Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Take this cover off of me, I can't sing it any more

On Tuesday, I posted a blog entry that listed four songs:
  • "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd

  • Stairway To Heaven" by Led Zeppelin

  • "Hotel California" by the Eagles

  • "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen
Depending upon various factors, just the mere mention of these four songs has either caused you to raise a lighted lighter in sheer bliss, or cover your ears in sheer agony.

But my list was, in the words of the Backstreet Boys, incomplete. In a comment, Mark Trapp added two more songs to the list:
  • "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger

  • "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," the Guns N' Roses cover
For whatever reason, I pretty much missed the whole Night Ranger thingie, but the cover version that Mark mentioned intrigued me. Cover versions are always interesting, and in some cases even improve on the original (Johnny Cash's "Hurt" comes to mind). But it's interesting that Trapp referred to the Guns N' Roses cover, rather than to the Dylan original, since they're very different versions of the same song.

In my younger years, I became familiar with Dylan's version. Wikipedia describes its origins:

"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" was written for the Western "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid". The song describes the feelings and impressions of a dying deputy, who notices that it is getting dark around him as he is knocking on heaven's door. He realizes that he will never use his badge or his guns anymore.

Dylan's take on the song is not on, but you can find it on Imeem and YouTube. "Understated" is probably the best way to describe the song, at least in its initial recorded version. Dylan had already rocked Newport and gone through several of his myriad changes, but for this song Dylan, his band, and his backup singers tread lightly on this song of a dying man. After two verses and two choruses, it suddenly fades away after about two and a half minutes. Understated indeed.

The word "understated" could probably never be applied to Guns N'Roses. Even their soft hit, "Patience," had a rocking coda. So you could probably predict that Axl, Slash, and the boys wouldn't do a short and sweet version. And your prediction would be correct, as you can confirm on Imeem and YouTube.

In a Cover vs. Original vote, opinion was sharply divided but Bob came out on top.

Perhaps it's instructive to go back to Trapp's comment at this point:

These songs are all related: they all combine themes of individual rebellion and coming of age on a powerful backdrop of music.

If that's the yardstick that you're using, then it's obvious that the Guns N' Roses version fits the model better than Dylan's aching song of loss.

P.S. I have never heard Eric Clapton's version. I should listen to it at some point.
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