I could have titled this post “My favorite cover”, but to call anything ‘the best’ is an invitation to debate and disagree, so maybe my small circle of readers will weigh in with their opinions.
Had he lived, Jimi Hendrix would have turned 71 later this month. Hard to believe, no? Like JFK, whose assassination anniversary looms (and who would be 96 were he alive today), he’s forever fixed at the age we lost him: 27 years old and doing insane things on the guitar. One is tempted to imagine the arc of his career had he not died in London in September of 1970. Would he still be recording and performing live, like, say, Eric Clapton, a peer? If so, what gems would be in his catalog by now? Or would he have flamed out? We’ll never now. What’s important is that we have what he did leave behind.
Hendrix released just three studio albums while he was alive. The last of these, 1968’s Electric Ladyland, included a track that I consider the best cover version of a song: “All Along The Watchtower.” And I guess it’s here that I should say that by ‘best’, I mean the most complete and utter re-imagining of an earlier version…a version that surpasses the original. I would wager there are some people who don’t even know Hendrix’ version is a cover. Bob Dylan wrote “All Along The Watchtower” in late 1967, and it appeared on his album John Wesley Harding. The recording is rather spare and a taut two and half minutes long: Dylan himself plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, with Charlie McCoy on bass guitar and Kenneth Buttrey on drums.
“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
[Note that an explication of the lyrics could fill an entire post; I’ll leave that for the interested among you to explore on your own. Suffice it to say that the interpretations abound].
Hendrix was a big admirer of Dylan, and began recording his own version of “Watchtower” just weeks after Dylan’s was released. For his version, Hendrix plugged in and unleashed four ecstatically blistering solos–lengthening the song by a minute and a half–and his engineer, Eddie Kramer, was very creative with what were, by today’s standards, a very limited set of studio effects. (An interesting piece on the recording of “Watchtower” is here.) No matter where I am or what I’m doing when I hear the song’s opening, at those first insistent strums on acoustic guitar I snap to attention and wait not only for that electric guitar line that will arrive in just 9 seconds, but for all the wonders that follow.
In an interview he did for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel back in 1995, when asked how he felt when he first heard Hendrix’ version, Dylan replied: “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…..I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.”
Trivia tidbit: In a rather eerie coincidence, The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones (1969), Hendrix (1970), Janis Joplin (1970) and The Doors’ Jim Morrison (1971) all died at 27.