Yes, I know Jimi didn’t write Watchtower. And as good a lyricist as Bob Dylan may be, the reason to listen to the song is the searing intro, the power of Jimi’s voice (which sounds stronger in this song than any other), and, of course, the reverb-laden guitar solo that blows the doors off of just about anything recorded. Ever. In fact, if Jimi hadn’t ever covered it, I’m betting the song (which is regularly classified as one of Jimi Hendrix’s “Greatest Hits”) would be barely remember. Just like Otis Redding’s, “Respect,” and Prince’s, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Jimi’s Watchtower is a cover that erases the memory of the original.
And it made sense for Jimi to front-load a guitar solo, with no suspense and no build-up. The song itself tells a circular story that starts in the middle and seems to end at the beginning. It starts with a conversation: “There must be some kind of way out of here,” but the need to move doesn’t happen until the end—where two riders approach and the wind begins to howl. The song also lacks any anchor—there is no chorus. Most say that Bob Dylan is the Joker in the song (and Elvis Presley is the thief), and he feels confined by the requirements of the princes in charge of the music industry—so creating a song without traditional structure is his way out. The businessmen drink his wine—getting rich off of him, without knowing what his music is worth, and treat it like it’s a joke.
But the confusion and power of the narrative isn’t done justice on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding record—it’s good, but it’s just another folk tune, really. A damn good one—because Dylan is a master craftsmen—but hardly his best. Somehow, Hendrix saw the power in it and released his cover six months after the original came out. Interestingly enough, Dave Mason of Traffic plays on the studio version—taking over on bass for Noel Redding who apparently didn’t like the song, and also playing guitar. Brian Jones also appears on the cut.
It was so good, Dylan started playing Jimi’s version instead of his own.
Cover versions: Hundreds. These are some great ones.