Why Guns N’ Roses Covered Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’
If one were to tally how many times the hard-living members of Guns N' Roses knocked on heaven's door, there'd be a long line waiting to converse with Saint Peter.
And it's likely one of those occasions brought Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" into the Guns N' Roses repertoire.
Dylan wrote the song for the soundtrack to the 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, as the parting words for an Arizona deputy shot by the famous outlaw. It hit No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 5 on the Adult Contemporary charts, becoming a staple in his live sets and on many of his live albums. It entered the GNR universe during the summer of 1987, after frontman Axl Rose spent a few days in the hospital following a fight with a sheriff's deputy outside the Cathouse club in Los Angeles.
GNR biographer Stephen Davis quotes Slash as recalling that "it was on Axl's mind and on my mind. But I never wanted to play it with the band, because I thought too many people covered it. But one night Axl came over to this place where I was staying, and he said, 'Let's do it.'"
Hear Guns N' Roses Perform 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' Live in 1987
The song, with a slightly bluesier and somewhat more menacing underbelly than Dylan's - Davis called it "a gospel metal death chant ... a western ballad transformed into The Indiana Book of the Dead" - was worked up during rehearsals for an upcoming British tour and played onstage for the first time on June 19 at the Marquee in London, where the band used it to try to chill out a rowdy crowd that was pelting it with plastic beer cups and the sort of body excretions more common at a punk show.
Rose dedicated the song that night to Jet Boy bassist and GNR entourage member Todd Crew, and it was at the Marquee where he improvised the "hey, hey, hey" call-and-response that would become a signature of the GNR version. Engineer Tom Zutaut was at the U.K. shows running tape, and a live rendition was used as a B-side for overseas singles. That version eventually made its way into the U.S., where radio stations, hungry for anything GNR at that point, added it to their playlists.
Listen to the 'Use Your Illusion II' Version of GNR's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door'
GNR's studio version first appeared on the soundtrack for the 1990 Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder, with spoken-word responses during the second verse. Those were omitted from the mix that appeared on Use Your Illusion II the following year. The song was released as a single in May 1992, charting around the world - including at No. 18 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs survey.
GNR continued to dedicate performances of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" to Crew, who died of a drug overdose in July 1987, for quite some time. The song was performed during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert on April 20, 1992, in London, and that famous version was included on GNR's Live Era '87-'93 album in 1999.