Released in 1973, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was a Western directed by Sam Peckinpaugh. Dylan’s involvement in the film apparently started when he ran into novelist and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, who told Dylan that he was writing a screenplay about the relationship between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Hearing about the project and knowing about Peckinpaugh’s revisionist/ultra-violent The Wild Bunch, Dylan was inspired to write an ode to Billy the Kid. Wurlitzer thought so much of the song that he knew he had to involve Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
Kris Kristofferson played Billy, and Pat was played by James Coburn. Both of them, like Wurlitzer, were excited about having Dylan involved, and when they approached Peckinpaugh about it, he had no idea who Dylan was. As quoted in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray, Coburn tells the story about bringing Dylan to meet Peckinpaugh:
“So the night we were over at Sam’s house, and we were all drinking tequila and carrying on and halfway through dinner, Sam says, ‘Okay kid, let’s see what you got. You bring your guitar with you?’ They went in this little alcove. Sam had a rocking chair. Bobby sat down on a stool in front of this rocking chair. There was just the two of them in there. And Bobby played three or four tunes. And Sam came out with his handkerchief in his eye. ‘Goddamn kid! Who the hell is he? Who is that kid? Sign him up!’”
It’s like the old movies about a young sensation getting their big break. In this case, it’s Bob Dylan, who, at this point, had released 13 albums, lived 20 different lives, and was, to many, the so-called “voice of a generation.” But this was Dylan’s big break, for the movies anyway. Wurlitzer wrote a small part for Dylan. He plays Alias, who joins Billy’s gang in Billy’s last days. Dylan is twitchy and jumpy throughout and is not an onscreen natural. Alias is written in such a way that Billy has an instant connection to him, as if Billy knows all about Alias without having to hear his history. Billy knows Alias as if any of us were to be introduced to Bob Dylan in real life. In a sense, Dylan is playing a form of Bob Dylan in the world of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. (There are a few fun Dylan moments in the film, the standout being that we get to see Dylan briefly throw a lasso from a horse, catching a turkey during the turkey chase scene. You need to live long enough and allow yourself to watch Bob Dylan throw a lasso.)
Dylan composed the soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which included several instrumentals. Besides “Billy,” the only other song with lyrics composed for the film is “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The soundtrack includes three different versions of “Billy” at various tempos, instrumental accompaniment, and vocal octaves. The standout version is “Billy 4.” Listening to it, you can see why Peckinpaugh was enraptured by Dylan and the song as it captures the feeling of Billy the Kid in his last days, the paranoia of being hunted by his former friend Pat Garrett. The verse that captures this beautifully is the second to last:
They say that Pat Garrett’s got your number
So sleep with one eye open, when you wander
Every little sound just might be thunder
Thunder from the barrel of his gun.
We know that Dylan loved the story of Billy the Kid. After all, he was a boy in the 1940s and 50s, the days when westerns were played over and over again in the movie theaters. When television came along, popular shows included “The Lone Ranger” and, of course, “Gunsmoke,” featuring the character Marshall Matt Dillon. Does that last name look familiar? Dylan knows these legends of the West as well as anyone. Cowboy songs and ballads are baked into Dylan’s musical sensibility. That’s why the melody of “Billy 4” has an atavistic quality; both Dylan and us as listeners know this song inherently as soon as he starts playing and singing. Dylan returns to the sound of the U.S.-Mexico border towns again and again beyond the soundtrack of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid as we will see in songs such as “Brownsville Girl,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).”
The film, unlike other Billy the Kid stories, depicts both Billy and Pat’s perspectives. There is no question about Pat’s knowledge of his responsibility to kill his former friend. As the film progresses, this responsibility weighs him down to the point that Billy seems like a supporting character in the story. It’s almost Pat’s movie. Pat is even named first in the title. Knowing that the film is the story of both men, Dylan composes a song from only Billy’s point of view, not Pat’s. Dylan doesn’t take up Pat’s story. Dylan made his artistic choice that his way into the story was through Billy the Kid. The loneliness and paranoia of Billy the Kids is what resonates with Dylan. ”Billy, you’re so far away from home.”
Gillian Welch performs a gorgeous rendition of “Billy” which is included in the playlist below along with two other versions of “Billy” that Dylan included on the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack.
Illustration above: Ben Wittick (1845–1903), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons