BOB DYLAN: PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973)
1) Main Title Theme (Billy); 2) Cantina Theme (Workin' For The Law); 3) Billy 1; 4) Bunkhouse Theme; 5) River Theme; 6) Turkey Chase; 7) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 8) Final Theme; 9) Billy 4; 10) Billy 7.
Intermission. Other than a brief three-day recording session in March 1971, which yielded ʽWatching The River Flowʼ and the «canonical» version of ʽWhen I Paint My Masterpieceʼ, there was little musical activity on Bob's part for almost four years. Somewhere in this gap, lost and generally overlooked — well, as far as one can «overlook» anything associated with a giant of Bob's stature — was this soundtrack, which the man generated for the Sam Peckinpah movie of the same name, in which he also played a brief, but curious, supporting part.
Although few critics would probably list Pat Garrett as a Peckinpah masterpiece (nothing beats The Wild Bunch, right?), it still has to be one of the most dead-on collaborations between a major movie figure and a major musical figure in history. Peckinpah was pretty wasted by the time it came to realizing his next project; Dylan was in comparatively better shape, but still a long way from inner peace and comfort, insecure about his musical future and facing family trouble on the horizon. Peckinpah was making a movie about «the end of the Old West» as we know it, and Dylan had lightly scratched that issue, too, on John Wesley Harding, although the album wasn't about that topic in general. Peckinpah put Dylan in the movie, gave him the name «Alias», and pretty much nailed his essence by providing him with the most bizarre scene in the film (the one where «Alias» is forced to move behind the bar counter and read all the labels on cans of beans and tomatoes — am I the only one to see the hilarious parallels between this and this?). In return, Dylan gave Peckinpah some of the most broody, somber, unsettling, and, occasionally, cathartic music he'd ever written.
The obvious bane of the soundtrack album is that it is not only way too short, but also way too repetitive and «padded out» to count as a properly offered record of new original music. No less than four of the tracks are set to the same melody (the three different ʽBillysʼ and the instrumental ʽTitle Themeʼ), and, in between them, cover about a half of the album's running length. Of the remaining half, only ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ counts as a fully self-contained song, melody, lyrics, significance, and everything; the others are instrumentals, varying in purpose and quality. Essentially, the album is a movie soundtrack, never aspiring to anything more, and it wasn't even as if Bob had any incentive to write a lot of music for the movie — the first impression is that of a quick toss-off, with neither the acting part nor the writing part helping to make the man feel happy or satisfied.
That said, even a proverbial «toss-off» like that from Dylan still in his prime (or, more accurately speaking, on the threshold of his «Silver Age») may contain its fair share of gold nuggets. For one thing, the backing band assembled for the sessions was a mega-nugget on its own: Roger McGuinn and old pal Bruce Langhorne on guitars, Booker T. Jones on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, fiddler-extraordinaire Byron Berline, and brass/woodwinds-pro Gary Foster — Dylan's usual knack for getting varied, but amazingly well compatible teams working again. The combination is so perfectly set that even the six-minute repetitive acoustic jam of ʽTitle Themeʼ is ultimately quite addictive — they just repeat the same instrumental folk-blues verse over and over and over, but with enough nuances to keep it interesting (and when you are tired of savoring the acoustic guitars, turn your attention to Booker T.'s bass parts: the man is actually being quite funky in places).
ʽCantina Themeʼ, ʽBunkhouse Themeʼ, and ʽRiver Themeʼ all seem to be centered on the general atmosphere of the dreamy, relaxed laziness in a hot New Mexican framework — their slow tempos and somewhat rambling guitar arrangements also diminish the album's initial impact, but with time, the laziness acquires its properly mystical character, a sort of «desert Taoism» that only the best directors of Westerns could capture — and only the best soundtrack composers. The ninety seconds of ʽRiver Themeʼ are especially captivating. Monotonous, yes, but so is the river.
The real «meat» of the soundtrack, I think, begins with ʽTurkey Chaseʼ and covers the next two songs as well. ʽTurkey Chaseʼ may have begun life as a realistic accompaniment to an actual turkey chase (fast tempo, aggressive style of playing, and the banjo does a good job of impersonating an actual turkey), but the frantic fiddle part from Byron Berline makes it more like a life-and-death chase (well, I guess it was, from the turkey's point of view), being, simply put, one of the most stunning country fiddle melodies I've ever heard in my life — seeing as how we are normally accustomed to «friendly» or «funny» fiddle melodies in the genre, this one, by contrast, is a deeply tragic impersonation of a restless hunted soul, forced on the run for eternity. Possibly the greatest musical ode to a turkey ever written — never mind that the word «turkey» by itself produces a funny effect, just have a listen for yourself.
Still, Berline's three minutes of glory on the album are easily outperformed by Gary Foster on ʽFinal Themeʼ — here featuring what is probably my favorite recorder part in all popular music. ʽFinal Themeʼ builds on the base chord sequence of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ — for the first thirty seconds, it seems as if this is simply going to be an instrumental version, but from the moment Gary's recorder part comes in, it fully compels the listener's attention, and not just the listener's: drummer Jim Keltner, for instance, seems totally hooked on the playing, following Foster's melody in all of its rises and falls, and so do the gospel-styled backing vocals. Little surprise about that: it uses a bare minimum of tone changes to cover the entire palette of human emotions — every several bars, the mood goes from sadness / depression / tragedy to joy / relaxation / redemption, before, finally, the instrument gets stuck in a small coda loop of ultimate pacification and coming to terms with the world. Further words just fail me.
In the middle of this great battle between the master fiddler, who gets the silver, and the master woodwinder, who gets the gold, sits ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ, the first and unquestionably the best of Dylan's intrusions into the field of gospel music. Later recast by Clapton as a reggae number, with Bob picking up on the rearrangement and generally performing it that way in concert, it is still at its most impressive here, backed with all the proper, somber "ooh-oohs", funereal organs, and a slow, steady beat, rather than the reggae pulse that cannot help but transform the song into a dance number — which it probably shouldn't be. (Actually, I think one reason why Bob eventually switched to the reggae version was that he might have found the original too heavy and serious for his cliché-free image). But it should also be noted that, for all of its subsequent fame, the song works particularly well in the context of the original movie — this is when you really get to feel this somberness and heaviness as almost physical heaviness, pressing down on the protagonist: the "mama, put my guns in the ground / I can't shoot them anymore" bit is central to the general idea of Pat Garrett, and the song is not so much a generic anti-war / anti-violence song as a personal complaint against the wearisome side effects that complete freedom from everything, including law and morale, brings on to people.
So, as you can see, there is not one single reason on Earth to sidestep Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid while exploring the different faces of Bob Dylan. It may be debated to what extent the instrumental numbers are really «Dylan» (although, formally, he is credited as the only songwriter), but we should remember that «Dylan music» was never limited to «Dylan songwriting» and «Dylan singing» — time and time over again, it was also about getting all the right people in the right place at the right time, getting them in the right mood to produce great music, and knowing when to start, when to stop, and what to select for the final take. And from that point of view, this soundtrack is as quintessentially «Dylan» as everything else — and its thumbs up here means «even if this is to be your last Dylan acquisition, there is no reason why it should be the least».
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