Bob Dylan is a Cylon. Or so the creators of Sci-Fi network's Battlestar Galactica would have us loyal viewers believe -- that the show's cyborgs formerly enslaved by humans are part of a Dylan cult. On the recent season finale, the radio static that had shadowed the previous couple of episodes abruptly changed from amorphous noise to a sitar-spiked mash-up of Dylan's and Jimi Hendrix' versions of "All Along the Watchtower," by the show's Florida-bred composer Bear McCreary. The stark electro of "Watchtower" did not merely serve to underscore the precarious position of BSG's ever-dwindling fleet of humans on the lam from their cylon foes, but as a call-to-action for four prominent characters, and a reveille to watchers at home who might be confused and feel "that life is but a joke."
Saturday morning, I rose late, thus voiding my original topic for this column. In casting about for another, I anticipated the season finale of Galactica, and decided to discuss its place as "the new rock 'n' roll." Judging by the evidence of a rabid, cult-like following for BSG, "the best show on television" -- particularly as manifested online -- the series seems to have, in fact, attained something resembling the music's status amongst sensitive youth and adult adherents of radical culture. Having been a fanatical devotee of the program's Aughties revision since the mini-series aired (although I despised the original 1970s run), I have been struck by its increasing fearlessness in delving into the sociopolitical and spiritual minefield currently gripping the West. And Galactica does so with a confidence and sophistication far outstripping the "ripped from the headlines" groove of such as Law & Order (whichever Wolf franchise you prefer).
The question is whether producer Ronald D. Moore prominently cast "Watchtower" in the finale with meta-textual intent -- and political portent? Or is Moore merely coyly nodding to that most cosmic of classic rock stars, Jimi Hendrix who obviously believed in a multiplicity of deities (and would've had Starbuck, Six, Boomer, Dualla and Tory in his floating harem, fo' sho'). Hendrix did kickoff Electric Ladyland -- the double LP that includes his electrified cover of "All Along the Watchtower" -- with thunderous ambient "And the Gods Made Love."
Concurrent to my personal and critical enthusiasm for BSG, I have also been sorely disappointed at the lack of decent, effective protest music to emerge in the new century. Furors over the likes of Toby Keith's stridency and the Pyrrhic victory of the Dixie Chicks have tended to obscure the ugly fact that musicians' relative lack of response to the wars and myriad societal ills -- both prior to and post Green Day's American Idiot -- is not down to artists' fears of paying heavy tolls comparable to their 1960s counterparts but that corporate rock is no longer a dirty word. And it seems most acts today would rather ensure their songs' commercial placement than release something as trenchant, dark and prophetic as Dylan's "Watchtower."
On the surface, yes, "All Along the Watchtower" is simply a perfectly crafted pop song, with a flawless emotional and structural foundation -- and the words and meaning are irrelevant (or so a musician friend of mine would have it). Yet Dylan's John Wesley Harding (which contains the original) was spare, a stylistic departure from Blonde On Blonde, doubtless concrete in ways that deep introspection in the aftermath of his mythic motorcycle wreck would trigger. Yet Dylan was working on the album in October 1967 when then President Johnson ordered a $20 million defense budget to send more troops to Vietnam. Being released at the tail end of '67, a mere month before Hendrix recorded his version with Traffic's Dave Mason and doomed Rolling Stone Brian Jones (absent from final take), "Watchtower" seems like a dire warning, and Harding in general like a journal of a plague year in American history, book-ended by the cultural highs of Monterey Pop and the Summer of Love but also by the multifarious attempts to discredit the antiwar movement and the low of that "Bummer in the Summer" (per Arthurly), the L.A. Watts Rebellion. And such horrors as Dr. King's assassination, the FBI's increased infiltration of groups like the Panthers and the Tet Offensive loomed on the horizon. That Dylan was said to read the Bible daily during recording and now pays tribute to Hendrix' version of his own song in the wake of the latter's death -- there's an acknowledgement that Hendrix, who recorded his slide solos with a lighter (fittingly), made it utterly his own -- makes "Watchtower" something more than tuneful. BSG is serving as a televisual Trojan horse, communicating dissent by sheer will amidst the myriad nefarious diversions of the idiot box which, in collusion with other government-approved media, has become the panacea of choice for Americans during wartime. Battlestar Galactica is must-see reality TV. How few have spoken so directly as Jamie Bamber's "Lee 'Apollo' Adama," in Inherit The Wind mode during the finale: " ... We make our own laws now, our own justice, and we've been pretty creative in finding ways to let people off the hook for everything, from theft to murder. And we've had to be, because we're not a civilization anymore. We're a gang." The hour's late to hear sense above the mob.
We can't make it here anymore, and like Dylan's Joker and Thief we must figure how best to interrogate the lyric, "There must be some way out of here." Not with guns blazing -- or Spartan swords, as audience-approved Western Myth 300 would have it -- but sound and spirit. Within Galactica's diegesis, the Grail is Earth. The finale's surprise returnee, Starbuck, perhaps a Cylon herald to Earth, could have been tacitly transmitting this Hendrix lyric to Apollo, which immediately follows "Watchtower" on Ladyland: "If I don't meet you no more in this world, I'll meet you in the next one ... and don't be late!"