In an article in McLean's magazine a few years back, author Brian Johnson suggested that Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah had "become the closest thing pop music has to a sacred text". I would agree with him. It's a great song, and there's been so many amazing covers over the past years (I'm partial to the KD Lang version, but the list goes on). From the article:
Hallelujah is a masterful meditation on love, sex, God and music,” says Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology at McGill University, and the author of the bestselling book The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. “Lyrically it does what only Leonard Cohen can do, and do so effectively—combine big, universal ancient and spiritual themes with the right-here and right-now.
I want to suggest another song for inclusion in the sacred canon- Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower. This edition of the Jukebox is about that song.
I've been thinking about this track for a long time now. What makes it so good? What makes so many people want to cover it? Why are so many covers full of such electric energy, producing some of the great performances in rock history? I'm not sure I know the answers to these questions.
A few years back I started going around asking musicians this question. I mean like actual musicians, not just my buddy who plays the guitar. I asked them if there was something musical about this song- the chord progressions or whatever- that made it both so eminently coverable and apparently so enjoyable to rock out to. I mostly just got puzzled looks and a "good question". Hmmm, nothin.
Well, let's turn to the lyrics for some possible answers then. There's some debate around what the lyrics mean, spanning the spectrum from there being mythic and religious laden themes in some minds, to the always candid Dave Von Ronk who thinks the lyrics are rather meaningless. I think the lyrics have a great mix of ambiguity and enduringly evocative phrases, and that either way, there's some real beauty lines in there. Let's look at the lyrics, as there aren't many:
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
The joker and the thief? Who are these guys? Is this a deck of cards, a medieval tale, or something else entirely. It's just vague enough to let the imagination really open up. "There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief". That certainly resonates in our day, as does the business man and the plowman who don't "know what any of it is worth". Monsanto, hello!
There's so much movement and immediacy in the song too, it feels like a high drama in action. And there's things at stake- "Let's not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late". Also a great line for our times.
And there's something about the final stanza that has so much electricity in it, and it's impressively cinematic in its three short lines. And as we'll see as we start to look at some versions of the song, those final two lines- "Two riders were approaching/ The wind began to howl"- almost always make the singer really release in some sort of vigorous, mildly epileptic war cry kinda way. It's fantastic.
Ok, to the song itself. We might as well start with the original by Dylan, if for nothing else, to listen in puzzlement as to how this little track would house within itself all the subsequent worlds of performance. Here's Dylan from his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, one of many Dylan albums that took an odd and brave left turn away from the work of his contemporaries and the tastes of the day.
Next up, you gotta go with Jimi Hendrix's version. We've all heard this untold times, but it's worth trying to bring ourselves fresh to it. Hendrix cut it only six months after Dylan released it, and obviously found some inspiration in it, as it goes sonic in his hands. The opening sound sequence on the studio recording is truly unforgettable. Let's listen to Jimi rip this one to dirty shreds at the Isle of Wight.
From here we move to U2. They've incorporated it into their arsenal ever since Rattle and Hum, and with U2 the inherent movement within the song really starts to gallop, and the political traces begin to take some kind of form. Bono introduces this live version saying, "Rock n' Roll, that's all folks". I'm not sure exactly what that means, but the band gets behind this one, as usual.
The Dave Matthews Band have long been doing a great cover of All Along the Watchtower. I've heard a few variations but it usually includes, as it does here, a huge tension filled buildup. And the final passage involving "and then began to howl" is a right mighty scream.
Neil Young and Pearl Jam. Well what can you say about that. They both do good versions on their own, and Neil did a performance at Bob Dylan's 30th Annivesary Concert that misses the cut by a hair's breadth, but when there's only so many slots, you gotta go with the tandem. Not much intro needed here, Neil Young and Pearl Jam.
Well, that concludes this meditation on All Along the Watchtower, and a vote for it being included in the canon of rock's sacred texts. May it continue to be such a wide open and explosive palate for different musical artists to express their rock n' roll souls. In closing- two riders were approachin, and the winds began to hoooooooooooooowowwwwwwwwwlllllllllllllllllllll!!!!