“There must be some kind of way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief.
Out of where? Obviously, the Joker and the Thief are inside something, and not only that, but the Joker (at least) feels trapped and wants to get out. There is a clear sense of impending trouble – big trouble.
The Joker and the Thief might be inside but they are outsiders. They are lawbreakers, anarchists, poets, philosophers, hippies, artists, trouble-makers, street-people, revolutionaries, etc.
“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.”
This identifies the “Joker” as a cosmic figure associated with “wine” and “earth”, which he claims belong to him. If the “Joker” is not the God Dionysos, then he is someone very much like him. Dionysos is a God of wine, agriculture, dancing, sexuality and fertility. But we shouldn’t forget that he is also the ancient patron God of the Theater. Dionysos had a very strong connection with the the cult of the Goddess of Agriculture, Demeter (the Eleusinian Mysteries), and Dionysos also had a distinctive Mystery cult of his own as well – characterized by night-time rites infamous for their orgiastic excesses.
But if the Joker is Dionysos, or someone like him, why would a God complain that he “can’t get no relief”? And how can a God come to feel trapped and in need of “some kind of way out of here”?
Maybe the relationship between humans and Gods (or at least this God, Dionysos) is just that – a true relationship. If that is the case then it involves compromises on both sides – and it entails not only the possibility, but the certainty of disappointment (on both sides). Maybe this is the downside of being a God that is “worshipped” by humans – as opposed to Gods that are unknown, or even unknowable, to humans.
Having given humans the great gift of wine – what have they done with it? The Joker/Dionysos, looks down on “my earth” and what does he see? Instead of ecstatic revelers, true Bacchantes, he sees men in suits making business deals over lunch as they “drink my wine”. And having given humanity the great gift of agriculture, what do they do? They carve “my earth” up into petty little plots owned by petty little farmers or, worse yet, into huge plots owned by the privileged and powerful few – because “none of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited,” the Thief he kindly spoke.
If the Joker is Dionysos, then the Thief can only be Hermes, the God of Thieves (the beautiful image to the right is by Nigel Jackson. Click here for more information – you can buy it as a poster!). Hermes, very appropriately is also the God of Boundaries – and while this means he is associated with city walls and borders of every kind, it also means that he is the master of all boundaries and is, therefore, very much the God of crossing boundaries.
“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.'”
The Joker’s friend, the Thief, is, in essence, telling him to get hold of himself – to remember who and what he truly is. From their cosmic perspective they know that life is not meaningless, and however humans may have abused and misused the gifts they receive from the Gods, it really doesn’t harm the Gods Themselves in any way. Or does it? The dilemma is that the Gods (or at least these two Gods, Dionysos and Hermes) truly do care for humans – and this caring must entail suffering on the part of the Gods in response to human suffering. But what the Joker has forgotten, or lost sight of, is that this suffering is inevitable, and that there is “no way out” of it. This is something that the Joker already knows – the Thief is just reminding him (“you and I, we’ve been though that”).
The word “joke” certainly does not appear here at random. The Thief implies that those who “feel that life is but a joke” just don’t “get it”. But what is it they don’t get?
“So let us stop talking falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
Dionysos is not really the Joker – that is just how He appears to (some) humans. Dionysos is a God of laughter and revelry, but that does not define him, limit him – it does not make him “the Joker”. Just so, life itself is, or should be, full of laughter and revelry, but, all the same, that does not make life “but a joke”.
Just as Dionysos is much more than merely “the Joker”, Hermes is also much more than “the Thief”. In fact, Hermes is the God of language – and of writing and literature in particular. He is even the God of Wisdom itself! Perhaps it is fine to see the Gods as crude, cartoonish characters sometimes – as Jokers and Thieves. But now it is time to “quit talking falsely” – for “the hour is getting late.”
All along the Watchtower, Princes kept the view …
The Princes are on guard – protecting their walled city. Obviously, this is the place that the Joker wishes to find a way out of – this fortress that is about to be assaulted by an as yet unseen enemy.
… while all the women came and went – barefoot servants, too.
But despite their watchfulness, the Princes are oblivious to the women, who come and go as they please – not to mention the lowly, barefoot servants. These are of no concern to the Princes. The enemy, or so it is imagined, must be out there:
Outside in the cold distance, the wildcat he growls, two riders were approaching, and the wind begins to howl.
The Princes have become truly paranoid – the distant sound of a lone wild animal, or just the howling of the wind, everything outside their walled fortress, everything outside their control appears threatening to them.
But the Princes don’t realize that their real enemy is already within. The Joker and the Thief are archetypal images representing those who live within society but outside it’s laws. And women and servants are those who live not so much in society as under it. However, outlaws and underlings can become “confused” – they can come to identify with the Princes, and fear the destruction of the very order that they either already defy, or that oppresses them.
“All Along the Watchtower” is a call to all those who have already “been through this”, to remember who and what we are and to “stop talking falsely”. As a Jewish folksinger, Dylan certainly was a crosser of boundaries. His musical hero was Woody Guthrie, who was simultaneously a rail-riding hobo, artistic genius, and dangerous political subversive – an outsider’s outsider. And although Woody Guthrie was internationally famous – it is difficult to think of him as a celebrity.
Dylan disdains the Princes and the businessmen, while identifying with the women and the barefoot servants. But he also disdains the lowly plowman and identifies with the cosmic, God-like Joker and Thief. The song is, somehow, both populist and elitist at the same time. But the elite Dylan wants to address, those of us who should “stop talking falsely” are a self-selected, spiritual elite: those who are truly free, if only we can put aside confusion and remember who we are.
Dylan, in my opinion, is the Joker. The song expresses his own misgivings and fear – his confusion – caused by his fame and success. He realizes, with some horror, that as a wealthy international celebrity he was in danger of, in spite of himself, identifying with the Princes. What would Woody Guthrie, the communist hobo poet, think?
… I can’t get no relief …
The song was written in 1967, during a time when Bob Dylan was angry at the world, and had for the most part withdrawn from it. Woody Guthrie, his hero, was dying, confined to a mental institution with undiagnosed and untreated Huntington’s Disease, and would be dead soon. Both the media and the bulk of his adoring fans treated Dylan little differently from the way Britney Spears is treated by the media and her adoring fans today. Once he started playing “electronic” music in live performances he was routinely booed at concerts around the world. But he kept doing it. And they kept booing.
A recent English translation (by classicist Paul Woodruff) of Euripides’ 2500 year old play about the cult of Dionysos, The Bacchae, features a picture of Elvis Presely on its front cover. A picture of Bob Dylan might have been even more appropriate. In that play, Dionysos, the son of Zeus, is offended by Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes, who has ordered that the followers of this new cult should be arrested and the worship of Dionysos suppressed. Taking on a human form, Dionysos appears to Pentheus, who fails to recognize the God. The arrogant ruler is first humiliated and then killed by Dionysos’ dancing, frenzied female followers – who tear him apart with their bare hands and teeth. These maenads include Pentheus’ own mother – who unknowingly picks up the severed head of her son, thinking it is that of a wildcat.