Durango, Mexico – Fifteen nervous chickens that were buried up to their necks in dirt blinked in the bright Mexican sun and looked as unhappy as it is possible for chickens to look. They were arranged in a line in the parade ground of a crumbling adobe fort at the foot of the dark Sierra Madre near Durango. Chickens aren't given much credit for intelligence, but these chickens knew that something was about to happen. They caught a glimpse of a dapper young gunfighter – Billy the Kid – and his scruffy bandits lounging 60 feet away around a stone fountain.
The outlaws interrupted their whiskey-guzzling to taunt Billy to try his trigger finger on the hapless fowl. He slowly raised his Colt .44 and squeezed off three shots:
Crack! The head of the center chicken suddenly separated from its body in a whirl of blood and feathers. Crack! The head of the next chicken exploded straight upward, spraying technicolor blood across the parched ground. Crack! Another chicken head took off in a slow, lazy arc against the Kodachrome sky before coming to rest 15 feet away. The outlaws laughed and Billy smiled. He was still Top Gun.
But before Billy and his boys could get back to their whiskey, three rifle shots shattered the silence and three more chickens became headless. Feathers were still drifting down as Billy whirled to confront Pat Garrett lowering a Winchester. "Hello, Billy," he rumbled.
"Cut!" snapped the short, gray man in a director's chair inscribed Sam Peckinpah. This was Sam Peckinpah's latest film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It marks the first time he's dealt with the Old West since The Wild Bunch, and he had James Coburn as Garrett, Kris Kristofferson as Billy and Bob Dylan – making his feature film debut – as Billy's mysterious sidekick "Alias."
Peckinpah had added the chickens scene to the script, branding the opening sequence as clearly one of his own. Rudy Wurlitzer, the novelist (Quake, Flats, Nog and the script for Two Lane Blacktop) who wrote the Billy screenplay, sidled up to a visiting writer after the chicken scene and muttered, "That's Sam for you. I only had one chicken head in my script."
There could be no mistaking this set for John Wayne's Batjac location a few dusty miles back down Mex 45 toward Durango. For one thing, the Mexican government posted a nark here who, disguised as a swarthy caballero, wandered through the fort peering nearsightedly at everyone's cigarettes. For another, there was a discernible tension in the air, a sense that something terrible might happen any minute. Peckinpah was pushing and driving his cast and crew, and the strain was evident. The picture was said to be at least two weeks behind schedule and $1 million over budget.
Wurlitzer edged close and spoke sotto voce through his beard, "Hey, something heavy may happen." He turned to see if anyone overheard, and the sun rays sparkled on his gold earring. "The word's come down from the Cobra that if Sam doesn't get a full day of shooting today, he's fired. And he's behind, man. The Cobra – Jim Aubrey himself – is after him. If Sam goes, the cast walks and there goes the movie. Heavy?"
He gave a knowing glance and moved away as Gordon Carroll, the film's producer, walked up. Carroll, who could be perfectly cast as a Hollywood executive (tall, blond, tanned, slightly harried), watched preparations for closeups of another scene. The producer smiled a tight-lipped smile as Peckinpah exploded at a bumbling extra who strayed into camera range. "Goddammit! Get outta there!"
Rita Coolidge, who played a minor role (even more minor after she refused to do a nude scene), walked by and bumped her head on an earthen jug hanging from a tree. Carroll whispered, "The French critics will write that only Peckinpah could make her look stunned and cross-eyed at the first sight of Billy."
Carroll exited and Wurlitzer appeared from somewhere in his place. He continued his role as the Greek chorus of the set: "This scene is the most important. It's got to grab the audience. Sam wants it to be flashy so the audience will be into the picture without realizing how banal it is. Sam's really an old-fashioned director that way. That's Westerns, though, all banality. This scene here, man, wasn't in my script. There's no script left."
Then it's not a Wurlitzer? "It's a Peckinpah. "
The writer, who had found Wurlitzer's original script tight and fast-paced and evocative of the legend (if not the fact) of Billy, had noticed lines and scenes being filmed daily that weren't in the script and inquired about those changes.
