Knocking on Heaven's Door

The heart of Lon Chaney Jr. stopped dead on July 12, 1973. Medical students dissected him, as he’d dissected fake movie corpses a hundred times before. Lon’s lungs looked like moon rocks and his liver might’ve been a chunk of scorched iron meteorite. To this day, these organs are kept in jars as specimens of what extreme alcohol and tobacco use can do to the human body. There’s no grave to mark the final resting place of the rest of him.

That same week, Bob Dylan released “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” his lament for Lunar Lon. A more mournful top 40 hit can not be found: weary guitar, minimal bass, dirge-drum and disembodied women doing the descending “oohs.” Repetitive and obsessively simple, Dylan’s recording is barely a song. It’s more funeral chant for a mythical thug than a pop tune: the perfect - and perfectly obvious - opposite of the glam-rock, prog-rock, and Jesus-rock that flooded record stores that season.

Lon Sr. was the Man of a 1000 Faces. His son was the Man of a 1,000 Shitty Roles. After playing the Wolfman, Lon Jr. spent the last thirty years of his life in bottom-feeder schlock, sliding farther and farther down the horror flick food chain. His father still looms huge over Hollywood, with talent, ambition, power and imagination. Lon Jr. became a parody of himself: half Wolfman and half Lenny, the idiot man-boy murderer he played in Of Mice and Men. At the end, he loomed as “The Monster” at Universal studios: drinking, fighting, and helling around with his buddy, Broderick Crawford.

While Lon was dying in a hospital bed a few miles from the summer home of Richard Nixon, in San Clemente California, Dylan was in Mexico shooting Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which he plays a nonentity called Alias. During the filming, Dylan recorded a slim album of soundtrack music, with one song in the voice of Billy himself.

“Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is addressed his mother: “take this badge offa me. I can’t use it any more.” Powerless and nameless, Dylan begs, “Ma, put my guns in the ground. I can’t shoot them any more.”

The Wolfman is the damned son, who returns to the ancestral home to become his destiny: controlled by occult forces beyond his knowledge. The moon is the eternal female: linked to the ebb and flow of fertility, menstrual blood-rhythms. The Wolfman is hyper-male but still a slave to the mother goddess. He’s the son trapped in the mother’s lunar power, howling at the womb: brilliant birth-orb and doorway to the next world.

The Moon-Birth-Mother hears his prayer and gives no answer. The Sky-Death-Father hears and denies. Lon-Billy-Dylan is not merely fighting the Oedipal battle for sexual ownership of the mother, but for access to the moon, which is the doorway to the sky, to the realm of the ancestors.

The crucial cinematic moment shows Billy on his knees, with an old man holding a shotgun to his chest. This isn’t Sheriff Pat Garrett, though, but a Bible-spouting deputy who keeps goading Billy to get ready for the next world. Billy’s in jail, chained to the floor. The religion-mad deputy quotes Ecclesiastes: “there’s a time to live and a time to die.” The old man says he’s got a shotgun filled with silver dimes - the metal of the moon, the only thing that can kill the werewolf. After refusing to pray, Billy overpowers the old man and breaks from jail. With the load of magic shrapnel, Billy blasts him into the next world.

“Behold,” Bob Dylan intones, “it’s getting dark, too dark to see.”

“Behold,” Jesus proclaims in the Book of Revelation, “I stand at the door and knock. and whosoever hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and enter him.”

Death is the door and guns are the key - guns, cigarettes and hard liquor. The moon is the door in the sky - a hole in heaven. The son knocks. On the other side of the door is the old man: God the Father, the Phantom of the Opera, Pat Garrett. The old man with the badge and a shotgun, the Lawman, the father who opens and demands the son’s death as payment for sin.

And Dylan sings, “that long black cloud is coming on down.”