I know what you’re thinking: after all the time I’ve spent praising Jimi Hendrix and early Bob Dylan on Bollocks!, am I really gonna say that the Dylan-penned and Hendrix-perfected “All Along the Watchtower” is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard?
Just hear me out.
I’m not talking about Dylan’s original or about Hendrix’s version, which I consider definitive. If you’ll glance at the picture above, you’ll realize that I’m talking about this fetid turd which is the Dave Matthews Band version of “All Along the Watchtower.” The song has been a live staple of Matthews’ shows for years and, in case your soul is dying right now because you clicked on the video link, I’d like to rub some salt in your wounds by pointing out that what you’re hearing is, sadly, by no means the worst version of the song Matthews has ever performed. Although that version does get special hate from me because, if you stick it out to the five or six minute mark, you’ll hear what is supposed to be an electric guitar solo. Played on a keyboard. A double-decker keyboard. You know. Like Yanni uses.
You might be inclined to ask, “Matt, what’s wrong with simulating an electric guitar solo on a keyboard?” If you have to ask, you will probably never understand. But the answer is everything. Everything is wrong with simulating an electric guitar solo on a keyboard. First of all, you’re saying that you think the song needs an electric guitar but you clearly don’t have anyone in the band with the electric guitar chops to pull off the part you want to play. Second, watch the video; see the faces the keyboard player is making trying to look like he’s rocking out? Those faces are part of what’s wrong with the whole thing. Keyboards can be helpful to some songs, but they DO NOT ROCK. Never have, never will. Third – including electric guitar-ish notes in a cover of “All Along the Watchtower” is a clear nod to the Jimi Hendrix version, which prominently featured an electric fucking guitar! So by simulating the electric guitar on this shitty, overlong version, the Dave Matthews Band is begging to be compared to Hendrix and, like a lot of people compared to Hendrix, they are falling miserably short.
Now, I’ll cop to enjoying the odd Dave Matthews tune – I dug his first couple albums quite a bit in my high school days and I still have a little soft spot in my heart for them. I even attended two of his concerts, both of which featured this shit sandwich of a cover song. The first time I heard him play it live, I was embarrassed. I’m not even sure for whom. I just felt a lot of shame, especially when I noticed that I was in a distinct minority of people (exactly one, by my count) who disapproved of what Dave Matthews was doing to this classic song. Some people seem to honestly enjoy this train wreck, but if you search the internet hard enough, you’ll also find people who honestly enjoy taking hammers to their own balls.
I know and love quite a few Dave Matthews fans, by the way, and I am speaking to them most of all: if you care about your stoner hero, if you really want to preserve whatever dignity Dave Matthews has left (after “The Space Between”, I’m guessing he’s a few quarts low), please petition him to stop playing “All Along the Watchtower.” He can keep covering John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomery” because he actually does that pretty well. Most of the time, when Matthews plays “Watchtower”, he doesn’t even sing the right words. Sometimes, he doesn’t sing words at all – he just sort of does that howly-growly thing that only his most ardent fans can defend with a straight face.
And – worse – astute (and slightly masochistic) listeners will notice that any given live recording of the Dave Matthews Band playing “All Along the Watchtower” is between nine and twenty minutes long. That’s because every time they play the song, it evolves into a long, boring, totally unnecessary (not to mention completely repetitive) jam that makes me want to find every instrument Dave Matthews owns and break it. In short, Matthews takes the song and turns into concrete evidence in support of every argument ever made against the Dave Matthews Band. So if you love that band (which is your right), you really ought to consider getting “Dave” (many of Matthews’ fans refer to him on a first name basis, the same way many Nirvana fans still refer to Kurt Cobain as “Kurt”, which happens to be the same way I refer to Tom Waits as “God”) to set this ill-advised cover aside and do something more constructive with that nine-to-twenty minute bucket of time. Like playing five regular songs.
The applause you hear at the end of the video (if you really just watched that whole video, I want you to take a long lunch today – tell your boss I said you could – and really treat yourself to something nice. Have a beer before heading back to the office or buy that album you’ve had your eye on for the last couple weeks. Seriously, if you really watched all nine minutes of that musical atrocity, you’ve earned a little something extra) illustrates the point I made earlier: there are clearly some Dave Matthews Band fans who approve of this wholesale slaughter of “All Along the Watchtower.” I think that’s because there’s a common misconception among Matthews’ fans (and fans of, say, Phish and the Grateful Dead and probably some other bands that try my patience) that, in a live setting, a long song magically equals a good song. The first time I saw Dave Matthews live (back in like 1998), I almost fell under this spell – I was blown away that every song could be so gosh-darned long. But then my bullshit detector started pinging; “What just a minute,” I thought. “What the hell is the point of playing every conceivable note on every fucking song?” There’s no virtuosity whatsoever in Dave Matthews’ bludgeoning of “Watchtower” – there’s just length, which is extended by having every instrument play every note a bunch of times. It may seem like it when you’re stoned, kids, but trust me: playing every single note every time you get the chance isn’t the same thing as playing a song. It isn’t good and it most certainly doesn’t take talent. Talented musicians tastefully arrange notes in a way that is pleasing to the ear and not so long that said arrangement becomes meaningless.
The ball’s in your court, Dave Matthews fans. I truly believe you have the power to stop “Dave” from continuing to murder “All Along the Watchtower.” Please exercise it, before Dave Matthews wakes up to find a charred piece of double-decker keyboard in bed with him.