defined here?

There are a variety of websites where song meanings are discussed. Some of these interpretations of songs are quite amusing, but a brisk read often unveils new glimmers of light for previously shadowed text. Songs like "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harem or "Horse Latitudes" by the Doors will bring on interesting comments. So does Watchtower, wrapped in mystery as it is.

Hinchey sees the joker and the thief as representing the sacred and profane parts of Dylan the trickster, "mythic master of limits and boundaries." Hinchey writes that the difference between the two, both here and elsewhere in Dylan's work, "is that the joker merely evades limits; the thief finds ways to render them permeable."

The commentary in Hinchey's book is too lengthy to re-record here. Needless to say that he and others writing of the song see in it an "apocalyptic moment" toward which this scene is leading. I myself get mesmerized by how much vivid content this tightly coiled song contains while still remaining shrouded.

What follows here is an alternative shade of interpretation from one of the websites I noted where people share their attempts to explain lyrics. This was posted by someone with the handle eveland on 11-30-2004.

I remember reading an article about this song when it first came out (I believe 1968) by Paul Williams in Crawdaddy magazine, which was a cheaply produced, but very serious, intellectual magazine published by Williams. The thing that stuck with me from the article was that Williams compared the structure of the song to a moebius strip (because the starting point of the lyrics is actually in the middle of the song & the song opens with the middle part of the lyrics) & felt it gave the song a claustrophobic feel (because you come into it & leave it in the middle). The starting point would be "All along the watchtower" & then after the line "Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl", the next line would be "There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief", the joker & the thief being the two riders who were approaching, of course. This makes perfect sense to me & seems right. As far as the actual meaning, my own opinion is that it's a philosophical piece about how one finds meaning in a chaotic & very imperfect world. The joker sees this world & can't take it seriously because it's so false & is depressed because he can't find a way to make sense of it. The thief has come to this same realization in his past, but has found a way to move beyond it & create his own meaning. So it is, in effect, a parable about existentialism. Or maybe I'm totally wrong... 

What I do know is that the song has continued to hold up for more than four decades, simple and dense, perpetually hinting toward a revelation that is perpetually elusive, and so Dylanesque.

EdNote: The numerous Dylan-themed blog entries are in preparation for next Tuesday's concert in Bayfront Park. This is a slightly edited version of a 2008 blog entry.

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