When Teddy Roosevelt claimed loneliness a quintessential ingredient of our national character, he hit the psychic bull’s-eye, ringing up images of pragmatic pioneers, existential outlaws and a long line of heroes who dreamt of the purity of their youth even as they drew their guns to eliminate it. “There are no second acts in American lives,” someone once said, and a cursory glance at our gods — the cowboy/desperado, the gangster/detective, the movie star/rock & roller — whose lifestyles generally suggest either early and unnatural death or obsolescence, easily reinforces such a statement. To the quiet American, violence, like the perpetual but unreal motion of life on the road, seems to serve as solicitous coin in the realm of the solitary survivor, some kind of necessary stopgap and occupation while a man waits in the sanctified state of loneliness for something to happen, someone to come along or return, his vague search to end.
From Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to Dirty Harry Callahan, the mythic American hero is a man, almost always womanless, who has somehow been trapped in that curious nether world between comic innocence and tragic experience; unable or unwilling to make a choice, he can at best (or worst) embrace either adjective, neither noun. He has known happiness once, lost it, and now nothing will help. For the sentimental there is Christianity, the “official” solace, itself an uncanny mixture of loneliness and violence, sexlessness and death, its hero a lost and forsaken son slain only to rise again with the promise of a glorious but distant new childhood in exchange for a worn out, hopeless past. It is small wonder that most Americans worship no god except their own lost innocence, have had, in fact, to rely on popular literature, films and music to provide a plausible and workable archetypal “religion,” that is more Jungian than Freudian.
Veteran country singer/songwriter Willie Nelson knows all of this — and much more. His Red Headed Stranger is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled. A phonographic Western movie which brilliantly evokes the mythopoeic imagery of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shane and the works of John Ford, the album traces the life of a Montana cowboy who finds his true love with another man, kills both of them and later another woman, then drifts through Denver dance halls into old age, forever unable to cut his early loss but managing in the final years of his life a moving, believable and not unwarranted synthesis of all he has missed. The narrative may not sound especially promising or unusual — like most fables, it is, after all, the same old story: That is its point — but in Nelson’s hands, its hard-won simplicity calls forth the same complex and profound metaphysical responses as those brought about by the matter-of-fact awesomeness of the Rocky Mountains. Hemingway, who perfected an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases, used to say that the full power of his composition was accessible only between the lines; and Nelson, on this LP, ties precise, evocative lyrics to not quite remembered, never really forgotten folk melodies to create a similar effect, haunting yet utterly unsentimental. That he did not write much of the material makes his accomplishment no less singular.
Red Headed Stranger, not unlike Dylan’s much underrated Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack, is concerned with great universals; its heroic songs, somewhat reminiscent in mood of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the magnificent instrumental anthems (particularly “Final Theme”) of the latter album, seem both vulnerable and inevitable, strapped to the lifeline, equally suitable for weddings or funerals. “It was a time of the Preacher,” Stranger begins, and with this life-and-death invocation, the once Edenic West becomes a land populated by fallen innocents (“My eyes filled with tears and I must have aged ten years/I couldn’t believe it was true”) who deal out Biblical revenge (“Now the lesson is over and the killin’s begun”) less in anger than in a state of agonized confusion:
Don’t cross him, don’t boss him
He’s wild in his sorrow
Ridin’ and hidin’ his pain
Don’t fight him, don’t spite him
Just wait till tomorrow
Maybe he’ll ride on again.
When the killing comes, it is quick, hypnotic and terrible in its finality (“And they smiled at each other as he walked through the door/And they died with their smiles on their faces”), the belligerent bullets almost an afterthought, transient, symptomatic explosions in a field of loneliness (“He bought her a drink and gave her some money/He just didn’t seem to care/ … He shot her so quick they had no time to warn her”). The stranger has reached the penultimate point in his journey, but with omniscient irony the century rolls on:
It was the time of the Preacher
In the year of ’01
And just when you think it’s all over
It’s only begun.
On side two, cyclic catharsis begins, its inception again ironic. The wanderer enters a tavern, is drawn to a woman, but this time the lovers dance “with their smiles on their faces.” “Can I sleep in your arms tonight, lady?” the cowboy asks, adding “I assure you I’ll do you no harm.” Life’s verities seem ambiguous (“It’s the same old song — it’s right and it’s wrong/And livin’ is just something I do”) as the hero ages. Stranger ends with an image reminiscent of the final tableau of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries: Time, memory and expectations have magically fused, transitory people have somehow become luminous legends, happiness has been found.
And in the shade of an oak down by the river
Sat an old man and a boy
Settin’ sails, spinnin’ tales and fishin’ for whales
With a lady they both enjoy.
I can’t remember when a record has taken such a hold on me.