“confound much of our mythology about the western — reversing some of its philosophical presuppositions by associating a westward journey with death rather than rebirth, for example, and with pessimism rather than hope.”
As explored in the previous post about “Isis,” the Acid Western is a thriving – through unclassified until now – musical subgenre in addition to its designation as a film genre. In a spring 1991 interview with Blair Jackson, Jerry Garcia talked about two songs he co-wrote with Robert Hunter, specifically “Deal” and “Loser”:
“It’s sort of frontier music, I guess. It’s the frontier; where the laws are falling apart and every person is the sheriff and the outlaw. [Laughs]”
The moral ambivalence of frontier music or the Acid Western is certainly on display in Bob Dylan’s song “Romance in Durango.” Recorded for 1976’s Desire, the song is a story of two lovers on the run, south of the border. Dylan sets the location and the feel of the setting with the opening line: “Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun.” The narrator of the song goes on to say in the first verse: “Me and Magdalena on the run / I think this time we shall escape.” Dylan is telling us that these lovers have tried to break free before, but haven’t been able to. Already we know that this pair is doomed, and though the narrator has hopes of escaping, as Rosenbaum says in the quote above, we the audience are immediately pessimistic that they will find their freedom.
The desperation of the couple is further emphasized by the words sung in Spanish in the chorus. The English translation of these lines are included below:
No llores, mi querida [Don’t cry, my love]
Dios nos vigila [God is watching us]
Soon the horse will take us to Durango
Agarrame, mi vida [Hold me tight, my dear]
Soon the desert will be gone
Soon you will be dancing the fandango.
The translation of the fourth line is especially potent as mi vida is a strong endearment, “my dear,” but it literally translates as “my life.” The narrator is equating Magdalena as his only love, but also as his existence.
The desperation at the core of the song is further underlined by Emmylou Harris’s backing vocals. This anxiety may be a bit of directorial manipulation on Dylan’s part as he forced Emmylou to accompany him without her fully knowing the words or melodies that she was supposed to be singing. He would often only record a single take, making Emmylou even more despondent in subsequent recordings, knowing that she would only get one shot at the vocals.
More than 20 musicians played on the studio recording of “Romance in Durango” as Dylan was searching for a specific mariachi feel. Trumpet, violin, accordion, multiple guitars – including Eric Clapton for a quick cameo – all contributed to this sound.
Back to the narrative of the “Romance in Durango”: the tragedy of the song begins with the narrator saying, “Then I see the bloody face of Ramon” and follows that line up with two questions:
Was it me that shot him down in the cantina?
Was it my hand that held the gun?
Come, let us fly, my Magdalena
The dogs are barking and what’s done is done.
The ambivalence of the story and the morality of the lovers’ action are on full display in this verse. The narrator won’t come out and say that he shot Ramon in the cantina with his own gun. He asks Magdalena, perhaps because he is full of strong drink and strong love, or maybe that he can’t admit it to himself. Regardless of the inconclusive nature of Ramon’s death, the narrator hears the dogs barking, alerting him to a threat and accepts his fate by saying, “What’s done is done.”
The lovers on the run seem to meet their destiny in the final verses:
Was that the thunder that I heard?
My head is vibrating, I feel a sharp pain
Come sit by me, don’t say a word
Oh, can it be that I am slain?
Quick, Magdalena, take my gun
Look up in the hills, that flash of light
Aim well my little one
We may not make it through the night.
The narrator is seemingly hearing thunder in his disorientation, which connects to “Billy 4,” another Dylan song explored on Recliner Notes. Dylan sings in that song – another Acid Western – “Every little sound just might be thunder / Thunder from the barrel of his gun.” This threat of a particular kind of thunder leads to a standoff for the couple in “Romance in Durango” as the narrator sees a “flash of light” and urges Magdalena to “aim well.” The outcome of the couple, though, remains uncertain as the narrator’s last words are: “We may not make it through the night.” After that line, Dylan sings another rousing chorus without ever telling us their fate. Because of the fatalistic nature of Acid Westerns, Dylan doesn’t need to spell out what happens to the couple. We already know.
Like much of Desire, “Romance in Durango” was co-written with Jacques Levy, though Dylan had spent a considerable amount of time in Durango a few years before the song’s composition as the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was shot there. The film itself is an Acid Western, and Recliner Notes has discussed the film and Dylan’s participation as an actor and his soundtrack work here and here.
Experiencing the making of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid must have intrigued Dylan because he would go on to direct and co-write the movie Renaldo and Clara during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour immediately after recording “Romance in Durango” and the other songs that make up Desire. As Dylan told Cameron Crowe in 1985 for the Biograph liner notes:
“That tour [the Rolling Thunder Revue] was always intended to be a movie. It always existed on more than one level. That’s why the costumes, all the make-up, something to make it a little more different to put in a time setting, of which the movie would seem to revolve around.”
Though he emphasizes the tour and the movie as being intertwined, Dylan must have had the idea for the movie earlier as many of the songs on Desire are cinematic. The stories presented in the songs “Romance in Durango,” “Isis,” and “Hurricane” all feel like movies ready to be adapted and filmed.
Like “Isis,” “Romance in Durango” became a featured performance during the Rolling Thunder Revue and subsequently highlighted in Renaldo and Clara:
Dylan’s live performance of “Romance in Durango” is manic, fitting the wired intensity of the lovers on the run in their last days as described in the song. This is especially seen in the treatment of the chorus of the song which is in double time, faster than what we heard in the studio version. Scarlet Rivera shines with her violin. Mick Ronson summons the sound of thunder to echo the line Dylan sings. Unlike the studio recording which ends with the chorus, Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue band choose to end the song with the line: “We may not make it through the night.” They give the line a celebratory reading, sending the lovers and the audience on their way with a rousing flourish.
The image used for this post was made by artist Nathanael Roney specifically referencing Dylan’s “Romance in Durango.” It depicts the lovers on the run at their final stand against horsemen in the distance in the mountains. The colors are exactly the right choice for “Romance in Durango.” The scrolled framing of the image gives the old-timey, yet out-of-time feel of an Acid Western. Many thanks to Nathanael for use of this enduring image to accompany this post on Recliner Notes.
Image by Nathanael Roney