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One interpretation of Bob Dylan’s iconic Brooklyn Watchtower lyric

‘All Along the Watchtower’ … Or Is it the Promenade?

October 26, 2016 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Bob Dylan in 1965. AP Photo/File

Bob Dylan is the first songwriter ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.  His career spans nearly six decades and he’s still out there performing, writing and recording new music.  His songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists the world over, and his lyrics have been examined and explicated in schools and universities throughout the land.

In looking over Dylan’s incredible literary canon, one will discover songs that make reference to sections of Brooklyn. “Joey,” the epic narrative about mobster Crazy Joe Gallo, takes place in Red Hook, “Song to Woody” resulted from Dylan’s admiration and ultimate visit with Woody Guthrie in Coney Island, and “Tangled Up in Blue” includes an entire verse focusing on the narrator of the song living on Montague Street.

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But the classic “All Along the Watchtower” may further perpetuate the notion that Dylan did indeed spend time in the Heights. After all, the iconic 15-foot tall illuminated watchtower sign has always loomed large above the Brooklyn skyline. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Dylan was looking at the sign as he walked along the Promenade.

Fame was new to Dylan in the early sixties when he wrote the song. After all, he was just a boy from Minnesota who was following in the path of his folk heroes, like Guthrie, and writing songs of passion and protest that the world was beginning to embrace. So, the opening lines “‘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,” may refer to Dylan’s newfound fame and his desire to escape from all the ‘confusion’ by seeking some form of relief from what he was experiencing at the time. And, of course, Dylan is the ‘Joker,” a guise he’s worn in other songs such as “Jokerman,” from the highly underrated 1983 “Infidels” album.

The following lines call out the “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth / None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

The businessmen may be the new fans he’s attracting, while the plowmen are the workers, the common man, who are digging up the earth, possibly working on further developing the Promenade, which opened in 1950.

The second verse finds the narrator’s friend offering him advice as they walk along together, possibly getting high by the water’s edge. The friend seems to empathize with the narrator as the hours slip away.

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Possibly the most telling lines in the song referring to the Heights are the couplet, “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view / While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.” If we substitute the word princess for princes one can easily draw a correlation to Dylan staring at the Statue of Liberty, who is the princess, keeping view over New York harbor while looking back at the Watchtower sign. If one listens to Jimi Hendrix’ classic rendition of this song, it certainly sounds like he’s saying “princess.” The allusion to the women who came and went is clear, and the barefoot servants are the groupies that have begun to follow Dylan around.

Further proof of this interpretation can be found in the opening lines of “Jokerman” which appears to validate the notion that Dylan is writing from the Promenade, as he is “Standing by the waters casting your bread / While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.” The narrator is once again by the water staring at “the eyes of the idol with the iron head” (Statue of Liberty), and the following line, “Distant ships sailing into the mist,” and out of the harbor.

The last two lines of “All Along the Watchtower” make reference to a “wildcat did growl / Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” This could refer to the wild-catters who were working on the pier before it was Brooklyn Bridge Park, possibly with bike riders riding along the shorefront as the wind from the water begins to howl.

Dylan’s lyrics are as enigmatic as they are poetic, and it’s always tempting to try and interpret them. “All Along the Watchtower” may just be a poetic musing of a conversation taking place in what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park, a late afternoon walk Dylan took with a friend to try to come to terms with his newfound fame.

If Dylan knew back then that he would one day be ranked among the literary giants of the 20th century, would he still be looking for “some way out of here.”

 


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