It still kind of amazes me, nearly forty years after this song's release, just how damned literal the lyrics to this song are; that this song became a considerable hit for numerous artists amazes me even further. If you listen to the song in the context of the film the lyrics work perfectly well - the Slim Pickens character, who just got plugged during a shootout on the hunt for Billy the Kid, is having a tearful final moment with his wife, and Bob singing about "mama, take this badge off of me/I can't use it anymore" fits seamlessly with the scene. (This link goes into a little greater depth about the song used within the film.) Taking the song out of context, however, the whole thing just seems...I dunno, maybe a bit much for a nominal pop single? After all, this song ended up on AM radio and was covered God knows how many times, and it's basically a man talking about burying his guns as he slips away into death to meet his Maker. Throw in the whole gospel-like harmonies and we're talking about one damn depressing song at its face.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Perhaps, then, what gives this song its everlasting fame (you could also argue this for "All Along The Watchtower", although that song's lyrics are as cryptic as this one's is direct) is its brilliantly simple chord arrangement, G and D (two of the most basic chords you can play on the guitar) with A minor 7 and C switching off from line to line. It's the sort of thing a beginner might strum while rooting for his first ever tune - Lord knows I've come up with the same simple arrangements in the past, like The Ramones with much less inclination to play punk or, you know, talent - and yet it completely and totally works, because it completely and totally sets a mood. Even if you stripped away the gentle band arrangement and the harmonies, those chords work on such a brutally elemental level that you can't help but just be utterly swept away by them. It's always a rare Dylan song where Dylan's musical sense stands toe to toe with his lyrical sense, but we have an example of that here; Dylan's powerful, simple phrases (and that chorus!) matched beautifully with those almost inevitable chords.
In a previous post during the Self Portrait run, I'd written about how Marcus had envisioned Bob writing the soundtrack to a Western or some such thing with that godforsaken album, and how he didn't really succeed (you know, due the album not being good and all). Not only is there something kind of amusing about the fact that Bob eventually did get his mug into a Western after all (which surely must have appealed to him on any number of levels), but he also managed to write the perfect Western song, one that could have been easily slotted into any number of the revisionist Westerns that, ironically, Sam Peckinpaugh ushered in with The Wild Bunch and Clint Eastwood apotheosized with Unforgiven. Every one of those damned movies has a scene where one of the heroes dies in heroic fashion after heroically getting himself shot in heroic battle, and every single one of those scenes would've been vastly improved by Bob's sonorous voice intoning about that long black cloud coming down. Of all of Bob's achievements in his career, I bet if you pointed this out to him, this would be one he'd really be proud of.
So there are two versions of this song I'd like to say a few words about. The first, which I'm sure some of you have heard, is the Guns 'n Roses version, one of their last singles and a tack-on to Use Your Illusion II. Now, I assume most of you can guess in advance what I'll say about it, and I'll temper that by noting that I actually like their version of "Live and Let Die"; in some ways, it actively improves upon the original (most notably in the fact that the reggae bit is much, MUCH less awkward). Where their version of that song and this kind of split apart, though, is that while "Live and Let Die" has an inherent silliness to it (forget that it's a Bond theme, which carries its own goofy pomposity; have you ever LISTENED to "Live and Let Die"? There's a reason Wings gets its share of mockery, you know) that Guns 'n Roses both sort of went along with (because anthem-era Guns 'n Roses has its own inherent silliness) and punctured with the POWER OF ROCK, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"'s pretentious bent is tempered by the fact that it's a really, tremendously good song. And GnR's version, with it's ill-considered musical breakdown at the end, guitars turned all the way up to 11, and Axl Rose doing every single Axl Rose thing that annoys the hell out of everybody that isn't a slavish devotee, manages to suck every single bit of what makes "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" special out of the tune. That actually deserves kudos, in a way.
The second version (which is jumping the gun a bit) is the Tour '74 version, where Dylan and the Band incorporate this most solemn of anthems into the "Bob Dylan Good Time Jamboree" aesthetic that Before the Flood so badly represents. Given the numerous excesses of this particular tour - I'm listening to this version now, and if there was any way to cut the goddamn Garth Hudson synthesizers out, I would have already done it - the version we got on the official album is relatively understated, featuring one of Bob's best vocals on said album (I always love how he sings "ground" and "shoot") and rather glorious backing vocals from Manuel et al. And, with the obvious exception of Robertson spraying mini-solos around with his typical bonhomie, the guitars are scaled back pretty well, far more so than for something like "Lay Lady Lay" on the same tour. In short, the Band does the song fair justice, and on a tour marked for performances that one wishes involved some restraint in the right places, we get a pretty good glimpse of how good the tour could be when that restraint was properly used.