Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
- A joker and a thief are talking. The joker is wired, he's buzzed, he's tripping out. (By the way, at this point there's no reason to assume that the joker and thief are men.)
- "There must be some way out of here," he says, half-frantic. The title of the song includes the word "watchtower," so maybe they are in a prison, and the joker can't take it any more. We might imagine him looking for the escape hatch.
- He presses his palms all over the stony prison walls, feeling for a weak spot: he can't find one. Solid rock.
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
- The joker goes on chattering, chattering away. He says there's too much confusion in the world. He can't get any relief from all the confusion.
- Maybe the year is 1967, and he's talking about the war and the student riots and everyone running around in fancy suits, trying to make money. Nobody even has time to listen to jokes anymore.
- Or he could just be talking about the general confusion of life, places to go, people to see, jokes to tell.
- Lately he's been trying to ignore the world and give himself a mental break, but the world keeps coming after him with new stuff to worry about, like a desert sun beating down on his face. There's no place to hide: the man "can't get no relief."
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
- Who the heck does this guy think he is? Does he think he owns the whole world or something? "My wine." "My earth." My, my, my.
- At least now we know a bit more about the joker's beef with society. It's not just that he finds everything confusing; he also suspects people – businessmen and plowmen, to be precise – of using his stuff.
- Is the joker being overly possessive?
- Maybe, but there's another way to read the verse. He could be identifying himself with the non-human world in a way that the businessmen and plowmen cannot, because he may believe that those two groups of people are too caught up in narrowly exploiting the earth for what they can get out of it.
- Also, can we just note that "plowmen" is a somewhat archaic (old) word to use in place of "farmers"? What is Dylan up to here?
- For one thing, he's using deliberately old-fashioned and Biblical language.
- For another, "plowmen" forms an interesting contrast with "businessmen," which is a much more modern word.
- The joker has a wide, all-encompassing view of things: he can see the connection between Biblical and modern times.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
- This verse gives us the song's first reference to the watchtowers hinted at in the title. We now know something about those watchtowers: they are set up in a line.
- We also get the joker's most damning criticism yet: none of the people in the watchtowers know the true value of the things they use. It's like when you and a friend share the same favorite movie, but your friend likes it for all the wrong reasons, and it's as if you're not even talking about the same movie…
- Well, anyway, these people "along the line" may like drinking wine and having tremendous feasts, but can they see the bigger picture? Fair question.