What is it about the song “All Along the Watchtower”?
Why does almost every rock band in existence cover this song in concert?
Why is it that this is often the song during which the headliner calls up the opening act to jam together on stage?
What is it about this Jimi Hendrix classic that makes it the quintessential song to copy?
Maybe that it’s not a Jimi Hendrix song at all?
“It’s the fucking lyrics, man,” says Del James, the writer, musician, tour manager, longtime cohort of W. Axl Rose, inspiration for the video for “November Rain,” and general rock ‘n roll badass.
“Those lyrics are so mystical and captivating, so everyone who ever picks up a guitar when they’re 10 years old wants to play it. Plus it’s Dylan. You can’t go wrong with Dylan.”
Thank you, Del, for explaining to the “many here among us” that “All Along the Watchtower” is not a Jimi Hendrix song and was indeed written by America’s greatest living songwriter. So, for you, Del, said lyrics:
“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.
With that all taken care of, let’s analyze a handful of the big-name versions of the song that are easy to find on YouTube.
We’ll start with the master, Jimi, whose studio version was so good that Dylan, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in a 1995 interview that upon hearing it for the first time, “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the other master, Robert Zimmerman himself, whose version was the first one I ever heard, and, as a result, will always be my favorite. Probably because of the harmonica:
For more good ones, we’ll start with another rock hero, Neil Young, who really taps into the emotion of the track:
Another decent effort was made by Pearl Jam. Their cover, not surprisingly, is inspired by Neil Young’s (Young is semi-famously counted among Eddie Vedder’s mentors):
Fitting, then, that yet another good live cover of the song would be performed by Neil Young … and Pearl Jam:
So what is it about this song that makes just about every band in existence not only want to, but seemingly have to, play it? Is it the fact that its three-chord progression (Am-G-F-G-Am) dares the shredders of the world to gawk at how bafflingly simple inspiring, soulful music can be? Is it the fact that it allows for long solos that feel like they’re climbing up and shimmying down the turreted walls one can only imagine by picturing whatever the hell is going on in the lyrics? Well, sure. And maybe not.
And that’s where the bad versions come in. For example, I happen to love the Grateful Dead as much as anyone, but I know a horrendous cover when I hear it:
And Bono, I dug all of your albums up until “Achtung Baby,” but I wish you would have achtunged before you decided to cut this turd:
I’m not even going to discuss this monstrosity:
I’ve always admired Bruce Springsteen for many of his songs. Emphasis on the word his:
I was in college when John Mellencamp unleashed this steaming heap of man-dung on the music world on national television. My buddy D said, “If Jimi is the master, this guy’s the bater.” So for the last 20 years, I have referred to John Mellencamp as, “The Bater.” Join me. I know you will:
I got tired of Eric Clapton around 1991. I got tired of Lenny Kravitz before I was done listening to his first album the first time I heard it. So naturally, well, judge for yourself:
This one? I just don’t know how to describe it. Help me. Please?
And that about does it for now. We can revisit this topic next year, probably with 200 more examples of the fine art of paying homage or the crushing insult of vomiting all over someone’s work in front of 20,000 addled, screaming disciples.
In conclusion, we’ll go back to the words of the great Del James. When I asked him whom he felt had delivered the best live version of “All Along the Watchtower” he’d ever witnessed, he thought about it for a second and then laughed.
“No doubt about it,” he said. “Frank Marino and the Mahogany Rush.”
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