Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

Unlike “Billy 4” which was written before the movie Pat Garret & Billy the Kid went into production, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was inspired by the movie itself. 

The song plays during the death scene of the sheriff who dies in a shootout alongside his wife. The sheriff is played by cowboy movie character actor Slim Pickens. (Pickens performed in both Dr. Strangelove and Blazing Saddles, if you can believe that range.) Dylan told Cameron Crowe in the Biograph liner notes, “I wrote it for Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado [who plays the sheriff’s wife]. I just had to do it.” He just had to do it because Pickens’ character’s death is heartbreaking and the most powerful scene in the movie, overshadowing even Billy the Kid’s demise. 

While Dylan’s version was a little spooky, the song was an instant classic when it was released. It’s anthemic quality was recognized immediately, and it became a set or concert closer for Dylan throughout the rest of his career. It’s been covered by everyone including Eric Clapton, Lana Del Rey, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, Bono, Antony and the Johnsons, Warren Zevon, Cat Power, the Grateful Dead, and Guns N’ Roses. In October 2007, 1730 guitarists came together to Shillong, India, to strum “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for five minutes, setting a world record for the largest ever guitar ensemble. In addition to the incredibly catchy chorus hook, the appeal of the song is that it’s so easy to play; only having four chords, three of which are the first chords one learns as a guitar player. I even performed the song with some friends at a high school graduation party. Despite having loud guitars, bass, and drums, we didn’t need a microphone because everyone knew the words, singing the chorus as loud as possible. 

The plasticity of the lyrics to the song appealed to Dylan. The original cut of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” only had two verses. As Dylan performed it in concert over the years, new verses started to appear. Because the internet can be used for good and not only for evil, we have an accounting of how Dylan added to the song throughout his career.

Before the Flood, 1974’s live album with The Band:

Mama wipe the blood from my face
I’m sick and tired of the war
Got a lone black feelin’, and it’s hard to trace
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Waterbury, CT, on November 11, 1975 with the Rolling Thunder Revue with Roger McGuinn singing the second verse: 

Mama take these bells out of my ears
I can’t hear them anymore
They’re bringin’ me down and givin’ me tears
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Mama I can hear that thunder roar
Echoin’ down from God’s distant shore
I can hear it callin’ for my soul
Feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Boston, November 21, 1975:

Mama wipe the blood off of my face
I can’t see through it anymore
I need someone to talk to, and a new hiding place
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

New York’s Madison Square Garden, December 8, 1975:

Mama take these tears out of my eyes
I can’t see through them anymore
Just for once, I’d like to see the sunrise
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

London, June 28, 1981 in full born-again Christian mode:

Mama tow my barge down to sea
Pull it down from shore to shore
Two brown eyes are lookin’ at me
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Goin’ down by that road
Feelin’ down and more and more
Take the train by […]
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Drammen, Norway, July 10, 1981:

Mama take me above all that misery
Let it fall down to the floor
Two brown eyes are looking at me
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Avignon France, July 25, 1981:

Mama take this [front part away]
I just don’t want it anymore
Aah, when I get in front of something it’s too much to pay
Yeah, Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Mama take my boat [out of the sea]
Let it fall down to the floor
Two brown eyes are looking at me
Feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Bristol, CT, September 4, 1988:

Mama wipe the blood from my face
I just can’t see through it any more
Sometimes you feel so damn out of place
And I feel like I’m knockin’ on-a heaven’s door

Most intriguing was the variation that happened during the S.N.A.C.K. benefit concert organized by Bill Graham in 1975, which was broadcast on local radio and subsequently bootlegged and traded over the years. The band who performed included members of The Band, Neil Young, and Dylan. A ragged and crazed set, the performers trade off, alternating between their own songs. Neil Young sings “Helpless” which transitions into “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” since they are basically the same chords in a different key. 

(Side note: Dylan must have felt challenged to do something with the song “Helpless” because he told Tony Glover in an 1971 interview that he saw Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young perform: “They just sang this one song called ‘Helpless.’ And they just repeated this word over and over, ‘Helpless. Helpless. Helpless.’ And it really got to be a drag after a while, just hearing this word ‘Helpless.’ You just wanted to stand up and say, ‘What the fuck, man?’”)

Back to the S.N.A.C.K concert: the medley of “Helpless” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is marred because Dylan’s mic is turned off. This is highly unfortunate because he re-writes the song on the spot as the chorus is suddenly: “Knock, knock, knockin’ on the dragon’s door.” THE DRAGON’S DOOR?!?! Who is knocking on a dragon’s door and why? Has Dylan been playing Dungeons & Dragons? Or, is someone chasing the dragon? Is Dylan singing about opium addiction? 

Unfortunately, we don’t have the complete lyrics to understand the full context of the rewrite. I nominate the roadie who didn’t plug Dylan’s mic into an amp into the Inadvertently Destroying Art Hall of Fame right next to the “person from Porlock” who interrupted Coleridge during the composition of “Kubla Khan. This visitor forced Coleridge to lose his train of thought and momentum resulting in “Kubla Khan ” remaining only a fragment. Any further hallucinatory images were lost forever, much like the full lyrics of “Knockin’ on the Dragon’s Door.” 

There may be many other variations on those lyrics that Dylan has inserted into the song that have been lost to history. But what is documented demonstrates that Dylan felt as though this song was not final, but malleable, offering him opportunities to improvise within the themes of departure and a tragic death. Outside of Dylan, we rarely see rewrites of a big song by pop artists. If so, rewrites are deliberate, and the artists practically send out press releases to call attention to changes. Not with Dylan. It’s evident that he sees “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as an opportunity to play, adjust, and improvise, reflecting on where he is with the song at that moment in his life.  

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Dylan has his own bourbon called Heaven’s Door. I have not sampled it, so I cannot share a full review. It is expensive, but seems like a perfect gift for a Dylan-obsessed investigator. I mean, I’m just sayin’ is all. 

4 thoughts on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

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