Sunday, July 13, 2008

Heaven Week: Knockin' On Heaven's Door

Bob Dylan: Knockin' On Heaven's Door


Bob Dylan wrote Knockin' On Heaven's Door for the Sam Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Dylan himself appeared in the film as the character "Alias". It's perhaps one of Dylan's most covered song, there's versions by Guns N' Roses, Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Bryan Ferry, The Alarm, Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen, Wyclef Jean, The Sisters of Mercy, Warren Zevon, Seether, Cold Chisel, U2, Roger Waters, Television, Guided By Voices, Avril Lavigne, Bon Jovi, Bob Marley, Siouxsie & the Banshees, to name but a few.

While researching, I came across a great Wikipedia entry that I'd like to share:

Recording sessions

As Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid neared completion, Dylan held a recording session on January 20 at Columbia's recording studio in Mexico City. Filming had been so difficult, both of the film's stars and Wurlitzer accompanied Dylan out of Durango. Wurlitzer said at the time, "Sam knows he's losing to Dylan... but I don't care, man. I've got to get away."

Backed by local Mexican musicians and members of Kris Kristofferson's band, Dylan had difficulty recording a satisfactory take of "Billy." Eventually, he began paring down the arrangement , and by the last take, he was backed only by bassist Terry Paul. This final take was used for the film and later included on the soundtrack album as "Billy 4." A brief instrumental, "Billy Surrenders," would also be featured in the film. The session would continue until 4 a.m., but it would not produce anything else that would be considered usable.

Meanwhile, Peckinpah hired Jerry Fielding to advise Dylan on his work. Fielding was experienced in film scoring, but he held very conservative views regarding popular music. Dylan was fully aware of Fielding's opinions regarding his work ("a lot of nonsense which is strictly for teenyboppers"), but he did not resist Fielding's recommendations on how to score the film.

On Fielding's advice, Dylan sang "a relevant verse" of the "Billy" ballad "as it fit the story at [four] separate points throughout the picture." Fielding had also heard Dylan's new composition, "Goodbye Holly," which was written for an important scene involving the character, Holly. Fielding recommended dropping this song and writing a new one for a scene involving the death of Sheriff Baker.

"I set up two dubbing sessions," recalls Fielding. "Dylan had this song ['Billy'] he'd written for which he had a limitless number of verses that he would sing in random order... So I had to tape Dylan's song, because he had nothing written down, and have it transcribed... At the same time I asked that he write at least one other piece of music because you cannot possibly hope to deal with an entire picture on the basis of that one ballad. So finally he brought to the dubbing session another piece of music - 'Knock-Knock-Knockin' on Heaven's Door.' Everybody loved it. It was shit. That was the end for me."

Dylan recorded the final version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" at a session in February, this time on Warner Bros. Records' soundstage in Burbank, California. "It was very early in the morning," recalls drummer Jim Keltner. "I think the session was 10 a.m. and again it all fell into place... There weren't any overdubs on that, the singers were singing live, little pump organ, Roger McGuinn I think played [guitar]. This was for a particular scene in the movie when Slim Pickens is dying and that's the first time I ever cried while I played. It was the combination of the words, Bob's voice, the actual music itself, the changes, and seeing the screen... In those days you were on a big soundstage, and you had this massive screen that you can see on the wall, [with] the scene... running when you're playing. I cried through that whole take."

The sessions at Burbank lasted several days. Though they were much more relaxed and amiable than the Mexico City session, the process was still irritating to Dylan. At one point, he told producer Gordon Carroll that "this is the last time I work for anyone in a movie on the music. I'll stick to acting." Though Dylan would produce his own films and later contribute songs to other soundtracks, he would never take sole responsibility for an entire soundtrack again.

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