CK Retro Review: Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid Soundtrack by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s lifelong fascination with Westerns probably made the offer to score and write songs for 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid impossible to refuse. Most of the tracks on the soundtrack were instrumentals, but Dylan did squeeze in a trio of affecting odes to the movie’s hero and one of his most-loved songs when he stepped up to the mike. Here is a song-by-song review.

TWO STARS

10. “Cantina Theme (Workin’ For The Law)”- That’s West Coast studio legend Russ Kunkel playing the bongos on this track. It’s a bit repetitive, as movie music can tend to be, but otherwise an inoffensive piece of atmospherics.

9. “River Theme”- The moaning backing vocals would be put to better effect on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The best part of this otherwise forgettable piece of music is the bass work of the legendary Booker T. Jones from Booker T. & The M.G.’s.

THREE STARS

8. “Turkey Chase”- Something tells me that Dylan just wrote some chord changes and cut old buddy Roger McGuinn and Byron Berline loose on banjo and fiddle, respectively. Good choice on his part.

7. “Main Title Theme (Billy)”- Dylan’s scene-setting acoustic pastiche conjures the vast open spaces that seemed rarely available to Billy The Kid as his pursuers enveloped him.

6. “Bunkhouse Theme”- It’s just a short bit of an instrumental, but it’s quite a lovely melody turned out by the walled acoustic guitars, providing just a bit of hope amidst the foreboding music found elsewhere on the soundtrack.

5. “Billy 7”- The final of the “Billy” tracks has Dylan singing an octave lower to mirror the weary travails of the film’s anti-hero. While the other takes might have left some hope of Billy returning home, this one seems resigned to the fact that there’s no happy ending on the horizon.

4. “Final Theme”- This one sets up with the same chord patterns that have been utilized throughout the soundtrack, but the diversity provided by the long flute solo and the momentum that the song subtly builds make it the best of the instrumentals. While Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid may have a lot of flaws as a film, Dylan’s unassuming but quietly powerful score isn’t one of them.

FOUR STARS

3. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”- It’s become something of an evergreen, probably due to the simplicity of the music and the chant-along chorus, making it something akin to Dylan’s “Hey Jude.” I’ve long since given up trying to figure out why some songs break through while others falter with bigger audiences. Let’s just say that “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” works in the scene in the movie for which it was meant, it works on classic rock radio, and it works as a mantra for those contemplating what awaits beyond. For such a relatively simple song (at least compared to Bob’s other work), that’s a pretty impressive set of accomplishments.

2. “Billy 1”- There’s a nice contrast at work here between the inviting, Spanish-tinged music and Dylan’s descriptions of all the forces lining up to bring Billy down. Around every corner lurks a new threat for the outlaw, from mysterious women with murky motives to would-be gunslingers wanting to prove their skills against the best. It’s the loneliness of that life that might be the biggest, baddest enemy that Bob conjures here.

1. “Billy 4”- This is the sparest of the “Billy” songs, so there’s not much to hang your hat on except the melody (which was later borrowed by Neil Young for “Powderfinger”), Dylan’s lyrics, and his acoustic guitar and harmonica. Of course, that’s always been more than enough. Bob’s vocal is appropriately sympathetic toward his doomed subject matter, even as it projects enough wonder to suggest that the romance of his lifestyle compensates for the downside.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my upcoming book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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7 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid Soundtrack by Bob Dylan”

  1. Baggy says:

    Oh dear, I’m gonna have to ask a process question at this point (thought it would start around here). Are the star rankings a constant measure , or are they merely functioning within the context of the specifc album ?? I know that is not very clear, but looking back to JWH for example , it is hard to align Dear Landlord and As I Went Out One Morning as three star songs alongside Turkey Chase and Bunkhouse Theme.

    • countdownkid says:

      They’re not meant to fluctuate. You have to remember that three stars can hold a pretty wide swath of music. And “Turkey Chase” and “Bunkhouse Theme” achieve what they set out to do and I enjoy listening to them, even though they might be difficult to compare to other, more traditional Dylan songs. The degree of difficulty isn’t as high as it might be for the others you mentioned, but they’re still solid, evocative instrumentals. And I do like them better than any of the two star songs from other albums.

      If you buy the book and cross-check with these album reviews, you’ll notice that there aren’t any inconsistencies (for example, you won’t see a 3-star ranked better than a 4-star), so I am considering the songs’ overall status in the Dylan catalog when I hand out the star ratings. But this is by no means a perfect science I have going here.

      • Baggy says:

        Thx CK, i’ll look forward to the book. Nb did you remember which version of Billy was which, or did you have to replay them endlessly to get it down?? I like Billy, and agree that Billy4 is the best, but I couldn’t sustain an inteliigent conversation about all the versions even with the album cover in front of me!

  2. Jacek says:

    Good call on the Billy/Powderfinger connection! It hadn’t occurred to me.

    • Peter Diamond says:

      Fine, it’s hard to quibble with subjective views on the quality of music. But Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door only 4 stars? It may be overplayed – by others, not by Bob – but it’s astone-cold work of genius and deserves 5. It’s as simple as that.

  3. Billy 4 is a great song and one of my all time favourites. Bob sings it so well and the doom of the situation Billy is in comes over loud and clear. This is a good and atmospheric album. Wish Sony Columbia would do one of their remastering jobs on it.

  4. Shabtai says:

    Hi CK

    I see that you do not like very much “Knocking on heaven door ” , and you give it a 4 stars ranking in spite of its simplicity, just because it works for some people, as a mantra or as a nice sing-along.
    IMO this is a Dylan classic which deserves 5 stars.
    There are not that many “simplistic” classic masterpieces like that one in the whole popular music catalog.
    Comparing it to the Beatles boring, pretentious Hey Jude is insulting.


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