There’s a moment during the climax of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 ultra-violent Western The Wild Bunch that is a direct connection to Bob Dylan’s song “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” off of his 1978 album Street-Legal. In the film, the outlaw gang, who serve as the plot’s anti-protagonists, are engaged in the biggest, bloodiest shootout depicted on film to date after murdering the general at the head of an army. In the middle of shootout, William Holden’s character Pike Bishop flips over a table for cover and is joined by Dutch Engstrom played by Ernest Borgnine. They pause, lock eyes, and, in doing so, silently acknowledge to each other that they know this is truly the end. Then Pike yells at Dutch, “C’mon, ya lazy bastard,” and they resume their fight against an entire army. The moment can be found at mark 2:50 of the following clip (Warning, this clip, like the rest of the movie, contains graphic violence):
The fatalism in the look they share matches the sense of doom engrained in the entire film. A character even says at the end, “It ain’t like it used to be.” The cynical nature of The Wild Bunch makes it a true Acid Western, a film subgenre defined by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in his review of the 1995 Western Dead Man. In his extensive writing about that film, Rosenbaum says that it conjures “up a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.” As established previously on Recliner Notes, the Acid Western can be used as a designation for songs in addition to films. Dylan’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is peak Acid Western:
When Dylan toured the world after the release of Street-Legal in 1978, he played “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” throughout the tour. He provided a long introduction of the song at each concert. As the tour progressed, he continued building on the story of the origins of “Señor,” culminating in the following intro as told on November 28, 1978 in Jackson, Mississippi:
“I was traveling on a train one time to Mexico from ahh, deep in the heart of Chihuahua. Anyway I fell asleep for a while and woke up and it was evening. And this family with about twelve or fifteen kids were getting off the train. And I was kind of sitting there in a daze. I wasn’t nodding off, in the window it was like a mirror. So I was watching it all happen through the window. And…saw an old man get on the train and walk up the aisle and take a seat next to me across the other side of the aisle. This old man he looked to be about 150 years old, he’s wearing a blanket. So when I turned to look at him I could see he was looking at me, and both his eyes were burning. Smoke was coming out of his nostrils. I turned around quickly and looked back into the mirror. I figured that this was the man I wanted to talk to. I couldn’t think of anything to say though.”
“‘Señor’ was one of them border type things…Nuevo Laredo, Rio Bravo, Brownsville, Juarez. I don’t know–ya know, sort of like lost yankee on gloomy Sunday-carnival embassy type of thing, the unforgettable wench, not a friend in the world, all messed up for something like, say, a murder charge, having to pay for sins that you didn’t commit when all the while you were getting away with murder…so it all evens out in the end…sometimes you’ll write something because you’ve lived something and you someplace along the line say to yourself, ‘Why am I writing this? It will never be as good as I lived it.’ But then it sometimes turns out better than what you’ve lived…it’s bigger and less trashy. In some kind of way I see this as the aftermath of when two people who were leaning on each other because neither one of them has the guts to stand up alone, all of a sudden they break apart…I think I felt that way when I wrote it.”
The description of the song that Dylan provides in this quotation sounds like the plot of a movie. The cinematic feel of “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” makes it a companion piece to “Romance in Durango” and “Isis,” two more Acid Westerns. In fact “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” could be the last part of a trilogy with those two songs as the first two installments. In the Bob Dylan multiverse, “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” could have been recorded with the same band that recorded the other two Acid Westerns for 1976’s album Desire, featuring Scarlet Rivera and her indomitable gypsy violin to the song.
In its recorded form for Street-Legal, the band establishes the doom-laden feel immediately in the musical introduction. Guitars and percussion start the song with a saxophone playing a seductive little fanfare conjuring up an image of a dusty, hot setting. Then a drum is hit and Dylan begins singing, establishing the enduring mysterious melody of the song:
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
The narrator is establishing the scenario immediately. His only companion is the unnamed “Señor” — possibly a man who looks 150 years old with eyes burning and smoke coming out of his nostrils — and the choices for their destination are limited to either Lincoln County Road or the worst possible ending to the world. It’s here in these opening lines, Dylan is capturing the look shared between Pike and Dutch in The Wild Bunch.
The first two verses of “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” are comprised of a series of questions posed from the narrator to Señor:
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
Señor, señor, do you know where she is hidin’?
How long are we gonna be ridin’?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there, señor?
