Every nightmare has a soundtrack, and while I sweltered as a hostage in Somalia, the music running through my head was Bob Dylan’s:
“‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief”
I was spending hours alone with my thoughts, ever since a gang of pirates kidnapped me from a car outside the dusty crossroads town of Galkacyo, in central Somalia, during a reporting trip in 2012, and the mystery of this song became an obsession.
I’d known “All Along the Watchtower” by heart since junior high. First, I knew Jimi Hendrix’s thumping, electric blues cover, better known than Dylan’s original and readily available on the radio in Los Angeles during the 1970s and ’80s. Later, I was captivated by Dylan’s entire “John Wesley Harding” album, where “Watchtower” is the most familiar but not even the greatest song; I loved the quiet compulsion of Dylan’s acoustic guitar and his yearning, understated voice.
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief”
But the lyrics had always been a riddle. Who was the joker, who was the thief, and what was that enigmatic final scene, involving princes and barefoot servants pacing the ramparts near a watchtower?
“Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl”
I tended to let Dylan songs wash over me, without interpretation, but when I thought about this one, I noticed two riders, not four, meaning they couldn’t be the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which was one common interpretation. The ending sounded foreboding and muted in Dylan’s version, thunderous and apocalyptic in Hendrix’s. “John Wesley Harding,” as a whole, had a shifting Biblical focus I could never quite put my finger on, though it reminded me of “Highway 61 Revisited” with its mixture of street slang and ancient allusion, its easy movement from the Bible to the American 20th century. (“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’ / Abe said, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’”) The juxtaposition was less crackling and funny on “John Wesley Harding” but more present and powerful, and in Somalia, I had time to think of how many Dylan songs from the ’60s created a hipster-Biblical landscape, an outlaw region of the mind where refugees from postwar America could brood about the corruptions of Babylon.
“Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
The atmosphere of “John Wesley Harding” is also steeped in the American frontier. John Wesley Hardin himself (without the g) was a real Texas gunslinger, jailed by the age of 23 for murder, dead of a gunshot at 42. Most of the album feels deliberately antique, and it carries a listener back to outlaw days using a familiar idiom of country and folk. So that’s a third axis of this imaginary world: the Bible, 20th century hipster poetics, and the vanished American West.
The way Hendrix sang “earth” in his cover of “Watchtower,” by the way, always sounded to me like “herb.” I wasn’t alone. A web search proves that it’s one of the most popular misheard lyrics from the ’60s, and the ambiguity may have been the point since pot humor in those days was subversive and sly. (In any case, the song resonated with hippies.) The joker and thief conversation also appears to be an exchange between middle-ranking scoundrels in some larger apocalypse — watchful, aware, but perhaps unpowerful men caught between world-changing forces, and the flirtation with nihilism felt as important to an adolescent in Cold-War California as it did to a hostage in Africa:
“‘No reason to get excited,’ the thief, he kindly spoke
‘There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke’”
One logical conclusion of this line of thinking is suicide. Which was on my mind in Somalia, too.
“But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour’s getting late”
The lines amount to excellent noir dialogue. But I always regarded them as a tangent to a grander poem, echoing and suggestive opening lines building up to — well, not much, in this song, beyond the windy scene at the watchtower, with a (North American?) wildcat growling at a couple of horsemen.
“John Wesley Harding” has puzzled listeners for years, and it remains one of Dylan’s most interesting albums. It came out in the last days of 1967, after he’d finished a wild and cantankerous three-year run of electric invention that managed to infuriate live audiences from San Francisco to London and change folk music, rock ’n’ roll, and “pop music” for good. “John Wesley Harding” sounded like a return to the acoustic stuff, to the coffeehouse protest tunes that first made him famous, but this new-old brand of music also felt quiet, almost unrevolutionary, compared to his earlier songs. It was a philosophical album, shrouded in religion, shadowed in listeners’ minds by Dylan’s near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966. “People didn’t know what to make of it at the time,” said Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime guitarist, in a 2007 interview. “It was a strange sort of new Bob Dylan that emerged after his motorcycle accident. Hendrix did more to promote ‘John Wesley Harding’ than anybody. It was one of the most remarkable records ever made, of course.”
