50 years of Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Bob Dylan‘s musical genius was not enough to “save” the film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, in 1973. The western that proposed to be “revisionist” to tell one of the legends of the wild west was directed by Sam Peckinpah, written by Rudy Wurlitzer, and starred James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, with appearances by Jason Robards and Bob Dylan himself did not please the stars or to the public. Only one thing appeared on the screens: one of Dylan’s most famous and beautiful songs, Knocking On Heaven’s Door.

The film focuses on the drama of Pat Garrett (James Coburn) as he deals with the difficult mission of being hired to kill his old friend, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Peckinpah saw in the project the chance to make a “definitive” western, after two previous attempts. He got involved in rewriting the script and his changes angered Wurlitzer. Over budget, the director’s alcoholism, and other problems made behind-the-scenes a nightmare.

Although Kris Kristofferson was an award-winning musician, he was the one who brought Bob Dylan to sign the songs for the film, and Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door was nominated for a Grammy for Best Original Soundtrack Album.

Full of problems, the 1973 version was edited without the director’s approval and its version was only released in 1988. Fifty years later, Knockin’On Heaven’s Door has already been recorded by more than 150 artists, with the most famous recent version being by Guns ‘N Roses. The song enters the film when Sheriff Colin Baker is killed by Billy’s gang and dies in his wife’s arms. Sung in the 1st person, from the perspective of someone who knows he has a few minutes to live.

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

The musicians were thrilled to record the instant classic. And we repeat, getting equally emotional, five decades later.


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