05 July 2010
"All Along The Watchtower"
Neil Young & Bruce Springsteen
Original Dylan version found on John Wesley Harding (1967)
Neil Young constitutes with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen the great triad of 'moral' voices of American popular music. Their art is . . . first and foremost, a fusion of music and words that identifies with their era's zeitgeist.
---Piero Scaruffi, The History of Rock Music - The Sixties
While there is certainly room for vigorous intellectual discussion among rock music critics and fans as to the thesis above, there is no doubt that Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are the closest disciples of Bob Dylan. Although more overtly political than their mentor, the duo have the innate ability to engage with a wide range of the listening public by weaving tales of the common man and his everyday struggles.
And so it was no accident that in the fall of 2004 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Neil Young joined Bruce Springsteen on stage to perform a unique version of "All Along The Watchtower." No accident, given the talent, experience and scars between them that the two had the chutzpah to take on the most famous Dylan cover of them all. No accident that the performance was a paint-peeling electric version in the Hendrix style that Dylan himself had adopted for 30 years. And certainly no accident that the summit of these two rock giants took place in Dylan's home state.
"All Along The Watchtower" was one of the handful of songs that Bob Dylan reportedly penned in the aftermath of his famous (and mysterious) motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. When the track was recorded for the John Wesley Harding album, Dylan - armed as usual with guitar and harmonica - was joined by Nashville studio vets Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. The LP was released at Christmas time in 1967. "Watchtower" was the second single in advance of the album being racked; Dylan recorded the song on 6 November and the 45 r.p.m. was delivered to record stores on 22 November. The single did not chart.
In October 1968, Dylan spoke with Happy Traum in an interview for Sing Out! magazine. He spoke of the nature of the tunes on John Wesley Harding, which were thought to be in sharp contrast to previous efforts. Dylan seemed to sense that the narrative change was jarring for some of his listeners: "I haven't fulfilled the balladeer's job. A balladeer can sit down and sing three songs for an hour and a half... it can all unfold to you. These melodies on John Wesley Harding lack this traditional sense of time. As with the third verse of 'The Wicked Messenger', which opens it up, and then the time schedule takes a jump and soon the song becomes wider... The same thing is true of the song 'All Along the Watchtower', which opens up in a slightly different way, in a stranger way, for we have the cycle of events working in a rather reverse order."
Of course, that was just the beginning of the notoriety of "All Along The Watchtower." The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded the definitive version for its third album, Electric Ladyland. Dylan is on record about Hendrix's take on his song on at least two occasions. In the liner notes to Biograph, he says: "I liked Jimi Hendrix's record of this and ever since he died I've been doing it that way. . . Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it's a tribute to him in some kind of way." And in an interview with the Fort Lauderdale Sun in 1995, Dylan stated: "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."
Original Listening: Bob Dylan, "All Along The Watchtower"
Live Listening: Bob Dylan & The Band, "All Along The Watchtower" (Before The Flood, 1974)
Other Cover Version: U2, "All Along The Watchtower" (Rattle and Hum, 1988)