"Well," Wurlitzer turned his gaze inward. "Sam does the changes, mostly."
* * *
Dylan did his only scene of the day almost before anyone realized he was there. Scene 483, Take 4, found him seated on a stone wall, watching Kristofferson blasting away at cans and bottles. Dylan, responding to Peckinpah's cue, applauded by beating on a can with a stick.
The cast broke for lunch in a nearby tree-shaded courtyard of the fort, built for the Mexican army in the last century.
Dylan had taken a few bites of his steak when two young American hitchhikers, who had talked their way onto the set in hopes of getting work, sat down a table away and tried to cadge food from the cast. They began talking loudly: "What's happenin' with this movie, man? Is Dylan gonna sing or what, man? What's the story? Where is he, man?" Dylan bolted up and hurried to his camper. The two youths were banned from the set and publicist Larry Kaplan said it wasn't the first time such an incident had occurred.
"It's a complex situation," he said. "At first, you say 'Bob Dylan, the fucking legend.' And it takes a couple of weeks to get past that to the man underneath. He's really shy and withdrawn, and it's genuine. Reporters here have really spooked him. They follow him around and of course he won't talk to them, so they end up interviewing everyone else about him. It gets bad when you have reporters asking Mexican extras about Bob's kids."
After lunch, Kristofferson invited the writer to sit and sip cognac with actors Emelio Fernandez and Jorge Russek.
Kris, who had pleasantly surprised the cast with his portrayal of Billy, looked very close to what the script called for: youthful, but hard, highly charged with "erotic energy," with "very blue eyes" and "sensual lips." Russek offered him a slug of cognac, "for your throat, man."
"Thanks, you silver-tongued devil." Smacking his lips, Kristofferson turned to the writer. "Dylan was interested," he said, "interested in making movies and in Sam's stuff. I called him up and he said, um, there's a lot of heavies down there. I said, shit, you can get paid for learnin'. So he went and saw a couple of Sam's films and got really enthusiastic and decided to come down here, and he brought Sarah and the kids. He had already written the title song but he was still a little reluctant about acting. I said, hell, the only reason I got in was to learn about acting. He said, but then they got you on film. I said, shit, they got you on record anyway. Come on, we'll have a ball. I still feel guilty about sayin' that."
He laughed, shifted his weight in his canvas chair, and flipped a cigarette butt at a mud-encrusted pig that was rooting underfoot. "The first day we shot was also Bob's first day on camera. We had to be ridin' horses after these turkeys and he ropes 'em. Well, Bob hadn't ridden much and it was hairy riding, down in gullies and off through a river.
"And then we had to rope these damn turkeys. I couldn't do it but Bob did it all. I couldn't believe it. I've seen prints and he's got a presence on him like Charlie Chaplin. He's like a wild card that none of 'em knew they had. I think they just hired him for the name and all of a sudden you see him on screen and all eyes are on him. There's something about him that's magnetic. He doesn't even have to move. He's a natural"
What about his role as Alias?
Kristofferson lowered his voice as Peckinpah called for silence for rehearsal. "Well, me and Rudy just got through writing a new scene for Bob. The sense is supposed to be that times are changin' and there's a push for me to get goin'. The way the scene was, the lines were embarrassin', like 'Hey, dude, hand me that apple,' but I was past complainin'. Rudy, who had to write it, hated it, and Dylan, man, it just blew his funk. So we changed it and now we gotta show it to Sam.
"The trouble is, man, Dylan ain't had a chance to talk. His speakin' lines have been a buncha stutterin' that really pissed me off. He's called Alias, and in every fuckin' scene the sonuvabitch is put in different wardrobe and he looks entirely different and that could be why he's called Alias. And that damn stutter thing – that could be as big a defense as his change of clothing. Who knows? I thought it was supposed to be like the fool in Lear. He sees it all, he knows the whole legend and can see where it's all going. But we never relate as characters. We're always chasin' turkeys or some damn thing and don't even look at each other. But – the fucker's fantastic on film."
Assistant director Newt Arnold bellowed Kris' name for rehearsal and he stomped off, two-inch silver spurs jingling.
Peckinpah tried to get an interior scene in a bar going later in the day but it went badly. The hundred extras who lounged out of camera range kept chattering and he finally burst out of the bar, shouting and waving his arms: "Who are these fucking people? Get out, get them out! Everybody out! Move, goddammit!" The voice, like a bolt of thunder, did its job. People panicked and scattered in all directions, leaping fences, trampling each other, kicking pigs and dogs out of the way.
By late afternoon, things were worse, and it was time to ferry the press corps back to Durango. Wurlitzer, too, was preparing to leave.
"It's happening, man," Wurlitzer said. "Sam knows he's losing to Dylan. He's giving a screening of The Getaway in town tonight, but everybody wants to go to Mexico City with Dylan for his recording session because that's heavier. Sam'll be counting heads at that screening, and he also just called a 6:30 rehearsal for Monday morning because he knows we won't be back till after 8. But I don't care, man. I've got to get away from here for a while. See you at the airport."
Durango Airport at 6:30 Saturday evening was a bleak study in gray stone and gray faces. The only plane on the only strip, a dented Aero Mexico 727, was warming up its engines for takeoff and there was a handful of worried Americans in the lobby. Coburn voiced the concern as he paced, brandy in hand, before the front windows: "Is the Big D coming?"
Wurlitzer the Pessimistic wrung his hands: "Christ. If Bob decides not to come, this session'll never happen."
"Well," Coburn said, "the session is secondary to me. I just want to get out."
At the last possible moment, a car sped up and deposited a black-clad figure. Wurlitzer heaved a sigh of relief, but his smile flickered out as he found a new worry: "That plane, man. It don't look too good. What if it went down? Holly, Valens, the Big Bopper . . . think about it."
Dylan wasn't worried and got on the plane and went to sleep. A jello-faced tourist reached over him, nudging him aside, to get Coburn's autograph.
* * *
CBS Discos studios, a gray fortress out on the outskirts of Mexico City, had been alerted. A night crew was standing by for the American invasion. Dylan, Coburn and Kristofferson – followed by Rita Coolidge, Kris' band, Gordon Carroll, the film's editor and sound man and a visiting writer – swept by the security guards into an anteroom where a table sagged under the weight of food and drink.
"Sessions in Nashville ain't like this," said Kris between bites of turkey and cheese and a swig of whiskey. Dylan sat in a corner with a sandwich and a cup of vodka, while Coburn reached into the depths of his long coat and, grinning, withdrew a fat bomb of a Mexican joint. He took a puff that consumed a third of the bomb and leaned back, eyes closed, a contented man. "Adios, Bob," he waved as Dylan left for the studio.
The studio was a cavernous, floodlighted, red barn. There were two Mexican trumpet players in one corner, playing off key. "Ask them," Dylan said, a half-grin playing on his lips, "if they know 'Help Me Make It Through the Night.'"
Kristofferson: "Now goddamn it, Bobby . . . "
"Well," Dylan said, "I want to use these guys on a song."
The trumpeters were not impressive, and Kris was impatient. "It ain't gonna work. Those cats don't know what he wants. If he'd let me tell 'em . . . fuck it, I ain't gonna run this thing."
Dylan had written two vocal tracks – the title song, "Billy," and "Holly," a lament for a man gunned down by Garrett – and several instrumentals and had recorded them earlier on a cassette unit at Peckinpah's house. After two months in Durango, he was obviously ready to record them properly, and he shed his straw hat and overcoat and strode briskly about the studio in white peasant shirt, Levis, boots, and metal-rim shades, moving mikes and setting up the board.
Coburn eased into the studio with another joint and a glass of red wine. He had a permanent Panavision smile. "Bob's so glad to be free," he grinned, "that he's running in here. He's been cooped up too long."
Dylan was ready shortly after 11 PM and started with "Billy." He gave it a long, langorous strumming introduction, overlaid with a lazy harmonic roll:
"There's guns across the river, tryin' to ground you/Lawman on your trail, like to surround you/Bounty hunters are dancin' all around you/Billy, they don't like you to be so free."
Except for the Tex-Mex riffs, the effect – especially the vocal – was pre-electric Dylan, recalling the Another Side era. He was singing hard and intensely, punching out the lines, as he ran through nine four-line verses, with an extended harmonica break after the sixth.
Kristofferson and Wurlitzer both reacted as if they'd been slapped in the face. Kris, gulping whiskey, snapped, "Ask him to do it in G!" Apparently this was not the same version Dylan had recorded at Peckinpah's. Wurlitzer was beside himself with wonder: "Hey man, do you dig what he's doing? He's changed the song. He's bein' perverse, man. See, he got fucked and now he's gonna do it his way."
Dylan called the writer aside: "Should I cut that? It seems long. Maybe I should cut a verse. I think I just might. Let's have a playback." He listened briefly, then called to the control room, "Let's do it again."
The second take was astounding. Dylan again did nine verses, but he changed two of them almost completely and dropped one of the original verses, replacing it with one that was improvised.
He bore down on the last line – "Billy, you're so far away from home" – and repeated it twice and then addressed the control room: "Keep that take and add this wild track to it: Corn. Beans. Succotash. Coffee. End of take." (Dylan, in one scene of the film, is required to stand against a wall and read the labels of canned goods.)
"See, man, what he's doin'," said Wurlitzer, "he's gettin' back at Sam. Sure. I don't know, man, if he's sayin' he's gonna quit the film or what."
Dylan was extremely animated by then, sipping vodka straight and rushing to record. He threaded his way into "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and was joined a third of the way through by Kris' band: Mike Utley laying gospel organ over Sammy Creason on drums, Stephen Bruton on electric guitar, and Terry Paul on bass. They started on instrumental tracks, Dylan leading the way with a galloping rhythm, paced by Bruton's electric lead that broke into what could only be called a turkey trot.
Dylan blended lyrics from the title song into it: "Don't it make you feel so low down, to be hunted by the man who was your friend." Then he slowed it to a halt: "Okay, that's called 'Turkey No. 2.'"
Next, he loped into a chunky, accelerating rhythm, trading off licks with Utley. Both were laughing and weaving and daring and challenging each other. Dylan and Terry Paul started a hypnotic "la la" lyric that grew more manic as they stood head to head and urged each other on. They jammed for four minutes and then lurched to a stuttering finish. "Okayyy," Dylan laughed and raised his cup, "we'll call this one . . . uhm, 'Billy Surrenders' or 'Speedball.' They're the same one. Hey, we need Sam here, to say what to do."
Wurlitzer gloomily appeared: "Sam is here, man. I feel him." He looked over his shoulder.
Coburn took his wine and joined the circle in the studio that now included Kris and Rita on backup vocals. He sat before a mike to speak one of his lines, huskily: "Yeah, but I'm alive." Creason hit his drums a rifle shot, Bruton looped his staccato notes around Coburn's repeated line and Dylan and Paul angled in on one mike, like streetcorner drunks, to harmonize on another "lalaaaa" line.
Dylan was pleased with it: "What do we call that one, 'Turkey in the Straw'? Right. I got to put a lyric to that thing. Forget about the movie. Hey, Jim, this's just right for Billy coming out of Lincoln."
Coburn made a swooping motion. "Right! I can see it now, riding down through there and this music. Yeeeeaaahhh!"
Dylan unstrapped his guitar and came over to fetch a drink from a waiter, who had appeared at about 3 o'clock. Weren't there, Dylan was asked, some Doug Sahm riffs in that song?
"Oh yeah," Dylan replied. "We've learned a lot from each other. You should've been at those sessions with Doug in New York, the craziest things I've ever been in. They were the sessions to end all sessions. Oh – sometime you oughta ask the band about the times we had in Europe. Those are stories – I can't even get 'em out anymore."
Another drink and he rushed back to the microphone: "Here's another song, let's just call this 'Holly's Song.' " It was slow and gospelish, with simple lines: "Goodbye Holly, Holly goodbye. Your wife's gonna miss you, your baby's gonna cry."
Dylan, very much in command of the studio, called for his two Mexican trumpeters and showed them what he wanted for "Pecos Blues." He and Terry Paul sang "ah-ah-ahhh" lines over the tinny trumpets and a looping bass. The resulting sound suggested a Mexican whorehouse or a knock-down, pee-smelly dirt-floor bar. It was good, and Dylan nodded and smiled at the two beaming Mexicans, who had waited all night to play for two minutes.
Dylan went into the control room to hear the playback, and Coburn greeted him: "Fantastic, this is fucking fantastic. When it's matched with the film, it'll be beautiful. I hope they realize what they're getting here."
"Yeah?" Dylan looked at him.
Coburn gave him the full wide-screen Coburn treatment: "Yeah."
Dylan laughed: "Yeeahh."
Producer Carroll approached the Big D gingerly. About that song, he wondered, it seemed that it was different than it was on Sam's tape and he just wondered what key Dylan did it in.
"Same key," was the reply. Well, Carroll just thought that Sam's tape sounded richer and he wondered if Dylan would consider cutting it another way.
Dylan was edgy: "No, I can't even hear the song anymore. I guess it's what Sam wants. It's his movie. It's for the film."
Carroll persisted: "I don't understand the sense. What part of the film?" All of it, Dylan replied, all of it or none of it. He grew impatient: "You have two takes, you can have either of them."
Carroll backed down, "Want to hear them played back?"
Dylan, flatly, "I want to hear everything played back."
As Carroll turned, Dylan uttered one word: "Hollywood."
It was four in the morning, and he ordered another bourbon and sat, impassive behind his shades, as he listened to the tapes. Just after Kristofferson, Coburn and Wurlitzer left to get some sleep before watching the Super Bowl, Dylan called for a new tape to be put on. "Let's," he said, "do 'Billy' again."
For the third take, he deleted his harmonica and added bass and drums and had Paul sing harmony. He cut it back to eight verses and the sound was bouncier and flashier.
But he didn't like the take and cut it again, in G, just he and Paul singing over the guitar. He slowed it down and this version was eerie and mournful, almost dirge-like. Where earlier he had toyed with Billy, now he was pleading with him: "Billy, you're so far away from home."
He liked the take and turned to Carroll, "Right after this Garrett rides into town. Right?"
"Right," the producer said. "Right. That really is . . . unbelievable. Um. What do you think?"
"No," Dylan said. "I don't think. Usually. I don't think, I hold it all in and then . . . act! " He laughed. "I'm glad you were on the case, because I forgot all about that original."
Seven AM. The Mexican technicians were rubbing their eyes sleepily and stepping around empty glasses and cigarette butts. As the others headed for the hotel, Dylan was wide awake and ready to return to Durango.
"I'm thinking about doing a show there," he said. "I'd like to. It's just a funky little hall. Real nice audience, though. They make a lot of noise. I'm kind of anxious to do it. I mean a real audience. I'm used to those audiences in the States, and they just come and gawk at you."
He found a last drink and last cigarette before leaving. "That song," he told the writer, "Rudy needed a song for the script. I wasn't doing anything. Rudy sent the script, and I read it and liked it and we got together and he needed a title song. And then I saw The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs and Cable Hogue and liked them. The best one is Ride the High Country. Sam's really, like he's the last of a dying breed. They don't hire people like that to make movies anymore. So I wrote that song real quick and played it for Sam and he really liked it and asked me to be in the movie. I want now, to make movies. I've never been this close to movies before. I'll make a hell of a movie after this."
This story is from the March 15th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.