What We Talk About When We Talk About Favorite Songs

“My friend Jackson Brown once said all the great songs stay written.” – Bruce Springsteen

When we talk about our favorite songs, we are usually actually talking about our favorite performances.  We are thinking of an album track or a live performance or some amalgamation of multiple performances of one song by one particular artist. We rarely talk about our favorite songs irrespective of performers or performances. But that’s the way music has generally been experienced for most of human history. Songs were performed live by different people with different instruments  and it was  the words and the feeling that people came to know and remember. Songs were memorized and performed in public by many different amateurs and eventually one song would be requested enough, and danced to enough, that it would imprint itself on the group consciousness. This was repeated enough times until a shared language of authorless songs emerged and the music of a people came into being.

We still have these songs, and they aren’t just kept alive by bar bands, although they often are.  It’s obviously much different now, when most of the music we listen to is recorded and we need to know immediately who a song is by. We catalog music in our minds and iPods by Artist. It’s easier and more efficient, and it makes more sense given our belief in the individual’s right to “credit” for writing a song.

(This is a belief in individual songwriting ownership that does not necessarily, in fact not often, extend to monetary reimbursement. I will pirate the shit out of music on the internet, but I will remind everyone present who a song is originally by – see: “Blinded by the Light” by Springsteen, Bruce – because I am that guy).

But there are few songs that, even though we may know their origins, have transcended those origins. They have entered a sort of songwriting “public domain” in which any performance of it can be judged on its own merits and not immediately compared to an iconic previous performance.

A few songs that transcend author and performer to this level today, but most are things like the “Birthday Song” or “Star Spangled Banner.” There are only a handful in the rock canon, but the greatest one, and the one most covered by the very best acts of three generations of rock and roll, is “All Along the Watchtower,” a song that was originally written by the greatest rock and roll song writer and utterly transformed by the greatest rock and roll guitarist. “All Along the Watchtower” is everything that makes rock and roll great, the big bring down-the-heavens jam, intimate and vivid lyrics that evoke powerful imagery, a marching drum line that gets your head nodding, indulgent guitar playing, and a  good dose of mystery and ambiguous meaning.  .

I humbly present a sampling of performances of “All Along the Watchtower,” the greatest rock and roll song of all time precisely because it brings out the best in everybody who plays it. “Watchtower” is a truly great song that is often the host for great performances by great artists.

“Two riders were approaching.”  

“All Along on the Watchtower” first appeared on Dylan’s 1967 album “John Wesley Harding.” Like everything on that album, its acoustic and kind of weird and haunting. Bob’s version is a repetitive loop of a simple acoustic riff every few beats and it’s that high harmonica doing all the soloing and adding most of the melody. Its depth comes from its simplicity, in that simple guitar riff repeated over and over those driving rhythms. This is a rock bass and drum combo, so its not that surprising that Jimi decided “lets make this electric and go nuts with it” almost immediately after the song was released.

Dylan’s version is most interesting because it’s a starting point for Jimi to blow the possibilities of electric guitar wide open, and because he wrote the damn lyrics, and because it’s not a big epic song. It’s short, clocking in at only 2:30. This is not the expansive and epic song that it would become later.  It’s like an excerpt of a poem.

The lyrics are worth talking about, because they are beautiful and weird and haunting but also sort of nonsensical, which make it the perfect rock anthem.  We all know them, but here’s a quick refresher.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief.

One of the best opening lines in rock and roll history. It immediately sets up a mysterious conversation between two mysterious figures trying to get out of a mysterious place.

“There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief.

Business men they drink my wine. Plowmen dig my earth.

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

Still pretty awesome, still haunting, and weird and mysterious. But also pretty damn ambiguous  Why would the Joker own land that other people are digging? This sounds like a pretty damn powerful Joker. Or maybe all powerful men are Jokers in their own right.  What exactly does he know about “worth?” What are we talking about here exactly? Why is the thief the one who reassures him? It’s the Thief who is grounded and who understands the world, which says a lot about the relationship between rationality and exploitation.

That ambiguity is what makes this verse both a mysterious Led Zeppelin-esque mystical invocation of medieval imagery and powerful counterculture message. This world, the Joker says, is mad and no one knows the proper value or importance of anything. It’s a kind of classic sixties message that evokes a feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo, with business, with the rape of the earth,  but manages to never define the status quo or the alternative. It is only “confusion” and there is no relief in this world. The song is the same way, it’s repetitive, and there is no relief, no resolution to the story of the Joker and the Thief.

It’s also worth mentioning that the song title makes no real sense, as multiple people have pointed out. A tower is, after all, circular. You can’t stand along it. That being said, every time I hear the lyric I imagine a castle wall, with Princes perched atop and staring out at the distance. But that’s wrong. It’s a tower.

But maybe  it’s a bunch of Princes standing back to each other in a tower, looking out over the entire world. The danger is coming from everywhere, and vigilance requires a 360 degree watch. Or maybe Dylan is just messing with us.

John Wesley Harding is mostly a pretty forgettable Dylan album, and its feels like is retreading old folk stuff through most of it. But “All Along the Watchtower” is noticeably different because it is represents  an acoustic rock song and the difference between Dylan the Rock and Roll visionary and Dylan the Folk Singer.