I spent two years and eight months as a hostage. Sometimes we slept outdoors, in the arid bush, and other times I was cooped up in a concrete prison house. The dirty neglect weighed on me like a layer of smog, not because the air in Somalia was polluted — it wasn’t — but because the landscape had a desolate vastation that felt almost artificial, like a Technicolor glare. Sometimes I expected to hear whistling theme music from a spaghetti Western.
The comparison isn’t frivolous. Italians colonized Somalia, and parts of southern Italy where Euro-Westerns have been filmed resemble not just the American West but also desert regions of Africa, with their brownish hills, rock rubble, whitewashed buildings, and walls of mortared stone. I lived for several weeks in an old Italian colonial ruin outside the pirate town of Hobyo. The rafters under its corrugated zinc roof had rotted; there was no ceiling. While we slept on a mattress on the concrete floor, we could hear great birds flapping their wings overhead, as well as lizards scurrying across the walls.
Some towns in Somalia were also lawless, like Dodge City or Tombstone in the mid-1800s. We heard gunfire in Hobyo every day. As a hostage, you were aware of the burning sun, the blue sky through a prison-house window, and the eruption of Kalashnikovs in the dusty street.
“Why are they shooting?” I would ask my guards. “Did someone get killed?”
“They are happy,” my guards would say.
Or: “They are testing their weapons.”
Once, a guard said the men outside were happy about the hijacking of a cargo ship on the Indian Ocean. I had no way to know.
I had a long way to go before the end of my sentence as a hostage, and for over two years I would wonder, on a regular basis, whether I should kill myself or my guards. In the end I would be ransomed, though not without damage to body and mind.
Three months into the sentence, an industrial fishing vessel appeared in the water off Hobyo, visible from the Italian ruin: It had been hijacked. In less than a month, the pirates placed me and one other hostage on board. The ship was called the Naham 3, and it turned out to be a tuna long-liner crewed by men from five or six different countries in Asia. Five of them came from the Philippines, all Christian, and one of them handed me a Bible.
“I don’t know if it will help you to read this, but it helps some of us,” he said.
As a once-pious Catholic boy, I did know the Bible, but it had been years since I’d read a full chapter. In the meantime, I had become a wincing, somewhat cynical journalist, as well as a novelist with spiritual curiosities; I was no longer a Christian. I had also never read the Old Testament prophets in detail. (Catholic kids feel enough guilt without slogging through Jeremiah.) But I had been singing “All Along the Watchtower” in my head for months, off and on, and one hot afternoon on the Naham 3 it almost stopped my heart to read Isaiah 21:5-9, with its inspiration for Dylan’s song plain to see:
(5) Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
(6) For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
(7) And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
(8) And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
(9) And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.
The two riders, the princes, the watchtower — even a wildcat, in the form of a lion, in verse 8 — all refer to a pivotal moment in the Old Testament when Jews exiled to the Babylonian Empire hear about the fall of its corrupted emperor. In certain branches of American Protestantism, the Watchtower remains a symbol of faith in salvation, of waiting for the downfall of the material world.
I’m no fan of these Christian sophistries; I had no blinding conversion in Somalia, and Dylan was not yet born again when he wrote the song. But it’s a remarkable condensation of his early themes. If you combine the Old Testament scene with his 20th century dialogue — the reference to businessmen, the hipster slang — you have a short but potent poem about the corruptions of the established, paved-and-developed America, which Beat poets and hippies and musicians like Dylan mistrusted. Of course! The song foresaw the fall of illegitimate powers, a distant victory for the luckless and the mute. This reading gave me hope in Somalia. The joker and the thief, whoever they were, just had to bide their time.