Bad Moments in Cover History: The Story of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

1 Feb

So heaven's passageway is through a cave.

The image above is a cool depiction of “heaven’s door,” a mystical concept that has provided hope for the living and breathing. The concept is simple. This heavenly door is the zenith of Christianity, a gated passageway into the high heavens and cloud nine and the land adorned with all the awesome stuff you ever want, supposing you repent and have a friend in Jesus (according to Norman Greenbaum). But if you are not “good” you are not given the entrance code and you are forever stuck envying those who punched in the correct digits and are now lounging and eating buffalo wings with Babe Ruth and Abraham Lincoln (who I’m sure would have a lot to talk about).

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is not really about heaven. It was written by Bob Dylan for the movie “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid” and profiles an effete deputy who is dying. The song is more about ineptitude and old age. It is a melancholic masterpiece. Dylan presents something that is both melodic and austere. The simplicity of the chord structure mixed with the repetitive lyric provides a framework for all lachrymose and crestfallen pieces.

In 1987, the prototypical hair metal band decided they would start using it in their live sets. The song was then poisoned by the melodramatic, hyperbolic fingers of Axl Rose and a song loved for its downtrodden seriousness became the toy of unnecessary and cocky bedizenment. Guns & Roses destroyed a perfectly good song. Rose’s horrendous voice is so drawn out and fake it kills the song’s wonderment. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is somber. Guns & Roses’ version is an arena rock hugger-mugger that is vomit inducing. Everything from Slash’s screeching guitar to Rose’s awful voice turns the song into a showy piece of garbage. And, do you know what’s worse? People actually like it, no, love it. They think that it is the better version. Some don’t even know that it was originally recorded by Bob Dylan. Maybe it simply signifies a change in people. Seriousness in music is simply not appreciated.

Do you want to hear a good cover. Listen to Warren Zevon’s beautiful version off of his last album The Wind. That version is the model of verisimilitude. Zevon was dying when he recorded the piece and he knew its meaning.

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21 Responses to “Bad Moments in Cover History: The Story of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

  1. longryder February 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    Thank you for this well written..and well researched article of one of my favorite/angst songs…I didn’t know that Dylan had written “Knocking” for that absurd and laughable version of Billy and Pat..I do know this ..it was one of those songs that creative artist like Dylan write with an “ache” in it..Usually a minor cord frames the lyrics so perfectly that I remember hearing it and thinking to myself that it was a statement that the Author might be considering suicide as the solution for whatever “Jones” was giving him particular hell…BUT Dylan is like the proverbial Chameleon that is forever changing wherever the critics have assigned him this time…I didn’t really pay much attention to his music until he decided to “enlighten” Rock and Roll..He along with the Beatles make you pay attention to what they were saying..and although I think the word genius is used far to often..I would certinly give Dylan that title..I still believe that in some of the Beatles later albums that some of their music was straight bogus..”All you need is love”…Obla-di”..and The Long and meandering pity party Road song ..was just boring and silly./.By the way ..thanks for the reminder of just how great Warren Zevon was..I dug his stuff a lot..AND Did you know the Gerry Rafferty died a month ago..Baker Street was another one of my personal favorites..He was a talented if tragic artist…

  2. Matt Coleman February 24, 2011 at 1:07 am #

    Yeah, it was sad to hear about Rafferty. I wrote about it when I heard. He led a supremely talented but troubled life. I like your description of Dylan as a “proverbial Chameleon.” It is a solid comparison. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Mason November 30, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    Ok whoever wrote this needs a change in music taste and a change in underwear. For you to dis axl and slash like that is like saying puppys need to die in a hole, much like you do sir. This was a very opinionated ariticle and i thought that whoever wrote it should be strapped to a chair and forced to listen to some good old rock.

  4. Jason February 8, 2015 at 8:15 pm #

    It appears that Guns N’ Roses has the more listened to version with over 7,000,000 more listens over Bob Dylan’s version on Spotify. Youtube views absolutely destroy Bob Dylan’s views as well.` While Axl Rose’s voice may not be for everyone, which can also be said about Dylan’s voice, he has incredible range which is more than can be said for Dylan’s lazy and tired approach. I understand that it is the hipster approach to enjoy Dylan’s version but bashing Axl’s version is unwarranted and the numbers speak for themselves.

    • Eric May 29, 2017 at 5:29 am #

      Right on bro! This article is bias to some old hippy who doesn’t like change for the good!

  5. Mike Gonzalez March 11, 2015 at 3:38 am #

    Great song, I agree that Guns and Roses destroyed this song, but I do like Eric Clapton’s rendition

  6. jake September 9, 2015 at 1:05 pm #

    if you don’t like the Guns N’ Rose’s version then you have poor taste in music!

