Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bob Dylan Song #161: Knockin' On Heaven's Door

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.


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.

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11 comments:

andrew! said...

Do you prefer the gospel-era lyric add-on, "just like so many times before" or the original? To me, it's kind of a double meaning, like, I've sang this song so many times before. My favorite version comes from Avignon in 1981. The bass at the end holds the whole mess together, The version I heard first from MTV Unplugged holds a special place for me, as well.

Anonymous said...

Since you spent time talking about the chord progression I figured I'd throw this in there for anyone who cares about theory and composition. The chord progression sounds natural because it is typical blues...

G D C = I V IV or Tonic Dominant Sub Dominant. Typically in classical music the sub dominant comes first but often the in the blues they are switched.

The G D am7 progression is a little more interesting but still very natural. Here the am7 is acting as a ii7 chord, a frequent chord used before a V because ii7 acts as a 'secondary dominant' or a chord that drives to V. Here switching the order, again borrowing from the blues, takes away the driving force of the 7 chord and creates a much more ambiguous sound.

Last thing is that am and C are relative chords in that they both share the same key signature. So the juxtoposition of them creates a sense of completion.

A pretty cool progression all in all. I'm sure most people couldn't care less about what I said but maybe somebody will be interested. Music theory is freakin awesome

Tyler said...

I, along with anonymous, find music theory fascinating. The extra analysis of the music component is great!

Daryl Williams said...

This is a great Dylan song...meaningful yet concise lyrics set to a simple musical structure. It is often covered for this reason. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Hi, if you're intending to do every Bob Dylan song, including those primarily sung by others, would you consider including "Love is Just a Four Letter Word"?
This is a song I completely fail to get, so I for one would really like to hear what you have to say. Joan Baez released it in 1968 but Dylan wrote it probably around 65.

I'll check back to hear your decision on this.

Jeroen said...

This song is still played by many live bands today in Dar es Salaam. In different styles and versions. From versions going into the Guns 'n Roses ending to a version that starts close to the original and then changes into Gabrielle's Rise.
I've always loved the song and still do. I've been found dancing to it all alone on the dance floor, much like Zappa's Dancing Fool.

Anonymous said...

I've just this evening discovered this fantastic blog, and reading entry after entry has been a sincere pleasure: until now.

The Ramones lack talent? Really???

Oh, silly man.

If you really don't understand by this point in your life, nothing i say will be likely to help. Still, you might consider it worth your while to examine the rich history of American Folk music... To paraphrase Iago Montoya, 'I do not think it means what you think it means'.

Best of luck with the completion of your project; You've certainly chosen a worthy subject.

- Brian

Vincent Murphy said...

Anonymous, I think you've misunderstood what Tony is saying:
"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 ..." He is saying that HE has fiddles with these chords and that even he, with less talent than (Dylan or) the Ramones can make them sound good ...

Vincent Murphy said...

I've just noticed that the Anonymous referred to in my previous post is Brian, so my apologies ...

Anonymous said...

Knockin' on Heaven's Door was not written by Bob Dylan, aka Robert Zimmerman, it was mostly written by Gary Wyan Lantz. His most well known band at the time was "The Life Cycle", he was a friend of Bob Dylan, and continued to be, long after the song's success. Gary wrote it, played it to Bob, who then asked to use it, and the rest was history.

Music of Bob Dylan said...

Is this the greatest song ever written? Possibly. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/345/Knockin-On-Heavens-Door and listen to every version of every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers.