Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One Song Three Times

Way back in 1967 Bob Dylan recorded an album called John Wesley Harding. I think I bought a copy around that time. One of the best songs on the album is "All Along the Watchtower". Here are the lyrics:

"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 thing about Dylan's lyrics is that they are only slightly less opaque than his liner notes. But there is always something very evocative about them--in this case they seem to echo the words of Isaiah, chapter 21. Six months after this was released, Jimi Hendrix released a cover version of the song that really made it popular and was one of his few hit singles.

Hendrix spent a lot of time in the studio taping and re-taping the song over and over again--to the point where his bass-player Noel Redding left out of sheer boredom. But even Dylan liked this version and altered his performances to reflect it. And that's the story until March 2007 when an episode of Battlestar Galactica featured this song in the season finale. It was set up in the most fantastic way--well, if you knew the song. There are four humans who are actually Cylon 'sleepers'  but don't know it. They are activated by means of this song. At first we just hear unidentifiable snatches of static. Then each character quotes a line from the song. At first we don't realize it: "there must be some way out of here" isn't too odd a thing to say. Neither is "there's too much confusion". But when one character says "says the joker to the thief" we know something is up. In my case, it worked perfectly. Suddenly, from some deep well of memory (I hadn't heard the song in maybe twenty years) came this recollection. I think I had goosebumps! And then the song starts:

Wow. That is spectacular to say the least! I got so hooked on the series and the way they used this song I even quoted a bit of one of the counter-melodies in a song I was writing at the time.

But as time went on, and as Battlestar Galactica itself went completely off a cliff I started wondering about all this. The original song has a kind of enigmatic, hypnotic charm. But it seems the more it is puffed up into something grandiose, the more it loses that charm. I think there is a deep aesthetic principle here having to do with proportion and truth. I don't quite know how to state it in a way that doesn't seem a tired bromide. Perhaps: the truth of something can better be revealed obliquely in art rather than by grandiose bellowing. I'm very tempted to go back to the original song and pare it down to its essentials. But what if I find that everything has been squeezed out of it?

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