There must be some kinda way outa here, said the joker to the thief ...
In a week where a major presidential candidate got real about race, and the 5th "anniversary" of the Iraq war was remarked upon more times than I care to count, I don't think there can be a more appropriate song to examine than Jimi Hendrix' incendiary cover of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower.
I've been reading pages online of the book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America by Craig Werner, and in it a chapter explores how much Hendrix' music resonated with the integrated troops in Vietnam. Excerpting now from another source referenced in the book, Nine Meditations on Jimi and Nam, Roger Steffens says, "He represented a way to listen to the sound of your own outer limits. Being there and listening to him, no matter what the kids back home thought his music meant, they could never connect at the level we did. We were in the right zone to tune in. More intensity, more extremism ... "
Hendrix was a game-changer, there can be no doubt about that. I have been wrestling with what song best exemplifies his essence, zig-zagging between one original song of his and another, but in the end, the All Along the Watchtower cover is the powerhouse to me - the one that best showcases Jimi in all his glory in relation to the times in which he lived.
That it was an entirely different kind of song in Dylan's hands perhaps makes it even more fascinating; Dylan himself was blown away by its transformation and said in a 1995 interview, "It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day."
Maybe this version of the song has been part of the soundtrack of too many China Beaches and A Bronx Tales, but if so, it's only because it evokes exactly what you'd want it to, with the first 18 seconds of the intro screaming out War Zone! whether it's on our soil or someone else's. I can't think of another intro that comes across as ominously as this one ... and it's probably a good thing, because it is so harrowing.
The world was too much for Jimi Hendrix; what he was able to tap into to produce the music he did, the way he did it, would probably have killed a lot of us even sooner than it did him. In some of the footage of him in performance, it almost looks like he's just a vessel through which the intensity and extremity of that time was pre-ordained to flow. He would be 65 now ... it's difficult to imagine what else he might have given us had he lived.