These are rhetorical questions as we don’t hear Señor’s responses. When the narrator asks, “Is there any truth in that, Señor?,” there’s a sense that the narrator’s desperation is so complete that he is giving up his power. He is reliant on Señor and he no longer has any agency to the point that he can’t access his own memory.
In the first of two bridges that follows, Dylan drops the rhetorical question device:
There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hangin’ down from around her neck
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “Forget me not.”
This bridge contains a curious combination of past and present. The first and third lines offer glimpses of what is currently happening to the narrator, especially a powerful, movie-like image of a “marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot.” On the other hand, a woman is referenced in the second and fourth lines of the bridge. In the second line, the narrator uses the word “still” as if she is in the same location as the narrator and Señor. Yet the last line of the bridge appears to be a memory of a previous occasion he was in the same vacant lot with a woman. Is the narrator talking about the same woman in both instances? If so, is she in the room with the narrator and Señor? Now the listener is the one filled with rhetorical questions, unanswered by the narrator or Señor.
The next verse includes the following couplet:
Señor, señor, I can see that painted wagon
I can smell the tail of the dragon.
The first line could be an allusion to another Western from 1969, Paint Your Wagon, starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg. It was adapted for the screen from a popular stage musical by Paddy Chayefsky. Apparently, Lee Marvin turned down the opportunity to star in The Wild Bunch for the chance to be in Paint Your Wagon. It’s worth noting that Dylan himself acted in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a few years after both The Wild Bunch and Paint Your Wagon. At the time of composing “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” in 1978, Dylan had a direct connection to these films through working with Peckinpah only a few years earlier.
The second line of the couplet is fascinating in that the narrator says that he “can smell the tail of the dragon.” This could be referencing the phrase “chasing the dragon,” which, according to Wikipedia, is a slang expression “of Cantonese origin from Hong Kong referring to inhaling the vapor from a heated solution of morphine, heroin, oxycodone, opium, or ya ba (a pill containing caffeine and methamphetamine). The ‘chasing’ occurs as the user gingerly keeps the liquid moving in order to keep it from overheating and burning up too quickly, on a heat conducting material such as aluminum foil. The moving smoke is chased after with a tube through which the user inhales.” The phrase also applies to the “elusive pursuit of a high equal to the user’s first in the use of a drug, which after acclimation is no longer achievable.”
There are a few interpretations of the use of this phrase by Dylan. It could be an indication of the cause of the desperate situation of the narrator and Señor as maybe there was a drug deal gone bad and the narrator can literally smell the drugs in question due to a spill or a fire. Or perhaps, the hopelessness of the scene triggers a former addiction of the narrator; it kicks in his yearning, his need for “the dragon.” It is the only refuge imaginable for the narrator in these extreme circumstances.
The second bridge adds more mystery to the song:
Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.”
The images are flying by fast for the narrator, a jostling in which more memories are mixed with the present reality, causing more displacement for the listener. Somehow there is a gypsy on the scene, or perhaps the gypsy is in the narrator’s memory; the status is unclear from the lyrics. The gypsy says to the narrator that “this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.” This statement hints to the previously mentioned Dylan song “Isis” in which the main character joins up on a treasure hunt. Eventually the main character of “Isis” realizes that the expedition was a foolhardy scheme and that to have gone along with it he “must-a been mad.” The gypsy seems to be saying the same thing to the narrator of “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power): it’s time to wake up to the reality of the present situation as any plans he had coming in have disappeared.
In the last verses of the song, a few lines could have been taken directly from a screenplay. For example, the narrator says to Señor:
Give me a minute, let me get it together
I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, señor.
These lines aren’t presented as quotations or descriptions as seen in the two bridges. In the composition of the song, Dylan is actually performing the scene as dialogue on the part of the narrator character. Furthermore, Dylan sings:
Señor, señor, let’s disconnect these cables
Overturn these tables.
The narrator is making suggestions to Señor about making an escape, even overturning a table as cover for gunfire, the same as Pike and Dutch in the clip included above from The Wild Bunch. As in The Wild Bunch, the ending of the movie depicted in “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” is close. Dylan the performer elevates the conclusion of the song when he sings the second-to-last line in a higher octave: “This place don’t make sense to me no more.” There’s nothing left to try and comprehend. The narrator knows that to survive, they will need to escape immediately. But Señor doesn’t respond. The last line of the song is one more question on the part of the narrator: “Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?” Why are they pausing? Why the delay? Why isn’t Señor answering? Perhaps he has died. Or, there is the possibility that Señor has merely been someone that the narrator has been talking to in his head the entire song, another instance of an unreliable narrator on Dylan’s part. There aren’t two people in the movie that is “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”; it’s only the narrator. He’s so far gone, so “stripped and kneeled,” that he is asking Señor for comfort, for aid, and for answers and nothing will ever come. The narrator is on his own.
