The Disgruntled Dylanologist

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.

‘All Along the Watchtower’: Dylan added to Guitar Hero’s set list

“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.”


May 18, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ain’t Working On ‘Maggie’s Farm’ No More: Dylan tops record charts; Specter breaks Republican hearts

I got a head full of ideas

That are drivin’ me insane.
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

It’s been nearly 45 years since Bob Dylan stepped on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, electric guitar strapped across his back, and defiantly told the establishment that had made him a star, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

And while Dylan’s transition from the world’s most beloved folkie to full-blown cultural icon is now largely forgiven even by his most adamant detractors, at the time the chord Dylan struck was far from harmonious.

Dylan’s landmark appearance at Newport was wedged between two long forgotten acts by the name of Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers. The fact that these two groups were so closely culled from the folk tradition only accentuated the disruption Dylan caused. So horrified was the crowd by Dylan’s now notorious 3-song set, that shortly after the band finished someone is reported to have shouted: “Bring back Cousin Emmy!”

Much in the same way Dylan’s performance at Newport took the folk movement by surprise, US Senator Arlen Specter’s unexpected decision last week to switch political affiliation shocked the Washington establishment.

Chances are slim there’ll be any cries to “Bring Back Uncle Arlen!” on the part of the Republicans, however.

In hindsight, the real disdain the folkies had toward Dylan back in 1965 wasn’t so much that he ‘went electric’ (“Like a Rolling Stone” was, after all, already at the top of the charts). It was the way in which he thumbed his nose at them in such a defiant way, and did so in such a public forum.

Similarly, Specter’s decision to announce his defection one day prior to Obama’s 100th day in office was hardly the sign of a wallflower. Like Dylan, Specter was given a stage and he used it to maximum benefit.

But let’s be honest. Just as the fans at Newport knew they weren’t going to be able to keep Dylan in their pocket forever, the Republicans had to have seen this coming. Back in February, Obama’s $787 billion dollar stimulus got a total of three Republican votes— and Specter was one of them.

Admittedly, politicians cross the aisle all the time to imbue their political capital. But to cross the aisle on that vote at that defining moment in Obama’s young presidency was clearly a telltale sign of things to come, especially considering Specter’s long history of political vacillation.

There’s no question Specter needs to replenish the capital in his waning political coffers. Polls show the Pennsylvania senator has the support of only 30% of the likely GOP voters in the 2010 primary. But why the seismic shift to the Left? Two words: Barack Obama.

Roughly 180,000 party moderates – the very people Specter needs to win the upcoming Republican primary – switched parties in 2008 to vote for Mr. Obama in the general election. As a result, Specter is seen (and probably accurately so) as a political dead man walking.

Dylan was at a strikingly similar point in his career when the Festival Committee asked him to headline Newport in 1965. Not that Dylan’s supporters had abandoned him— far from it. When Dylan walked out on stage that warm July night, he was at the top of his game— loved, admired and perfectly in tune with the times. But Dylan knew something his adorning fans didn’t. It was time to move on. Time to chart a new course. Time to explore a new direction. In short, it was time.

It’s one thing to reinvent yourself. As any observant Dylan aficionado knows (is there any other kind?), Dylan was inventing “Dylan” long before he ever got to Newport. Even politicians need a bit of reinvention from time-to-time. Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan—perhaps the most significant force in the Republican Party in the last 50 years—switched parties in 1962, claiming, “I did not leave the Democratic party, the party left me.” Sounds remarkably like the rationalization Specter has repeatedly given when pressed to do a little soul searching on why he’s thrown his lot with the Left.

But in the end, Specter’s defection to the Dems is no Newport. Dylan wasn’t closing the door to his legions of supporters; he was opening a new one. He wasn’t walking away from his admirers; he was inviting them to join him. And on the topic of introducing electric music and the years of controversy that followed, for Dylan, “It was honest.” Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Pennsylvania politician. For Specter, it was all about self-preservation.

There’s no question the times in which we live are uncertain. And, as history has repeated shown, no one bears the brunt of these changing times more than our politicians and cultural icons.

Dylan was right. We really don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; public opinion will do just fine…

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , | Leave a comment