Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Sunday, 3 May 2015

12. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)

His first release in almost three years (save for a couple of singles and a Greatest Hits), this soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's 1973 western, although not a 'proper' Dylan album, feels like a breath of fresh air after the disappointing New Morning and the patchy though enjoyable Self Portrait.  It also provided my first quality control quibble with this box set, as whoever was in charge of the metadata messed it right up by adding two unnamed tracks, omitting two others and scrambling the rest.  A minor complaint, but irritating.

It begins with the instrumental Main Title Theme (Billy), which includes Booker T Jones on bass and welcomes back Bruce Langhorne, who contributes some lovely, winding guitar to accompany Bob's strumming.  The tambourine is shaken like sleigh bells and provides a feeling of forward motion as well as conjuring up an image of jingling spurs.  It's a pleasant introduction, although it could have been cut down a bit for the album as it's quite repetitive over the six-minute running time.  There are three more 'Billys' over the course of the album; all variations on the same song.  I'm not sure how many versions were recorded in all, but I noticed a couple more during the film.  Billy 1 is the most soothing and also sounds the more 'Western' thanks to Booker T's ambling cowboy bass. Billy 4 is my favourite, probably because it sounds most like Bob of old.  The same tragic tale has a more desperate sound and a real sense of inevitability, and this version is used several times throughout the movie.

He sings in a deeper voice on the much darker Billy 7 which ends the album.  The line "Sleep with one eye open when you slumber" is a redundancy that grates a little (this is altered to "..when you wander" in Billy 4, which is little better as it suggests that Billy the Kid was a sleepwalker).  Jim Keltner's sparse drums contribute effectively to the sense of hopelessness, as does Roger McGuinn's gentle twang.

Oh yes, did I mention Roger McGuinn is on here?  Bob played harmonica on his solo debut the same year, on opening song I'm So Restless which has a verse about "Mr. D" and his simple country domesticity.  McGuinn is unable to lift the repetitive Cantina Theme out of the doldrums; there's not much at all going on during this short track (where in the film Garrett issues his threat/promise), although Russ Kunkel's bongos are a pleasant listen.  Bunkhouse Theme is also a short affair, with Carol Hunter's 12-string blending beautifully with Dylan's playing.  It doesn't appear in either of the cuts I've seen (the 2005 Special Edition and the longer, Peckinpah-faithful 1988 Turner Preview Version), which is a shame, as it's gorgeous.

Turkey Chase soundtracks just that in the film: Billy and Alias (played by Dylan) capering about on horseback trying to catch wild turkeys.  It's a fun bluegrass number with the talented Byron Berline on fiddle, and someone named Jolly Roger playing banjo, who I assume is Roger McGuinn messing with us (he actually wrote a sea shanty called Jolly Roger for his 1976 LP Cardiff Rose).

The ten-gallon hat atop the album is of course the single Knockin' On Heaven's Door, written after Bob had seen the rushes for the scene where old Sheriff Baker dies before the tear-filled eyes of his wife.  A heavenly choir of backing singers accompany Bob's gentle vocal; one that's yet to be bettered in any of the (often overblown) cover versions that I've heard over the years.  It's tender, beautiful and surprisingly short, and is echoed in the even more modest River Theme where acoustic guitar, bass and soft moans supply a simple soundtrack for the minor scene at the riverside.

Final Theme is also an extension of KOHD, its spectral bvs, flute, recorder, cello and harmonium joining the guitar to produce the most moving piece of music on the whole soundtrack.  Although it's only used in tiny, cut-up chunks during the film, on the record it comes straight after KOHD, suggesting to me the poor old Sheriff, already at peace, ascending to heaven and looking forward to getting through that door.

I really liked this album.  My fear was that outside of the film, like many soundtracks, it would be a rather bland experience (and indeed it seemed so at first), but after a few listens the similarities between the tracks - even between the various Billys - disintegrated.  For a first-timer, Dylan did the job of scoring the film very well; it's thoughtfully done and avoids the mistake of reflecting the writer rather than the story.  It's a worthy inclusion to the BobBox, and I'd say certainly not just for Dylan completists.

Agree?  Disagree?  Couldn't give half a hoot?  Leave your comments below. (I've now altered the settings, so no need to sign up to Blogger or Google+ first.)

*****BobBox price check***** - £143.32 (free postage)
Discogs - from £110.98
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 03/05/2015

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