By Tony Attwood
It is interesting to note that many Dylan fans hardly know of the music that Dylan wrote and performed for the Pat Garrett movie.
Perhaps the scene was set by Jon Landau writing in Rolling Stone that “it is every bit as inept, amateurish and embarrassing as Self Portrait. And it has all the earmarks of a deliberate courting of commercial disaster, a flirtation that is apparently part of an attempt to free himself from previously imposed obligations derived from his audience.”
Sally O’Rourke, writing in 2010 said, “In 1972, Bob Dylan was an artist in crisis.” It is the popular image. And yes, Dylan had slowed down dramatically in his writing career as the Chronology files show. But hell, in 1972 Dylan had written When I paint my masterpiece, and Watching the river flow. Two superb songs. OK only two, and not the 20 a year he had been knocking out, but for 99.99% of songwriters those two songs in one year would have been heaven.
If the public or the critics expected 20 works of art a year for ever, they really knew nothing about art and artists. No one keeps going at that rate. If you want to know about an artist slowing down in terms of the production of great works, take a look at Picasso after Guernica.
So he hadn’t had a number 1 hit since Lay Lady Lay but then that song was the only song of note he wrote in 1968.
Just to put this in context, in the song writing circles that I have occasionally hovered on the edges of, it has oft been said that if you have a number one hit in the US you never have to work again. And here of Dylan the writer is complaining that he hadn’t had a number one since 68.
The creation of great art cannot be turned on and off like a tap – if it could we could teach it in schools and everyone could do it. Great artists don’t normally keep turning out the great works year after year. Even Shakespeare, having suddenly turned the tap on in 1590 (aged 26) turned it off again in 1612 (four years before his death).
But great artists do pick up thoughts and ideas as they go along, and out of Pat Garrett we can be fairly sure we got the first Blood on the Tracks song, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”.
Since the days when it was commonplace to say Dylan was finished Knocking on Heaven’s Door has been rescued and seen as a very decent song – or indeed far more than that. But such a view misses the fact that Billy the Kid contained another piece of music that is of particular value.
There are three reasons why this song isn’t so widely recognised. One is because it is associated with a venture that was largely derided by critics who seem to think that they have the ability to cast an immediate view upon an album (an extremely hard thing to do). Two because the song I’m alluding to has only once been played in public (and played with an arrangement that to my ears unfortunately diminished the value of the song, in my view). And three because it has never cropped up on any collections or been recorded by anyone else.
That song is Billy – it comes in four versions: Main Title Theme, Billy 1, Billy 4 and Billy 7, and it is Billy 4 to which I would particularly urge you to turn your particular attention. But if you have a moment more please do start with Main Title Theme.
The Main Title Theme is an instrumental which relies on an acoustic guitar and a melody improvised by a second acoustic. Plus, although there are only three chords used, there is variation which, after the first minute when the second guitar begins to play a more fulsome melody, gives a deeper sense of the music having a meaning of its own.
Later a bass guitar enters and instead of just emphasising the chord sequence takes on a melodic line of its own. It is played by Booker T Jones – of Booker T and the MGs. It’s worth hearing just for that; there ain’t many people who could do what Booker T does.
I have seen comments about Main Title Theme ranging from talk about having had it played while walking down the aisle at a wedding to being the music played over and over again after a tragic death. Somehow despite the fact that it is clearly improvised and very simple it seems to have a deep, deep impact. Even if you never listen to anything else from this album, do take in this song in peace and quiet. Just play it, sit there and close your eyes. The work demands nothing less.
Beyond doubt much of the magic of this simple song also comes from having Bruce Langhorne playing on the album.
Langhorne played with Dylan on his early albums up to Bringing It All Back Home, and is particularly known for his work on tracks such as “She Belongs to Me,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Indeed it is said on Biograph that Langhorne was Mr. Tambourine Man, Dylan commenting later, “On one session, Tom Wilson had asked him to play tambourine. And he had this gigantic tambourine. It was like, really big. It was as big as a wagon-wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind. He was one of those characters…he was like that. I don’t know if I’ve ever told him that.”
Back with the music to the movie, Billy 1 has a similar feel to the end of the Main Title theme, but with harmonica added before the lyrics come in – and actually it is a very decent Dylan song, and doesn’t deserve to have the forgotten life that it has taken on. Maybe the problem is that the harmonica is inexplicably slightly out of tune with the band, or rather vice versa.
Then we are into the lyrics for the first time. Each verse is musically identical – there is no “bridge” or “middle 8” although in the performance Dylan does vary each verse slightly.
So a beautiful and moving instrumental, and an interesting Billy 1. But then the world changes and we get Billy 4. These are the lyrics (each version of Billy is slightly different, and the lyrics published on the official site are different again – the lyrics here are my version from hearing the album – sorry if I have got anything wrong).
There’s guns across the river about to pound you
There’s a lawman on your trail, he’d like to surround you
Bounty hunters are dancing all around you
Billy, they don’t like you to be so free
Camping out all night on the veranda
Walking the streets down by the hacienda
Up to Boot Hill they’d like to send you
Billy, don’t you turn your back on me
There’s mules inside the minds of crazy faces
Bullet holes and rifles in their cases
There is always one more notch in four more aces
Billy, and you’re playing all alone.
Playin’ around with some sweet señorita
Into her dark chamber she will greet you
In the shadows of the mazes she will meet you
Billy, you’re so far away from home
They say that Pat Garrett’s got your number
So sleep with one eye open when you slumber
Every little sound just might be thunder
Thunder from the barrel of his gun
Gradually around this point other instrumental accompaniment is peeking through – we hear the second guitar, as Dylan then gives us a harmonica break before moving on
There’s always some new stranger sneakin’ glances
Some trigger-happy fool willin’ to take chances
And some old whore from San Pedro to make advances
Advances on your spirit and your soul
The businessmen from Taos want you to go down
So they’ve hired Mr Garrett to force you to slowdown
Billy, don’t it make ya feel so low-down
To be hunted by the man who was your friend?
Go hang on to your woman if you got one
Remember in El Paso, once, you shot one
Up in Santa Fe you bought one
Billy, you been runnin’ for so long
Gypsy queens will play your grand finale
Down in some Tularosa alley
Maybe in the Rio Pecos valley
Billy, you’re so far away from home
This was the first new music of Dylan’s since New Morning in 1970. That it has been overlooked so utterly is undoubtedly due to the Rolling Stone review, the fact that it was a musical score, which of course has other demands on the writer (but which some Dylan fans, already bemused by previous changes of direction could not accept) and the fact that up next was Blood on the Tracks – and once that came out, everything else was forgotten.
The actual film by Peckinpah got varied reviews, and didn’t become highly regarded until later – not least because the original cut was rescued and shown again. And it is interesting to consider the fact that Dylan and Peckinpah were both fighting the people who issued their work: Peckinpah with MGM, Dylan with Columbia.
One commentary says that the movie is “an allegory for the death of the ‘60s. Freedom and revolution were being wiped out by greed and reactionary politics, and the heroes of the era—including Dylan—were fading into irrelevancy.”
Well, maybe. I don’t think so because I don’t lose my heroes that quickly, no matter what they do or don’t do, but the key point here is that Dylan was taking stock, casting around, and then using what he found to create Blood on the Tracks, starting as I’ve said with “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”.
So I find the album very interesting, and worth a review. What I can’t really recommend is the live recording of Billy 4 from Stockholm in March 2009. But it is on the internet so here is the link…
Maybe you will find yourself tomorrow
Drinking in some bar to hide your sorrow
Spending the time that you borrow
Figuring a way to get back home