Bob Dylan’s genius resonates through time with his song such as “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Like A Rolling Stone” and “The Times They Are Changin’.” He is a true master of words and has penned songs that have energized movements around the world. Another song of such calibre is “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” from over three decades ago in 1973.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was written for the movie ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,’ a story about two outlaw friends. The song was included in the soundtrack for the movie at first and was later released as a single on phonographic vinyl, the B-side contained “Turkey Chase.” The single peaked at #12 on Billboard Hot 100 chart.
This song has been covered by many great artists that followed Bob Dylan. Most notable would be Guns N Roses who made a Rock cover of the song for the movie ‘Days of Thunder’ in 1990. In 1975 Eric Clapton covered the song in Reggae style giving it a whole new vibe.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” has been included in countless TV shows and movie productions from 1973 till 2018, and will possibly continue to do so in the future. From ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ in 1973 to ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ in 1989 to ‘Six Feet Under’ episode 61 in 2005 to ‘Supernatural’ episode 35 in 2007 and the latest ‘Misty’ TV series in 2018, this song has lived through ages.
‘Western Writers of America’ group have elected “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” to be one of Top 100 Western songs of all time.
Listen to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan
To understand the meaning of the song, we will tie in the lyrics to the movie scene during which this song is played.
Bob Dylan’s voice fades in when Sheriff Colin Baker gets mortally wounded during a shootout with Billy the Kid’s gang. Colin Baker is a fellow lawmaker much like Pat Garrett. However, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are old-time friends. As Colin Baker draws his last few breaths in the hands of his wife, he is believed to be experiencing this song. However, there are ongoing arguments as to if it is the dying Sheriff, or his friend-Pat Garrett, who is watching his friend die, is experiencing the song!
Lyrics Review and Song Meaning of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
‘Mama,’ Sheriff Baker calls his wife as he lays dying at her hands with a gunshot wound on his chest. He asks the wife to take off his badge, as he cannot use it anymore. The Sheriff is in the realm of fading away into the darkness. The Sun is setting in the movie when this scene happens. So naturally, the darkness is starting to engulf them and so is his life slipping into the abyss. He is feeling as if he is at the Pearly Gates of heaven.
If we were to look at this from Garrett’s POV, the song could be about Pat questioning his life choices. He is an outlaw made into a sheriff. And he is watching his fellow lawmaker drawing his last breath, all for a head-hunting job Garrett took on for $1,000. He could be feeling quite useless with his badge as he could not help his friend. His is losing vision of what is right and wrong. Should he keep on hunting Billy the Kid and risk more lives? Remember that Garrett is a former friend of Billy the Kid. So he also feels reluctant about killing an old friend. Garrett should be knockin’ on heaven’s door to find out answers for his moral dilemmas.
Although repetitive in nature, these lines are very powerful in driving the theme of the song. As per Genius.com, chords of the verses and the chorus do not match. This creates an effect of incompleteness. However, that is the exact point Bob Dylan wanted to drive in through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” song.
“Just like so many times before” lyric at the end of every chorus makes us wonder how many dilemmas Pat has had to face. Maybe near-death experiences?
The second verse from the dying Sheriff’s point tells an added story to the first verse. He asks his wife to lay down his gun as well, as he is unable to use it now that he is fading into the darkness.
From Garrett’s POV, these lines could mean that Garrett feels guilty for his friend’s death as Baker came for help on Garrett’s request. So Garrett is questioning if he should put down his guns. He had a gun and he could not protect his friend. So what good are guns for any more! He may be believing that he is failing at his duty.
After over three decades “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan still remains open for discussion. It is a simple song with just two simple verses and a repetitive chorus. However, there is a deeper meaning embedded in the song when overlapped with the movie scene.
Let us know what you think about this song and the genius of Bob Dylan. Leave your ideas on the song and its meaning in the comments below.
Full Lyrics to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan