Bob Dylan Countdown #146: “Billy (1,4,7)”Posted: February 8, 2012
I recently watched Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid on Netflix. I have read that the movie the studio released and Sam Peckinpah’s director’s cut were two different animals, and I have no idea which one I saw, so that may have had some affect on my experience. But my final verdict was: Meh. I think Kris Kristofferson was miscast as Billy, and James Coburn is far more compelling as Pat Garrett, and that contrast is a fatal flaw. I also think all the spurting blood starts to lose its impact about six or seven gunfights into the movie.
Bob Dylan, playing Alias in the film, has an inscrutable expression on his face that’s impossible to read, which is what you might expect from the man of so many baffling lyrics. He also looks extremely young in the movie, much less grizzled than everyone surrounding him. Modern-day Dylan would have been a much better fit in that scenario.
Anyway, the songs that he wrote for the soundtrack, especially the “Billy” trilogy, seem to me to do a much better job of capturing the romantic spirit commonly associated with Billy The Kid. Dylan’s songs are much more sympathetic to Billy than Kristofferson’s performance, which seems just sort of sulky.
The songs also play into Dylan’s fascination with outlaws who many believe were wrongly persecuted; after all, to this day many believe that the Kid deserves the pardon that he was promised and denied while he was alive. Bob plays into that perceived persecution expertly: “Billy, they don’t like you to be so free.”
One other thing that the “Billy” songs get right, and Coburn does as well in his performance, is the dread that must have accompanied being a so-called “dangerous” man. “So sleep with one eye open when you slumber,” Dylan sings. “Every little thing sound just might be thunder/Thunder from the barrel of his gun”
The Spanish guitar utilized in the “Billy 1” is extremely evocative of the setting, and Dylan deserves credit for creating a lilting melody as the main theme of the movie and these three songs, a melody that I always thought Neil Young nicked pretty cleanly for “Powderfinger.” As these songs progress from 1 to 4 to 7, the music becomes more downcast and desperate, as fate, the one gunfighter who is never outdrawn, creeps in slowly.
With all of those qualities in their favor, I feel like the “Billy” songs promise a richer and truer experience than the movie which they inhabit actually delivers.