Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Standards: Knockin' on Heaven's Door

Warren Zevon: Knockin' on Heaven's Door


There are dozens of songs penned by Bob Dylan that can be considered standards, but to me no other Dylan song has the "universal appeal" or an all-encompassing feeling quite like "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." The song is originally from the 1973 soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and describes that thoughts and feeling of a dying deputy. From what I can tell, it's been covered by over 400 different artists ranging from hard rockers Guns N' Roses to Canadian pop princess Avril Lavigne, to reggae, country, soul, hip-hop, and R&B interpretations.

"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is ultimately about facing one's own mortality. Warren Zevon was acutely aware that his life was ending when he recorded his 2003 swan song The Wind. In August of 2002 Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer of the abdominal wall and lungs, and was given months to live. Despite the concerns of his friends and collaborators, Zevon included "Kockin' on Heaven's Door" on The Wind, in addition to original songs that reference the triumphs and failures of his 56 years. His version is very close to Dylan's original recording, with a tired but heartfelt voice scratching out the lyrics while a solitary electric guitar, played by Brad Davis, grinds out a counter melody. Throughout the repeating chorus at the end of the song you can hear Zevon sing "Open up, open up for me," as if Zevon is saying "it's your last chance to tell me what you need to tell me." The Wind was released on August 26, and Zevon passed away on September 7, 2003.

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