Dylan Meets the Durango Kid: Kristofferson and Dylan in Mexico

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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."

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