One of the greatest westerns made by one of Hollywood's finest filmmakers, when Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid hit the screen in 1973, its release signified the end of an era. The golden age of the western genre had passed, as special effects replaced a good story, and box office smashes like Jaws and Star Wars filled the vacuum. For Bob Dylan, however, Sam Peckinpah's classic western was exciting new terrain. Not only was Bob invited to record the soundtrack, but he was given his first dramatic role in a major motion picture.
Dylan Meets Peckinpah
The mythology of the Old West had always captured the imagination of Dylan, who'd recently writen a ballad for outlaw John Wesley Harding. So it wasn't a huge leap to throw in a fresh typewriter ribbon, tune up and take on Billy the Kid. When scriptwriter Rudy Wurlitzer invited him to try writing some songs for the film, an inspired Dylan pounced at the opportunity. And with a fistful of ballads tailor-made for the rough script, Dylan was soon ready to meet with Sam Peckinpah, who'd recently directed the massively popular The Wild Bunch.
At Peckinpah's house one night, Dylan showed up ready to show off his wares. “You bring your guitar with you?” asked the director. As cast members and production people polished off their dinner, Dylan and the famed filmmaker shuffled off to the next room. According to James Coburn, “Sam had a rocking chair. Bobby sat down on a stool in front of this rocking chair. There was just the two of them in there. And Bobby played three or four tunes. And Sam came out with his handkerchief in his eye, 'Goddamn kid! Who the hell is he? Who is that kid? Sign him up!'”
On a sour note, after wrapping up the shoot in Mexico, the studio began imposing control, forcing cuts, and infuriating Peckinpah to the point of abandoning the film. Richard Marquand was soon brought in to finish production. However, critics attacked the film and the target numbers failed to materialize. Many believe that had MGM stuck with Peckinpah's vision, it would have been a box office smash.
Dylan's New Personae
On top of soundtrack duties, Dylan nailed the role of the knife-throwing Alias, a character inspired by the 1926 Walter Noble Burns novel, Saga of Billy the Kid. It wasn't Dylan's first shot as an actor. Back in 1963, the BBC hired him to play the lead in Madhouse on Castle Street, a British teleplay. But Dylan, an untrained actor, was so skittish before the camera that his part was trimmed down to a side stage performance, playing live music to the main drama.
In Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid it happened again, and Dylan's part was pared down to lots of screen shots with minimal speaking parts. This didn't stop the production company from shamelessly capitalizing on Dylan's fame; as the credits roll in the beginning, only three primary actors are spotlighted, James Coburn (Pat Garrett), Kris Kristofferson (Billy), and Bob Dylan, in that order. The classic star-studded western, the cast was a hodge-podge of seasoned talent playing secondary roles and cameos including, among others, Jason Robards, Slim Pickens, Jack Elam, Rita Coolidge, Chill Wills, and Harry Dean Stanton.
In a simple twist of fate, for Dylan and Kristofferson, meeting again on the set in Durango, Mexico would be a reunion of sorts. Back in 1966, then a still-undiscovered songwriter, Kristofferson happened to be a janitor at the Nashville studio where Dylan was recording Blonde on Blonde.
The principal recording session for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid took place at CBS Studios in Mexico City on January 20, 1973, with a followup the next month in Burbank, California, which included veteran musicians Jim Keltner, Bruce Langhorne, and Roger McGuinn. During recording, the film was projected on a screen that the musicians could view while laying down the music. Dylan captured the bulk of the soundtrack—including the theme song, “Ballad of Billy the Kid” aka “Billy”—at the first all-night session, using the second date to recast several of the songs and record additional material.
Dylan was in tight with Sam Peckinpah, but Jerry Fielding, the film's musical director, was unsatisfied with the music Dylan had forked over, butchering it relentlessly for the final cut. Dylan and Fielding simply couldn't find a groove, each with his own musical vision for the film. Given express instructions by Fielding for what to record, Dylan had his own ideas, saying to his studio mates, “This guy Fielding's gonna go nuts when he hears this!”
“Dylan never understood what I wanted,” Fielding later expressed. To Dylan's protests, the theme song was chopped up with verses spread throughout the movie, while the instrumentals were strung around at different locations from where the songwriter originally laid them. Or as Dylan reported, “The music seemed to be scattered and used in every other place but the scenes which we did it for. Except for 'Heaven's Door.'”
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Finding the main theme, “The Ballad for Billy the Kid,” used too redundantly throughout the film, Fielding asked Dylan to record an additional song, and he came back with “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.” Fielding hated it: “You cannot hope to deal with an entire picture on the basis of that one ballad [“Billy”]. So finally he brought to the dubbing session another piece of music, 'Knock knock knockin' on Heaven's Door.' Everybody loved it. It was shit. That was the end for me.”
The anthem first crops up during one of the film's most poignant sequences, when Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) gets gut-shot at oone of Billy's hideouts. The song fades in as the dying man straggles off and his woman drops her shotgun to run after him (“I cried through that whole take,” drummer Jim Keltner said about recording the sequence). In the 1984 VHS director's cut of the film, the vocal track was removed from the song and replaced with a stripped-down instrumental version. However, the vocal track was restored for the 2005 special edition DVD.
“Knockin' on Heaven's Door” has appeared in at least a half dozen other soundtracks. The song became a staple of Dylan's concerts beginning with the 1974 tour with the Band, and was soon featured as the nightly encore during the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975-76. To this day Dylan still surprises audiences, breaking the song out at live performances. “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” has been covered by dozens of bands, including Guns 'N Roses, the Grateful Dead, and Warren Zevon, who in 2003 injected new life into the song as he approached his own death.