Knocking on heaven’s door

By Tony Attwood

How many Dylan songs can you name which have a chorus consisting of the title sung over and over again?  “How does it feel?” comes up twice on “Like a Rolling Stone”, but for the moment I can’t think of others.  Maybe my mind isn’t in gear.

But by and large Dylan doesn’t do bad film songs – in fact when you think of “Tell Ol’ Bill” and “Things have Changed” you think of utterly brilliant songs.

I am not sure “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is as good as those two complete masterpieces, but it is certainly a very fine song.  It comes from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973 and the song’s opening line tells it all; the verse just sets everything out before us.

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

Verse two amplifies the message…

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

And that’s it.

So what makes it such a memorable song?  To answer this we are back to an issue that seems to crop up in almost every one of these Dylan reviews.  The chord sequence.

The chorus, with the repeated “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door” line doesn’t have a conventional resolution in terms of its chords.

I’ll try and explain….

  • The verse, in chordal terms goes I V II7
  • The chorus goes: I V IV

Now in musical terms, neither of those endings (V-II7 and V-IV) are “acceptable” as resolutions to the line of music.  What they do is leave the music hanging, they don’t resolve the music at all.  The listener is left on a cliff, almost toppling over the edge, or maybe just stepping back to safety, but never quite sure which.

That one simple musical trick is what makes this song so memorable and haunting.  Of course the lyrics of the verse, and the repeated chorus lyric are excellent in themselves and capture the mood perfectly, but what makes the song work so well is the hanging edge of each line created by the chord change.  Death is near, but not quite there, we don’t know, we have left waiting…

The simplicity of this song is what makes it so good, in a way that Dylan can rarely achieve with (for example) the predictable nature of the 12 bar blues that forms the basis of so many of his songs.  It is with songs like this where he branches out into the musical hinterland that we see Dylan’s craft at its best.


  1. I’ve always been struck by how very short the original is, just two verses, not even three – unheard of, almost, in Dylan’s oeuvre. I guess one mark of a truly great song is it’s almost impossible to ruin it. (Think Summertime.) Most of the cover versions string it out to three or more verses, and throw in some new lyrics. I have made a point of listening to dozens of covers of Knockin’, and they actually all have something to offer – like a fabulous jewel with a thousand faces. It’s also possible to listen to these back-to-back without tiring because of those unresolved chords, I guess.

  2. the song is completely inappropriate for the film – who is supposed to be taking his badge off?

  3. Mama, take this badge off of me
    but in the movie those words are direct to sheriff wife not mother? or his wife could be called “a ballad mama”?.

  4. i always thought the song was about drug addiction guns being a replacement for needles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *