Knocking on Heaven’s Door

October 6, 2017

We just lost Tom Petty, American musician and songwriter, to cardiac arrest. He had struggled with heroin addiction in the 1990s and was a heavy smoker, so perhaps his death at 66 wasn’t that unexpected. I did not know Tom Petty’s music until after Bob Dylan remarked at the 1985 Live Aid concert benefit for famine stricken Africans that some money should be put aside to help American farmers pay their mortgages. Willie Nelson thought that a good idea and the first Farm Aid Concert was created. At that concert, Dylan played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and it was such a good match, they went on tour. In 1986, joined by a friend and Idaho native living in Las Vegas, I saw Dylan and Petty perform in Phoenix. Tom Petty developed familiar genres rather than changing them, as Bob Dylan did beginning in the early sixties.

That Phoenix concert really captured something beyond the music. It was a celebration of two generations coming to the same show. The parents were there to see Bob Dylan, and their kids were eager to hear Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. While the parents listened to Dylan’s set, their kids left to get soft drinks and hot dogs, and then the parents left to replenish their beer and snacks while Petty played his set for the younger fans.

Normally, I would find it distracting to see patrons streaming in and out of a venue in the middle of a concert, but it seemed so informal, so human, so American. Everyone was there to have a good time, and as the music played, the “toing and froing” really didn’t matter.

At the end, something remarkable happened. Parents and kids sat together and listened as Bob Dylan and Tom Petty with his band played their closing numbers, including “American Girl” by Petty, a song about a suicide:

Well it was kind of cold that night,

She stood alone on her balcony

Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by,

Out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach

And for one desperate moment

There he crept back in her memory

God it’s so painful when something that’s so close

is still so far out of reach

Bob Dylan backed by Petty and his band closed with his classics, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” The concert generated a happy, warm feeling, and there was nothing disturbing about Dylan’s lines, “Bury my guns in the ground/ I can’t shoot them anymore/ There’s a long black cloud coming down/ I believe I’m knocking on Heaven’s door.” This was a time when venues hired a few security officers for the day, and no one was checked for weapons at the door. The thought of bullets raining down on a crowd seemed unreal.

With this recent assault and mass murder of Las Vegas fans at a country music festival, we are indeed living in more dangerous times exacerbated by the threat of foreign and domestic terrorism, where some members of congress want to delay debating the gun control issue, and where a special bump stock that turns a semiautomatic rifle into a fully automatic machine gun is legal — if machine guns are not.

I do not have any answers. Stricter gun control would not have stopped the assassin in Las Vegas, though it is odd no one noticed him bringing multiple assault rifles to his hotel room overlooking the concert venue. Since the Civil War, America has had a plethora of firearms. We have gun shows with loopholes, the “straw purchase” practice of good citizens buying guns for others who would not pass the background check — if there was one — and a strong NRA pro-gun lobby. The NRA gave marks of A to Idaho Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson.

Certainly, American citizens, including those who live in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, have a right to own guns, which they consider tools more than weapons, but can we protect the Second Amendment and keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them? Can we insist there be at least national background checks or an abolition of bump stocks which are meant to facilitate killing people? Perhaps that is “still so far out of reach.”

My friend from Las Vegas hasn’t answered my calls or text messages, but the good news is that he would never attend a country music concert. Regarding American music, Tom Petty leaves behind a rich collection of his songs, and also his collaboration with the Traveling Wilburys which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.

Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an MA in English and creative writing. He is a retired instructor of English and speech communications from Idaho State University. He has written several articles for various outlets, including Atticus Literary magazine online.