Bob Dylan was the source of pop music’s unpredictability in the Sixties. Never as big a record-seller as commonly imagined, his importance was first aesthetic and social, and then as an influence. It was from that vantage point that he accumulated unprecedented power and authority, to the point where it must have eventually threatened his peace of mind.
Janis Joplin couldn’t survive having so many people dependent on her to fulfill their fantasies; fate, in the form of a motorcycle accident, spared Dylan from the ultimate confrontation with his and our fantasies of his immortality and gave him a second chance to define the terms on which he accepted us and we accepted him. Since then he has been locked in a wrestling match with himself, over whether to perpetuate or abandon his place in the rock pantheon. In that light, the original soundtrack of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is an extension of its myth-destroying predecessor Self-Portrait, a record which further eliminates the possibility of anyone placing Bob Dylan on a pedestal. It is every bit as inept, amateurish and embarrassing as the earlier album. And it has all the earmarks of a deliberate courting of commercial disaster, a flirtation that is apparently part of an attempt to free himself from previously imposed obligations derived from his audience.
The early Bob Dylan was compulsively drawn to the conflict between stability and the search for immortality. When he ended three of his mid-Sixties albums with songs rejecting the audience in the guise of lovers he revealed his exceptional fear of our collective capacity to both save and destroy him, the exact corollary to the way in which many of his admirers saw him. Since 1967, his career has been a curious mixture of serious or half-serious attempts to extend his music and eradicate his earlier image — John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and New Morning — and deliberate attempts to stop his career short — Self-Portrait and now Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
In the meantime he has contributed his anonymous instrumental talents to so many records that he is now pretending to be just one of the guys. By playing with sometimes manifestly inferior artists, a few of whom are simply exploiting his name, he has pushed the demythologizing of his legendary status to an extreme. But rather than emerging as a more modest and real talent, shorn of the extramusical import his earlier critics and audiences bestowed upon him, he has only succeeded in redefining himself as limited and not terribly relevant.
True to its soundtrack genre, much of the record is made up of instrumental music never intended to stand on its own and useless on an album. The actual songs are remarkable only for the fact that Dylan no longer describes himself as an outlaw, nor seems to overidentify with same (“John Wesley Harding”) but has written, in the form of direct address, a tribute to another, real outlaw. “Billy No. 1,” “Billy No. 4” and “Billy No. 7” (thank God he spared us all the Billys in between) are redundant variations of a not particularly successful cowboy song, one version languid, another dramatic, another simply sung straight. Taken together, they constitute a simplistic attempt to play the tune for more than it’s worth. Oddly, he avoided writing a song about the film’s real subject, Sheriff Pat Garrett. “Heaven’s Door” is better and “River Theme” and “Final Theme” are interesting snatches of program music, even if they don’t hold one’s attention for more than a few plays.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is reminiscent of Another Side of Bob Dylan, but only in its rambling rhythms and undisciplined and flat vocal style. It doesn’t contain any of the earlier work’s redeeming emotional freedom and sense of abandon. And his harmonica playing is at its worst, another small sign of the album’s almost willful badness, which is as mysterious as it is confounding to those who respect his past accomplishments.
It is ironic that the most significant white rock figure of the Sixties has turned himself into one of the least significant of the Seventies. But the most perplexing aspect of it all seems to be the deliberate intent behind the decline. I can think of no other way to explain the gap between the man’s earlier accomplishments and the recent dissipation of the quality of his work. But whatever the explanation, one can only note with sadness that in the midst of the summer morass of predictable popular music, Bob Dylan has once again broken the mold, only this time, with the least acceptable method available to him, an album neither exceptional, nor truly different, but merely awful.
This story is from the August 30th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.