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He Knocked on Heaven's Door

Updated on January 17, 2014

karaoke singers from left field


Down at the Dance Club

Knocking on Heaven's Door. He died with this song on his lips. He was a homeless man that lived in a tent by the river. Every night you could find him sitting in the lounge of the Riverside Casino in Laughlin, Nev.

He would gamble away his disability check and save money by living in a tent so he could be a gambler. He died unknown for the most part. I don't even know if he had family to come get his body.

Most of the people who hung out in this karaoke bar knew him as a regular singer of 60s music, but he wasn't the friendly type exactly and I rarely saw anyone striking up a conversation with him. He would sit and draw on paper napkins the stage area in the greatest of detail. Sometimes I'd give him a cigarette or a glass of wine, I'd chat briefly with him until the smell would get to me and I'd scuttle back to my friends.

It got so he was like a part of the place, like the cowboy hats on the wall, he was just there, night after night, often, the first one to sing at 8 pm sharp. We all came to expect the first song of the night would be Mike's House of the Rising Sun number and to tell the truth we were tired of hearing the same song from him.

Eventually as time went on, he increased his repertoire to include a few Bob Dylan numbers. What amazed me is that he died shortly after singing "Knocking on Heaven's Door." I'd always wanted to sing that number but was afraid to try. I didn't want to mess up that song. Mike didn't do so bad with it. I could tell he really was knocking on heaven's door, like I could tell he really thought he was wearing that ball and chain somewhere in New Orleans.

One night I asked him what he was gonna sing that night and he said Knocking on Heaven's Door and I asked if I could join him as his backup, you know, just the vowel notes in the background, the haunting notes of the lady singers. I assured him I wouldn't sing above him and upstage him. I'd blend into what was already in the song. If a singer can do this, it actually makes the front singer sound better than they really are. That's exactly what happened.

Nobody had ever sang with Mike. He was determined to be a loner and he once in awhile created an off the wall ruckus with the karaoke DJs for whatever reason. Maybe they'd turned him down when he wanted to be turned up.

In any case, he right away agreed I could be backup. Maybe because I'd danced around the floor with him once before I'd known he smelled so bad. He'd improved on his singing so much, I knew he could stay on key and the stage was so large I didn't have to stand right next to him, so I thought we could pull this off. And we did.

I have to tell you Mike had a few marbles missing. I don't know if it was because of what he'd seen in a war that caused his slightly off the wall remarks now and then. He'd say something completely unrelated to reality at the moment then huff away back to his corner, but he could pull a song off on key. Most of the time he was quiet though, drawing in ink the stage area. If he wasn't in the lounge at 8pm it meant he was on a winning streak somewhere in the casino as he'd just got his check.

Most of the month though, he'd go without smokes and drink and you just knew he lived here because he was homeless and could get enough merits on his gambling card membership to eat well right within this large casino that was like a miniature town in itself. It must have been cold outside in his tent or even too hot sometimes. I thought his lifestyle was weird but figured the war does strange things to people's minds so I didn't judge him. All I knew for sure was we were both from the 60s era and sang those type of songs. I think I was the only one who told him his voice was improving, although the barmaid once bought him a pair of tennis shoes and I heard Mr. Laughlin let him take a shower once. I don't think he got in the habit of taking a shower though.

We pulled off the song, both of us on key wouldn't you know and I noticed Mike put a little more effort into his usual rendition, trying to do even better I suppose and I could tell by his body positions, he was giving it all he had. I deliberately made the softest haunting sounds possible so he could fly with it. And he flew.

After we were done I rejoined my friends who reported someone had said we had made the song sound as professional as he had ever heard before. They don't expect professionalism in a karaoke bar. No matter how much a karaoke singer practices, they are still just a karaoke singer, so the compliment felt vastly satisfying to me. Nonetheless, Mike blustered by our group and announced the next number he would sing ALONE. Since we'd done a good job I couldn't figure out why he'd say something off the wall like this, and I nodded my head as if I understood his wishes. Maybe he had been distracted by my voice in the background after all. Like I said, he had a few marbles missing. We certainly wouldn't be making it to Broadway together and I knew from the start I'd only sing this one song with him. You would want to placate the ego of the karaoke singers whenever you got the chance, it builds self confidence in them and most of them reciprocate to build your own self confidence.

He wasn't like, THAT good after all. But we always clapped, it was the polite thing to do. We were building family ideals, not good singers exactly. We were generous with each other.

Then one day shortly after this incident Mike stopped coming in. Somebody told me the news of how he'd died upstairs, alone in a complementary room he'd been given for the weekend because he gambled so much here. They told me that he'd entered a contest. One of those crazy eating contests. If he could put away a 5 lb. hamburger he'd win the price of the meal. He had put it away. He was a huge man. However he had promptly barfed it all up. The cleaning crew had thrown him out the door after that. I don't know if that's the night he'd gone upstairs and died, but the two incidents were related.

All I knew for certain is when he sang Knocking on Heaven's Door he really was knocking on heaven's door.

Thank you Bob Dylan for this lovely song of the soul that Mike and I sang on the stage that night. There comes a time in everyone's life they feel like knocking on heaven's door. I think I got to help Mike in my small way as a memory of someone who cared about him despite he was one strange dude. And I think the song carried him home.


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