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The Story Behind The Song: Bob Dylan's eminent 'Knockin On Heaven's Door'

‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ is one of Bob Dylan‘s finest moments. Written in 1973, it features an all-star band. Boasting the Byrds’ guitarist Roger McGuinn on the six-string and ubiquitous session drummer Jim Keltner on the drums, it also utilised the talents of the iconic backing singers Carol Hunter, Donna Weiss and Brenda Patterson. 

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 expertly touches on the concept of life and death, and through its glorious composition, it has earned legions of fans with a distinctly inter-generational appeal.

The irony of the Dylan version is that it is not as well known as some of the covers it has spawned. Famously, Guns N’ Roses, Eric Clapton and Randy Crawford have offered up rockier renditions of the candid original. Just like with all of Dylan’s tracks, it has been covered numerous times. However, this particular song has been revisited by over 150 notable artists, a dizzying testament to the weight of the original.

Legends such as Neil Young, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, Jerry Garcia and Television are just some of those who have delivered renditions of the classic. British singer Gabrielle even sampled the song in her 2000 number one hit ‘Rise’, which Dylan was such a fan of that he allowed her to sample the song for free. The Nobel-winner also received a co-writer credit for providing the song’s chord progression and vocal sample.

The song is such as classic that it has been featured on numerous film soundtracks over the years. This is deeply ironic, as Dylan originally wrote the song as part of the soundtrack for the Sam Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Featuring a cast of some of the western genre’s most prominent character actors such as James Coburn, Richard Jaeckel and Katy Jurado, it also featured country hero Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and Dylan himself, as a mysterious character named Alias. Unsurprisingly, the movie was well-received. The score was even nominated for a BAFTA for Film Music and a Grammy Award for Album of Best Original Score.

Showing Dylan‘s brilliance, it turns out he wrote the lyrics for the song in the most unlikely of settings for such an introspective piece. According to Rudy Wurlitzer, the screenwriter of the film, whilst on the way to the film’s set, the ‘Bard’ wrote the song with speed and on a whim. This can be taken as an explanation for the song’s “exercise in splendid simplicity”. 

In a 2008 interview with Arthur Magazine, Wurlitzer remembered: “Bob wrote the film score in Mexico City”. Detailing further, he continued: “But before that, one night when we were returning to Durango from Mexico City – I forget why we were there – he said he wanted to write something for Slim Pickens’ death scene, which was due to be shot the next day. He scrawled something on the aeroplane and showed it to me line by line and when we got off the plane, there it was, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door'”.

What is made even more remarkable about how Dylan wrote the song is that it only contains two verses, but that the lyrics were intended to comment directly on the iconic scene in the film where Slim Pickens’ Sheriff Colin Baker is shot dead by Billy the Kid and his gang in front of his wife, Katy Jurado’s ‘Mama’. When you watch the scene, as Baker slowly dies in front of ‘Mama’, the song hits you right in the feels — an impressive feat for something written off the cuff.

Wurlitzer also remembered how Dylan got himself in the position of soundtrack composer, and how the film’s director, Peckinpah, was initially sceptical about Dylan’s input: “When Dylan heard that a Billy the Kid film was in the works, he came to see me at my place on the Lower East Side wanting to know if there was any way he could be a part of it. He said he was Billy the Kid in a past life. After I wrote a part for him, we flew to Durango so that he could meet Sam.” 

The first meeting between Dylan and Peckinpah did not go to plan, however: “We walked up to his house after dinner where Sam was drinking alone in his bedroom and staring at himself in a full-length mirror. He turned to Dylan and said, ‘I’m a big Roger Miller fan myself. Not much use for your stuff.'” 

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Peckinpah, who was known for his refreshing revisionist take on the western genre, was known as somewhat of a volatile character who always struggled with alcoholism. His profound story is one for another day, but this nugget of information accounts for the intense nature of the man drinking alone staring at himself in the mirror that we are met within this vignette. 

It is actually alleged that Peckinpah wasn’t keen on Dylan’s participation as originally he “didn’t know who the fuck Dylan was”. However, the director was quickly won over after one listening session. In a Garner Simmons interview with leading man James Coburn, he said: “But when he heard Dylan sing, Sam was the first to admit he was taken with Dylan’s singing. He heard Dylan’s Ballad of Billy the Kid and immediately had it put on tape so that he could have it with him to play.”

What a fateful change of heart it would be. Not only would it lead to one of the best but significantly underrated soundtrack’s of all time, it would lead to Dylan penning one of his most emotional opuses on the fly. One of those marvellous moments in music where circumstances are turned on their head, it’s hard to imagine a Bob Dylan back catalogue without ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’.

Listen to the film version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, below.

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