As stated above, Dylan played “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” many times during his 1978 tour supporting Street-Legal. Subsequently, the song was not played during his first “born again” shows in 1979, but began making appearances in 1980 as did other secular material from Dylan’s back catalog. A rendition of “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” from the rehearsals of the 1980 shows was included on 2021’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980–1985. Dylan’s singing is quiet and considerate throughout the rehearsal. He makes two notable lyric changes to the song. He includes the line, “Ain’t slept in three days, maybe more,” which only adds to the wired intensity on the part of the narrator of the song. Even more interesting, Dylan substitutes “iron chain” for “iron cross” in the first bridge. Perhaps Dylan wants to imply that the woman cited in the bridge is imprisoned in some way, incapacitated due to the iron chain around her neck. Or maybe Dylan does not want to sully his gospel material with such a debased situation as imagined in “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” thus stripping any reference to his faith in this secular song.
There are many cover versions of “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” and all are notable in different ways. There is something about the song that attracts performers to it. The first to consider is by Willie Nelson, who is backed by Calexico and as they did with other artists for the I’m Not There soundtrack:
This is an inspired pairing as Willie brings the correct amount of gravitas to inhabit this particular character. Additionally, Calexico’s entire body of work to this point makes them the ideal band to create a world for “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).” Two Spanish guitars and a pedal steel guitar open the song along with John Convertino’s always expressive drumming. Willie sings the song with his unique idiosyncratic delivery, always playing with the natural meter of the lines. Horns join in, and, my God, these horns are beautiful and exactly what this song has always needed. Willie plays a solo on his guitar named “Trigger,” and it sounds as though he’s played a variation of this solo throughout his entire career. The last verse is sung in Spanish by a different singer, the natural extension of what “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” could be. Everything about this performance summons images of a hot, dusty, Mexican village square with a church steeple overhead. This performance by the union of Willie Nelson and Calexico insists the question: why didn’t they record an entire album together?
The song is an ideal platform for Garcia’s spidery guitar runs and singular guitar tone. He brings the correct ominous vibe to the song in both his guitar playing and ragged, weary singing, fully inhabiting the narrator’s voice. Also notable is the keyboards by Melvin Seals, which have an oozing, liquid-y feel. It seems as though Garcia and the entire band could play this song eternally and be forever content.
As the recording begins, we hear something fall down, and Billy sighs before he starts singing the song, inverting the timing of the chords slightly. Billy performs the song without a band, simply him and a guitar. It lends a lonesome bard aspect to the song. Whereas the Dylan version feels as though the events are occurring at the same time as the listener hears the song, as if Dylan is inside the movie itself. Billy seems to be reporting on events that have already occurred. In this performance, he is the troubadour saying, “I have a story to tell you.”
As Billy sings the line, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more it’s the real thing,” he overdubs a vocal, doubling himself while singing a harmony part. He does the same for the “hearts here as hard as leather” line as well. This technique undercuts the bardic aspect of the performance, pushing the song into a dreamier, psychedelic place. The otherworldly feel of the self-harmony is reminiscent of Neil Young’s unparalleled mid-1970’s work, in which he often overdubbed his own wobbly harmony parts. A shining example is the prototypical Acid Western, “The Old Homestead,” which Neil recorded in December 1974 and later released on the 1980 album Hawks & Doves:
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on their 2020 collection of covers and traditional tunes called All the Good Times (Are Past & Gone):
The pair always bring their distinctive sound to covers, and this performance is no different. Rawlings sings the lead vocal part, but the song elevates when Welch joins him with her characteristic harmony vocals beginning with the line “Iron cross still hanging down from around her neck.” Those harmony moments are the best part of the rendition, along with Rawlings’ captivating guitar solo and guitar work during the last verse.
All of these covers present different “tales of Yankee power,” but it is Dylan’s original version that best captures the feel of an American in an intense and hopeless situation in Mexico. The song is a tale of Yankee power, but it describes the exact moment when the American narrator realizes that he has lost his leverage and influence. His power is gone, and he is utterly alone and reliant on no one but himself.
Image: Underwood & Underwood, Publisher. Old cathedral from the ancient village cross, Cuernavaca, a famous resort of Mexico. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2020638812/.