All Along The Watchtower – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
“…No reason to get excited
The thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke…”
I felt that life was but a joke in September 1970. I was thirteen and staying in Lewes with one of my surrogate familes, foster-mum Sheila Smurthwaite. But first quick – a little re-wind selector…backstory…
The second time our family was split up, I was 11. I’d just got to Lewes Grammar School For Boys by passing the 11-plus. Three of us from the little village school in Selmeston had done it : Me, Cedric the postman’s son Graham Sutton and David Bristow, much to the delight of Miss Lamb, the headmistress who used to bring goose-eggs to school as prizes, and who taught us how to make porridge, play Men of Harlech on the recorder, and probably what a slide rule is for. It was daunting, travelling into Lewes on the bus wearing the uniform with cap, being in this giant school full of big hairy boys, playing rugby and being bullied by prefects. I think Pete Smurthwaite and I probably shared a detention together for being scruffy. No cap on. That kind of thing. He was in my class, 1R. Anyway. Mum had to go into hospital again so me and my two brothers went to three different houses – Andrew to Portsmouth and Aunty Val (he was about five years old), Paul down the road to Gilda and Jack (he was still at Selmeston school being 2 years younger than me) and I went to stay with Pete Smurthwaite and his mum in Ringmer, which was near Lewes, but not near Selmeston. Really. When I go back there now, through the green fields of East Sussex, Glyndebourne, the Downs, Firle Beacon, it’s all deliciously close together, but aged 11 it felt like a foreign country. To be fair, Ringmer actually is a foreign country, despite being a mere 4 miles from bohemian, pope-burning, witchy, cobbled Lewes. But Sheila Smurthwaite made up for Ringmer’s lack of charm with her own hippy spirit and welcoming vibes. Jimi Hendrix posters. Gaugin’s Tahitian women. Guernica.
Two years later, and a different crisis – we were evicted from our tied feudal cottage for not paying rent – and we were all split up again. By now Mum had re-married, to John Daignault. He was a chef, but then worked at Caffyns on Lewes High St, then lost his job. I’ve got a feeling that we all went to the same places we’d been 2 years earlier, and I definitely stayed with Sheila and Pete again – only now they were actually in groovy Lewes where they belonged, Pete had a baby brother called Jake (whose dad Nick was Sheila’s 19-year-old lover) and Jimi Hendrix was all over the walls and loudspeakers. There was a board-game inventor down the road and Pete and I got to go round there and try them out – war-games and one evolution game shaped like a tree. We all ended up as sharks every time we played it.
I smoked my first joint in that house, and helped local legend Noddy Norris roll a two-foot long joint by sticking forty or fifty cigarette papers together, along with a bunch of mates (Pete, Conrad, Spark, Fore, Martin Elkins, Dougie Sanders, Tat?). My mum smoked roll-ups, so I was au-fait with the apparatus. The Camberwell Carrot had nothing on this monster. At least two feet long. But thinking back now, what was an 18-year-old ex-con doing hanging out with a bunch of 13-14 year olds? That was Lewes though. Hendrix and The Doors and The Beatles were always playing. Soft Machine. Cream. Santana. Dirty hippy music. Always the older kids were groovier than us, had longer hair, better afghan coats and boots, had groovier record sleeves tucked under their arms, could actually play the guitar and drums. I had my first wank in that house, in the bath. It was completely alarming, but tremendous and I never looked back. Smiley face. And then Jimi died.
The house went into shock. I remember composing a giant memoriam on my blue school rough book which said Jimi Hendrix RIP Sept 18th 1970. We listened to four LPs and a handful of singles – Are You Experienced?, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland (number one LP for me and All Along The Watchtower is on this album) and Hendrix In The West with the amazing version of Little Wing. Simon Korner later bought Cry Of Love the scribble-cover LP but I never listened to it because it was released after he died and so I suspected it of being inferior and somehow not meant to be. In fact it was a rush-released version of the 4th Jimi Hendrix LP which never got finished. In 1997 a more carefully crafted version of this record called New Rays Of The Rising Sun was released, and it is as near as we’ll ever get to that follow-up to Electric Ladyland. It’s fantastic. We could not believed Jimi had gone. He was so young, so full of fire and love. He was the future of music, we knew it, you could hear it in the way he played and sang in perfect sync with himself. He was an incredible poet, musician and person. We mourned. We were stunned. We played the records again. And then in the weeks that followed, or possibly in the weeks preceding this calamitous death, I’d gone to see my Mum in Eastbourne. She looked terrible. She had a large black shape on her cheek vaguely covered with make-up. She told me it was barbiturate poison because she’d taken an overdose. She’d been living in a caravan in Pevensey Bay with John Daignault and they’d fought and scratched and punched each other to a standstill. My mind was reeling – not by the fighting – that was happening in Selmeston before we’d all moved out. In one comic interlude Mum had thrown eggs at JD (as he then became known) and one of them had landed and broken in his hair. He’d walked up to the police station in the village up on the A27 to file a complaint. With an egg on his head. No – it was the overdose that was frightening.
Then weeks after this meeting I received a letter in New Road Lewes from Mum. It explained that we’d have to wait another nine months before we got housed. Nine months ! I crumpled in a heap on my bed and wept like a baby. What could I do? Bear it. Get on with life. I bought Hendrix 45s which became god-like items, played them over and over again. Gypsy Eyes. Long Hot Summer Night. Stone Free. All Along The Watchtower – like a hurricane blowing through my body every time I heard it. A song of devastation. A testimony of chaos.
“There must be some kind of way out of here, Said the joker to the thief,
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief….”
I had no idea that Bob Dylan wrote it. It was Hendrix through and through, round and round. It was a terrifying record, an exhilarating record, it was everything I ever hoped to be, everything I feared, a prophet crying in the wilderness. A distillation of pain and despair. I completely misheard many of the lyrics.
“Mr Splendid – drink my wine….ploughman take my urn…
no one will level out of mind, nobody else in this world”
And despite now knowing the actual words now : “Business men, they drink my wine, Plowman dig my earth, None were level on the mind, Nobody up at his word“. Really ?? No I prefer mine and I still sing Mr Splendid drink my wine.
The song perfectly expresses the joke of my life in 1970. It is still burned into my heart. Jimi Hendrix RIP September 18th 1970.