  7. Xyz January 26, 2016 at 2:38 am #

    Whoever wrote this article needs to pull the stick out of their ass. Sire Bob Dylan’s version was good but Axl Rose’s gave it the angst and the feel that Bob Dylan’s boring voice never could. Axl’s voice isn’t for everyone but you can’t deny that his version is more universally loved and rightly so. Slash’s guitar chords are perfect for the emotion that Axl’s voice brings out of the song. So stop being a hipster bitch and appreciate some good rock music.

  8. joaquin March 9, 2016 at 1:59 am #

    Good article. I am a fan of both Bob Dylan and Guns and Roses. I was familiar with the Guns and Roses version because it is pretty popular, although I never really cared for it and was one of my less-liked songs of theirs. Then recently I heard Dylan’s version on a local classic rock station and loved it. You can really feel the emotion Dylan is putting into it, which is totally lost in guns and roses version that quickly turns into a over-the-top rock cover that cheapens the song.

  9. Sue April 21, 2016 at 2:54 pm #

    I AGREE WITH YOUR ASSESSMENT OF GUNS AND ROSES VERIZON OF K.O.H.D. I WILL RETURN TO GIVE YOU THE NAME OF A BAND WHO GIVES THE SONG WHAT IT DESERVES. I WILL LET YOU DECIDE IF THE PERFORMANCE IS THE BEST YOU HAVE FELT AND HEARD. I APOLOGIZE FOR MY LACK OF MUSICAL TERMINOLOGY. “I WILL BE BACK”.

    • Darcy K October 9, 2016 at 11:30 pm #

      Think they heard your loud mouth in China? Maybe you could shout a little louder. Or were you just trying to be cool?

  10. Rhiannon A Kyle June 23, 2016 at 4:36 pm #

    I agree. Axles voice is way too whiney and nasaly when he sings it. N for the butthurt people, get over it. Everyone’s taste in music is different. Most cover songs are pretty terrible in comparison to the original, especially to people who knew the original first. For instance some chick covered gnr sweet child o mine n it’s just awful. Groove coverage did a cover of poison by Alice Cooper n it was pretty good imo. It’s all a matter of opinion.

    • Colin August 12, 2016 at 11:28 pm #

      Guns N Roses rocked the hell out of this song and gave this song more emotion than the original by far! Slash’ guitar solos are heavenly and Axl’s voice is fucking amazing as usual, as most singers only wish they had his range and dynamics! You don’t agree? Fine. But millions do, and fortunately, many people DO NOT share the opinions of the small percentage of people on this page! Long live GNR!!!

      • colin August 12, 2016 at 11:35 pm #

        Oh yeah, Guns N Roses are not a fucking hair metal band! Look at some pictures of them and listen to the diversity and dynamics throughout their catalogue. They are a true fucking rock band whose music will live on long past today’s crap!

  11. Dee October 31, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

    Bob Dylan is a genius, GNR is lucky that Dylan wrote that song. As for tastes in vocals, Axel’s rendition is powerful, Eric Clapton’s is soulful and Bob Dylan is a legend. No one ruined that song. We’re lucky they made it as big as it us.

  12. Arpan Mukherjee November 5, 2016 at 4:07 pm #

    Sir i am neither being in the grp of people saying gnr version better than bob nor ni the opposite. Both are different..having different feel the “lazy and tired” approch of dylan gives the song some flavor that gnr misses but gnr song is more musically compact..nice guitar parts…i love slash…axl’s voice is drunken but a good musically technically mature jam…while dylan focused on his lyrics and the main feel so his approach…BOTH are great…its wrong to say that gnr has poisoned the song… people saying gnr is shit are assholes and people saying it better than Dylan are slut and whores or a bloddy buttplug….music is really vast and u have to accept all its flavours..BUt yes if someone ruins a tagore song i will kick them

  13. Richard Toddar (@Richard_Toddar) December 19, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

    Matthew, you need to get a grip. GNR did not destroy Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. The made it their own and it is quite a bit more popular. That said, I heard Dylan’s original for the first time today and it is better. Just not THAT much better.

  14. Kathryn Heiens March 28, 2018 at 5:43 pm #

    I couldn’t even finish Dylan’s version. That was awful. So thankful GNR took it and made it gold, cuz it’s a great song from my childhood.

  15. Larry Stebbins April 20, 2018 at 4:06 pm #

    Everybody has an opinion. But if you like hard rock, then GNR’s version is just that. It is different than the original, they are both good, but I like GNR’s better because I like hard rock.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Rotten Covers – What is the Worst Song Cover of All Time? « The Music Court - July 24, 2012

    […] Guns N’ Roses’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” comes to us with more than eight million views on YouTube and more than 30,000 likes. Statistics like that make me question my faith in our population of music listeners. I’ve talked about why Guns N’ Roses’ cover of Dylan is overproduced garbage in the past. Allow me to copy and paste my thoughts on this from an article I wrote that you can view here. […]

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