The 1973 Sam Peckinpah western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of those films that is more famous for its soundtrack album than for the movie itself. That’s a shame, but I must admit I was among the legion of folks disappointed by the film, which, coming on the heels of the Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and The Getaway, never quite took off; it felt weirdly undeveloped, and some of the acting was sub-par. What we didn’t know at the time was that the film had effectively been taken out of Peckinpah’s hands and eviscerated to the point that he all but disavowed the released version. It would be a number of years before a “director’s cut” would come out. Now, that film is regarded in some circles as a classic. I really should give it another try.
The allure of the soundtrack album was that it was by Bob Dylan, who also appeared in the film as an inscrutable character named Alias. But that album was disappointing, too, offering just two real “songs,” along with some middlin’ acoustic instrumentals with a Western/Mexican feeling (like the film itself). However, one of those two songs became a true Dylan classic: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,'” which, if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t particularly dig at the time, but came to love when I started hearing a parade of other artists perform it over the years. I liked the other song, “Billy,” much better, though I was puzzled why there were four different versions of it on the soundtrack album. I wasn’t hip enough in that era to understand that Dylan’s MO from the mid-’60s on was to record most of his songs at different tempos, sometimes completely different styles, and that was part of what made him cool. Anyway, “Billy” had a real magic to it; it’s mood and approach suited the film and it was a good listen in its multiple album incarnations. The evocative acoustic picking on the main version was by the wonderful studio player Bruce Langhorne, who is no doubt familiar to many of you. And as we would learn a couple of years later, the overall Mexican vibe of the album foreshadowed some of the stylistic territory Dylan would get into on his great 1976 album Desire.
This week’s Throwback vid is my favorite cover version of “Billy,” by Gillian Welch and duo partner David Rawlings, from a November 2001 live performance in North Carolina, shot in black and white by photographer Mark Seliger, and included on a DVD release called The Revelator Collection. They play it slower than the main Dylan version on the soundtrack; theirs is more akin to what is labeled as “Billy 7” on the Dylan album. But Welch really digs into the lyrics with tremendous feeling, and Rawlings, as always, comes up with the perfect guitar fills and solos. It creates its own world, full of beauty, desperation, and sadness. —Blair Jackson