Goin’ to Acapulco

My ideal response to a song after listening is that I want to have the urge to inhabit the world of the song. Sometimes this inhabitation means living inside the world as created literally by the lyrics being sung, or to go on the same adventure or share the same experiences as depicted by the lyrics. Other times it’s not necessarily a literal response to the lyrics but rather the combination of the music and a short phrase from the lyrics. “Goin’ to Acapulco” is an example of the second response.

“Goin’ to Acapulco” is a cut off of The Basement Tapes. As I discussed in the “Crash on the Levee” post, there are three types of Basement Tapes songs, and “Goin’ to Acapulco” falls into the third category: demos prepared for other artists to perform. The respect and thought that Bob Dylan and The Band put into the arrangement of the song is obvious. Dylan’s rhythm guitar dominates the opening, but Garth Hudson’s organ soon overwhelms the song. The vocals by Dylan and company are an invitation to move into the world of the song. Dylan sings so beautifully with care and passion throughout; it is truly one of Dylan’s greatest vocal performances. When we reach the chorus, members of The Band join Dylan to sing the title phrase and move on to sing the next line: “going on the run.” Immediately after the word “run” the chord drops a full step. This chord change creates an instant and dramatic pull for the listener. Now, instead of an invitation to the world of the song, the performers have you in the gravitational pull of this world. The chorus continues with everyone singing “Going down to see soft gut, going to have some fun.” Then the instruments stop and everyone joins to sing:


They hold the notes as long as they can with Robbie Robertson inserting a gorgeous little guitar lick before the rest of the instruments come back in, and Dylan assures us that he is going to Acapulco “to have some fun.”

The song ends with a tender, yearning guitar solo by Robertson as the song fades out. While the solo is short, it’s one Robertson’s best, and it’s a way of saying goodbye to the listener. Thanks for stopping by and seeing us!

Everything about the song is so tender from the vocals to the instrumentation, yet it also has a sense of desperation. It was years of listening to the song and wanting to be inside of it before I actually realized that the lyrics seem to be about repeated visits to a brothel in Mexico. The song includes some of Dylan’s most suggestive lyrics that completely passed me by. Examples include: “Oh, I can pull my plum, and drink my rum / And then go on home and have my fun” as well as:

Well, every time you know when the well breaks down
I just go pump on it some
Rose Marie, she likes to go to big places
And just set there waitin’ for me to come

Oh Bob, behave! It was because of the sound of the song, the instrumentation, and the incredible lead and harmony vocals, which completely blocked me as a listener to what was actually being described. 

For a while, I was embarrassed by this obvious mistake. It’s hard to be confused by the intent of the lyrics. But still the sense of wanting to live inside the song was strong for me. I didn’t want to live in a brothel in Mexico, but to be a part of the sound of the song. I realized that I wasn’t alone in taking different meanings of this particular song outside of the literal lyrical content when I saw Todd Haynes 2007 film I’m Not There.

In the film, six different actors play aspects of Bob Dylan, or what Todd Haynes sees Bob Dylan as representing. One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs with Richard Gere, who plays a character named Billy McCarty and yet is also recognized by other characters in the film as Billy the Kid (a historical figure well known to Dylan from a different film). McCarty is living in hiding in a town called Riddle. The town is outside of time as anachronistic objects and clothing mix with 21st century features and are reflected in the looks and kinds of people in Riddle. In the key scene in the Billy McCarty/Billy the Kid sequence, McCarty notices everyone is gathering in the center of town:

McCarty sees an ostrich among those who are assembling; a man has the American flag painted on his face; a giraffe is glimpsed on the outskirts of town; and a woman screams as a man runs out into the woods. All of these images and actions tell the film audience – without dialogue – that this is a moment of great significance and import for the people of Riddle. They are flocking together at the town’s gazebo for a funeral. A singer starts to sing “Goin’ to Acapulco” accompanied by a marching band. He is dressed in a kind of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band coat and wearing whiteface (an obvious allusion to Dylan’s whiteface during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour). The sound of this performance of “Goin’ to Acapulco” has an elegiac feel, a sendoff. The singer holds his fingers together in a nervous fashion; it’s a halting gesture despite the power of the vocal performance, which McCarty and the other townspeople can’t escape. The characters in the film are also drawn into the song.

Haynes creates an opportunity for the film  audience to inhabit the song “Goin’ to Acapulco” in I’m Not There by not showing a literal depiction of the lyrics. Jim James & Calexico’s performance transcends that didactic reading of the song. Through this performance, we see that Riddle is Haynes’s manifestation of the world of The Basement Tapes, a town of castoffs or the Island of Misfit Toys. It is persisting on the outskirts of civilization, but also deeply embedded in America. An ostrich is never mentioned in any of The Basement Tapes songs, but is not out of place in that world. The words of “Goin’ to Acapulco” is about visiting a brothel, but Haynes shows that the power of the song has the ability to capture much more.

Photo: The Ostrich. , ca. 1874. Photograph.

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