Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a soundtrack album for a film I haven’t seen. But I know it’s a western, and to judge by the wealth of instrumentals on this album, it must contain a slew of long desert pans, gunslingers riding horseback, and Native Americans playing pan flutes. The main title theme features some slowly strummed and sweetly picked guitars along with an insistent tambourine like the jangling spur on a cowboy’s boot heel. Knowing the theme works in service to a film, I can’t help but spin potential plot lines and cinematic views as I listen.
The chords of the main theme reappear three times: Billy 1, Billy 4, and Billy 7. The choice to include all three versions, and the differences between them, could constitute it’s own research project. And within all three versions, Dylan hints at what Billy faces in the film. There’s outlaws and gunmen chasing him down, maybe over some past transgression about murdering a prostitute. Lawman Pat Garrett picks up the trail while a new “sweet seniorita” appears: “Into her dark alley she will lead ya’ / In some lonesome shadows she will greet ya’.” What interests me here is the rhyme on the second-to-last syllable (a rhyme style recurring in the song’s dozen or so verses), before concluding, “Billy you’re so far away from home.” Consciously or not, Dylan has modeled how removed Billy is from full closure, from neat conclusions.
The most emphatic line of the “Billy” songs details the character’s paranoia now that Pat Garrett’s on his trail. “Every little sound just might be thunder,” Dylan sings, “Thunder from the barrel of his gun”. The repeated “thunder” invests the word with a double-barrel emphasis. What’s more, the final line is in iambic pentameter, except for the dropped first, unstressed syllable (don’t worry, this won’t be on the exam), creating an explosive lead-in to the line. This is the kind of songsmithing that creates undeniable power and influence because the effects are so understated and subtle.
The album has a few other tracks, like “Turkey Chase,” a tune with a banjo and fiddle, striking up a bluegrass jam fit for any mountain folk festival. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is here too, a song so simple, so prone to amateurs profoundly butchering it through the years that its well-performed presence on this album was deeply refreshing.
Do I get this album? As well as one can a film score. Do I need the previous albums to get it? In this case, the film would actually lend better context than the albums before. Do I like it? At first glance, I was kinda meh on it. But the deeper I dig in, the more I’m like, yeah, it’s pretty good.