“Watchtower” is rebellious, mysterious, with an ominous air of foreboding. This is Dylan at his best. Great rock and roll is rebellious without being topical, it’s revolutionary but not from some stated political objective or boring recitation of ideology. It’s an act of revolution in itself, a howling at the moon and a throwing off of expectations, if only for a three minute guitar frenzy. And that’s what Jimi changed the song into. A guitar orgy of defiance that feels biblical, ancient, and completely new.

It’s worth discussing what Jimi did with the song in terms of how he managed to break open from the very tight, restrictive loops of Bob’s version. Bob’s version has that repetitive loop, those horses approaching, that steady gallop of drum and bass that the Joker and Thief ride as the sun goes down. Maybe there’s a crack of thunder overhead.

Jimi’s version is the horses sprinting through a landscape-changing thunderstorm, a mudslide, a cyclone, and some sort of earthquake all at once, with the riders trying to escape to the castle but bringing it with them; they are unknowing harbingers of doom. He also adds a legitimate bridge. The song is now defined more by the spaces in between the verses than the verses themselves, which adds depth to the lyrics. Now, we hear the chaos the Joker and the Thief are speaking of, we get to live in those moments of anticipation, in the foreboding and the fury, of those standing along the watchtower.

Jimi’s version appears on “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which came out in 1968. The interesting thing about “Watchtower” is that Jimi’s version almost immediately usurped Bob’s as the iconic version. Bob’s version really was more of a blue print than anything else.

Bob famously said he’d never play “Watchtower” acoustically again after he heard Jimi play it. He went onto play it more than any other song, starting in 1974, which is definitely a testament to Jimi’s version, since there’s no way “Watchtower” becomes the most played Dylan song based on the John Wesley Harding version.

“Watchtower” went dormant through much of the seventies and eighties as the music kind of moved away from classic rock. It’s no surprise, then, that the late eighties saw a resurgence in “Watchtower” covers, since the emergence of grunge represented a return to meaningful, angry, and enigmatic rock that rejected seventies and eighties glam.

U2 plays it here in 1988 and because it’s Bono singing it feels more political, and since it’s the Edge on playing guitar, it’s less about soloing than about waves of sound. If Jimi is the god throwing thunderbolts at the riders, the Edge is the waves of rain landing on them.  In it’s vaguely political message (the end of an unacceptable way of life) and in the way it almost requires a lot of looped noise, it’s sort of perfect for U2. Those Irish lads don’t really straight rock out that often, but they sort of kill it here.

The Grateful Dead started playing “Watchtower” regularly in the late eighties. Their version is predictably a little more funky, and it’s obviously a great way for Jerry Garcia to tear up the long in-between verse breaks. What I love about this video is the way Bobby Weir starts to sing and can’t hear himself, which leads to this great moment where the song comes to life, since Bobby is confused, lost in the noise, gesturing to the soundboard for “relief” at the same time he sings “I can’t get no relief.”

I know Dave Matthews Band is a band that you either love or hate, but no matter what you think of them, their version of “Watchtower” might be as original as anybody’s since Jimi’s.  They end sets with “Watchtower” as much as anybody, maybe more than anybody. I saw them end a set with it at Bonoroo a few years ago, and I have to say, it was pretty fucking great. DMB’s version is more theatrical than any other. They create drama in the way they start slow, let it build, and then blow it up, which in some ways might be the best way to do it. Foreboding should be something that grows until it’s intolerable, not something that remains static. They also don’t even really have an electric guitar on it. It’s horns and bass and somehow it’s mood and cacophony more than searing guitar soloing (although the violin has a few moments). This actually might be the biggest drawback, the lack of the one voice, usually the guitar, that sort of leads you through the “confusion.”  Dave’s version feels like somebody whispering in your ear before smacking you over the head. It also maybe the best to see live, in that it is constantly changing and shifting and becoming something new before your eyes.

This is what I mean when I say this is greatest song ever. Dave turns it into a jazz narrative assault and completely reinvents it. And it still rocks out, and he owns the lyrics. .  Again, this is Dave Matthews making the fucking sky fall, which was something I thought was impossible before I heard this. Only “Watchtower” could elicit that many different interpretations that are all full speed ahead. Usually covers are made original by either slowing a song down or speeding it up. “Watchtower” is always pedal to the metal, and yet it’s always different. Forget Bob, it has nearly nothing to do with him. Through the aggregated talent that has performed it, it becomes an immense challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of anybody who would try it. And yet, it’s super accessible because it’s so well known and because we all know what it means. Which is this: it’s time to rock.

Here’s the best version:

Nobody knows how to build into a serious guitar solo from a few haunting notes like Neil. And nobody knows how to share a stage like Bruce. This version is somehow creepy and ecstatic at the same time, and it builds in a subtle, natural way while still being pretty hard the whole time (as oppose to Dave’s “let’s start with just me and bring everybody in” heavy handed change). And there’s CLARENCE!

Also, watch till the end.

“Two riders were approaching….”

“Two riders were approaching…”

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