Sunday, May 17, 2009
"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."
By 1965, Dylan had already garnered a reputation as a prankster. His mercurial nature and increasingly interpretative lyrics had resulted in a goading ability to confound critics and fans alike.
And so, when Dylan stepped onstage at Newport with a Fender Stratocaster strapped across his back instead of the familiar Gibson Nick Lucas Special acoustic guitar with which the folk set was accustomed, in all likelihood his fans were probably hoping this was just another one of Bob’s attempts to bewilder. The joke, it turns out, was on them.
And while Dylan’s defiant act of ‘going electric’ undoubtedly sent a shock of horror through the crowd, in all the chaos that followed chances are those in attendance probably failed to appreciate just how good a guitar player he really was. That’s all about to change.
And even though we’ll need to wait until later this summer until we can emulate our favorite traveling troubadour, the buzz has already begun.
That’s right, Bob Dylan is officially a ‘Guitar Hero.’
And what song did the good people at Activision, the makers of Guitar Hero, choose to showcase Dylan’s talent as an axman? “All Along the Watchtower.”
And just so you know, contrary to Bob’s lyric instructing otherwise, there very much is reason to get excited.
Sparse and restrained, “Watchtower” is the perfect song for the revised Guitar Hero format, which unlike previous incarnations allows multiple players to play a multitude of instruments.
So what makes “Watchtower” so well suited for Guitar Hero? It’s open for interpretation. Whether it’s Dave Matthews’ slow burn acoustic build, Bono’s politically infused lyrical addition, or Hendrix’s searing, Wah-Wah wig out that rightfully snagged the song the #5 spot on Guitar World's 100 Greatest Guitar Solos, all have offered a unique, interpretative variation on this tumultuous tale of intrigue.
Interpretation, of course, is exactly what lies at the genius of Guitar Hero. And having performed the song more than 1,500 times, Dylan’s been afforded quite a few opportunities to reinterpret the song himself over the last 35 years.
But there’s another reason why this timeless classic makes perfect sense. Because just as the simple construction of the song lends itself to interpretation, so, too, does the lyrical content.
Unlike many of the “talkin’” songs Dylan was composing around this time (many of which ran in excess of 12 verses), “All Along the Watchtower” is essentially a stripped-down three-chord folk song, consisting of three tightly crafted verses, no chorus and plenty of room for solos. Yet while the song isn’t especially structurally complicated, it turns out it’s actually one of Dylan’s most complex.
The joker, the thief, the prince, the businessman, the barefoot servants, the approaching riders, the plowmen, the howling wind. It’s tough not to get lost in the cast of enigmatic, inscrutable characters scattered throughout “Watchtower’s” turbulent terrain. But buried beneath this laconic landscape is a cautionary tale that is alarmingly applicable to the times in which we live.
Clocking in at a mere 2 minutes and 33 seconds, Dylan uses his time, and his expansive imagination, wisely. The song opens and closes with two figures guarding what we are led to believe is a medieval castle. And while Dylan’s parables are often puzzling (this one is no exception), many have kept the Kafkaesque view that the castle is representative of established society’s existing power structure.
But just what exactly are the princes guarding? Are they intent on preserving the old guard? Or will they be swayed by the inevitable change brought on by the distant howling wind? And should it get too late, what happens then?
Thematically, the song also strikes a resounding chord. As the song circles back to its haunting conclusion, some have cited the final refrain of William Butler Yeats' famous poem, “The Second Coming” as inspiration: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
And while the reference to the Irish poet points us in the right direction, in the end it doesn't completely satisfy. Neither Dylan nor Yeats offers explanation as to the ominous outcome, leaving us instead with a sense of foreboding mediation on the looming conflict, and its potentially catastrophic consequences.
It's only to be expected. As with all of Dylan’s diabolical diatribes, “All Along the Watchtower” works on many different levels. But at its core, the song focuses like a laser beam on a fundamental issue of the era in which we find ourselves— the realignment of human values against the established order.
And when to stop to think about it, isn’t that precisely the scenario our own newly anointed political prince must now confront?
President Obama has admitted to being a Dylan enthusiast. Chances are, however, we won’t have to worry how Barack Obama might interpret this harrowing harbinger of things to come even if he were to try his hand at the newest addition to Guitar Hero’s set list.
It turns out, unlike many of his presidential predecessors, Obama does not play an instrument. But then again, doesn’t that make him the perfect candidate for the game…
"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."