‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is one of Bob Dylan’s greatest moments. Written in 1973, the track features a glamorous, all-star band. Boasting The Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn on the six-string and Jim Keltner on the drums, it also utilised the talents of the iconic backing singers Carol Hunter, Donna Weiss and Brenda Patterson. Together, this stellar lineup created something spiritually driven and emotionally hard-hitting
Out of all of Dylan’s post-1960s work, ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is one of his most loved. Described by Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin as “an exercise in splendid simplicity”, it discusses the notions of life and death, and through its glorious composition, it has earned legions of fans with an inter-generational appeal that is largely unseen in music.
Dylan originally wrote the song as part of the soundtrack for the classic Sam Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973. The irony of the song is that Dylan’s version has totally been eclipsed by the sheer number of cover versions it has spawned over the years. Everyone from Guns N’ Roses to Eric Clapton have attempted to make the song their own. In fact, there are over 150 covers in existence by artists of varying credibility.
Legends such as Neil Young, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, Jerry Garcia and Television have also delivered renditions of the song in the past. Another icon who delivered a stellar version, although only a live version, was ‘The Boss’, Mr. Bruce Springsteen.
Dylan himself hailed it as “incredible”. It came in 2015, after Dylan was named that year’s MusiCares Person Of The Year. The show featured legends from every era of music including, Beck, Neil Young, Jack White and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and all undertook covers of Dylan’s songs.
It was Springsteen who really caught the eye, though. Joined on stage by Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist, Tom Morello, the praise he earned from Dylan was unprecedented. The acclaim he gave to Springsteen eclipsed that of the one he showered on Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’.
“(Springsteen) did that song like the record, something I myself have never tried. I never even thought it was worth it. Maybe never had the manpower in one band to pull it off. I don’t know, but I never thought about it. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten how the song ought to go,” Dylan said of the rendition. “Bruce pulled all the power and spirituality and beauty out of it like no one has ever done. He was faithful, truly faithful to the version on the record, obviously the only one he has to go by.”
Unfortunately, no footage of the performance exists of the whole performance, save from snippets. What we can gather from these short excerpts though, is that as Dylan said, Springsteen and Morello’s cover was bang on the money.
It sounds exactly like the original save for Morello’s wailing guitar solo in the background. Springsteen doused the original in his own magic formula, the honest, blue-collar style that has seen him fill stadiums worldwide for the past 40 years. In a sense, he stayed true to the original but fully realised its anthemic capacity, and augmented it.
When you stop to think about it, there’s a lot of parallels that can be drawn between Dylan and Springsteen as songwriters, and there seems to be a mutual understanding between the two. Their unique social commentary’s on the social fabric of America are unmatched, and will remain timeless.
Watch a short clip of Springsteen and Morello’s cover of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ below.