Bob Dylan has written a number of famous American folk songs, but few came close to the success and longevity that Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door was able to attain. Covered by numerous artists after its 1973 release and one of the biggest hits of his career, it went down as one of the best tracks ever released. In this article, we’ll dive into the meaning of the song and discuss the best cover versions that came along down the line.
Bob Dylan’s Version of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Bob Dylan wrote Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door for the soundtrack of the 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. After the movie was released, the song would be released as a single and became a big hit.
While he wasn’t as popular after the 1960s as he was during that decade, this track ended up being his most-covered and one of his most popular songs to come out after that era.
His original version of the track rose to number 12 on the US Hot 100 and broke into the top 10 in several other countries. Other versions by him would appear on his live albums and his Bootleg Series, as it was one of his most performed songs in concert following its release in 1973.
Meaning of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Clinton Heylin, a Bob Dylan biographer, gave one of the most apt descriptions of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. He stated that it was “an exercise in splendid simplicity.” Featuring only two verses, the song was written to focus on the scenes it appeared in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. The scene in question sees Colin Baker, a frontier law officer, die.
This track has also been described as “timeless” by a number of other critics. There’s a nostalgic feeling to the darkness that it discusses but that’s because of the subject matter in the song. Its brevity takes nothing away from the impact of a track touching on things that every person alive must confront at one point or another.
The song is about being on the verge of death and the final thoughts that pass through the mind of the narrator—Sheriff Colin Baker—as he lies dying.
Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore
It’s getting dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ upon heaven’s door
The lawman refers to his wife as “Mama” in the film, so that’s who he’s talking to as he lies dying. He asks her to take his badge off as he’s now too weak to be able to use it. After being shot, he knows he isn’t going to be able to enforce the law anymore going forward.
As the light fades from his eyes, his vision begins getting darker. The realization that he’s dying sets in, and he describes the feeling as if he’s knocking on heaven’s door.
Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door
The sheriff again talks about putting down the tools of his trade as he isn’t going to be able to use them anymore going forward. The long black cloud he’s talking about is his death, and he again repeats the line about feeling like he’s knocking on the doors of heaven, waiting to be let in.
The chorus is a repeated line about knocking on the door of heaven, but it holds a little more positivity than the verses do. While somber overall, the song holds a bit of hope that there’s something good waiting for you on the other side.
It isn’t a particularly complex track but that’s what makes it so beautiful. It doesn’t have some hidden meaning behind the verses. It’s a song that talks about death and puts some weight behind death not actually being the end of everything we know.
One of the things that made the track so popular was how universal its themes were. Everyone has to face death in one way or another, whether that be the loss of a loved one or their own demise.
Many people were able to relate to the song, so plenty of interpretations were picked up in honor of the memories those people held onto. People who had lost loved ones in the line of duty, whether in war or as police officers, held the track in high regard. The song’s ability to capture both the sense of acceptance that was healing and the desperation of coming to the end was what made it such a relatable and legendary track.
Other Versions of the Song
Dylan’s music has been covered by countless numbers of artists, but Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door is one of his most-covered songs and spawned some of the most successful covers of any of his works.
Eric Clapton and Arthur Louis recorded a crossover reggae version of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door in 1975. Clapton then recorded a solo version of the song in the same vein, releasing it a couple of weeks after their collective version. Clapton’s ended up reaching number 38 on the UK charts and would feature on several of his compilation albums.
Perhaps the most successful and memorable version of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door came from Guns N’ Roses. They added an electric rock sound to the song that helped elevate it to a new level in 1987.
A studio version of the track was first recorded for the film Days Of Thunder and reached number 18 on the Album Rock Tracks chart. They went on to record another version of it for their album Use Your Illusion II. That one became a huge hit and was one of the best-selling songs of the year.
Their version wouldn’t be the last time that someone covered Dylan’s classic song, but it would be the last time it became a big hit. The most notable version to come after theirs was in 1996.
With Dylan’s permission, Scottish musician Ted Christopher wrote a new verse for the song in memory of the schoolchildren and teacher killed in the Dunblane school massacre. Noted as the Dunblane tribute, it marked one of the few times Dylan authorized someone to alter his songs.
In the UK and Scotland, the track reached number one and became an international hit single. All proceeds from the song went to children’s charities.
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