Archive for April, 2010

April 18, 2010

To Hell on a Fast Horse; or, Epic Happiness Pursued by Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett

by cowboylands

To Hell on a Fast Horse: Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, and and the Epic to Chase to Justice in the Old West, by Mark Lee Gardner began as a story of two men on opposite sides of the law, and ended as two life stories that compete to this day: Billy the Kid’s self-satisfying romp on the bad side  vs. Pat Garrett’s grim pursuit of happiness.

That Garrett shot the Kid on July 14, 1881, is in every history book, but it’s not so well known that afterward Garrett was plagued by doubters and ill-wishers who vowed he had snuck up on the Kid, or refused to believe he actually killed the desperado (the first example of “lamestream media” tearing into a favored public figure). After shooting the Kid, Garrett’s future was golden–for a time. Then his two-fisted showdown ways and gambling habits–so perfect in 1881, when the Kid met his end–contributed to Garrett’s decline in fortune and influence as the West became a place of political interests and backroom deals.

Author Gardner makes his case that, fake death claims aside, Billy was shot by Garrett’s pistol in the darkened room of a friend’s home. He describes the haunting scene in which Billy, on alert but unwilling to shoot in the dark at what could be a friend, asks in Spanish who is there. That pause of his, that spark of humanity, is what allowed Pat Garrett to shoot first.

To Hell on a Fast Horse highlights more facets of Billy the Kid’s personality than is usual. Billy comes across as a likable young hell-raiser, although a thug is a thug is a thug–he killed to get away from the law, usually without thinking twice. But his charisma is why he became a fabled desperado, and why Garrett became known as the “man who killed Billy the Kid.” It’s why Billy’s grave has scores of highway billboards cajoling family sedans to visit, while Pat Garrett’s death site had to be rescued from oblivion.

Competition is fierce in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where Billy’s bones lie in rest–in two graves. Or in one? Or neither? Wha?

You got your Billy the Kid Museum, with a replica of the grave and some awesome scruffy mannequins, and you got the Old Fort Sumner museum, and its grave with a whopper of a cage around it. Why the cage? Because people keep stealing the gravestone, wanting a part of this guy. Ironic, as his bones might not even rest in Fort Sumner anymore, as flooding took out part of the old cemetery. And why two graves? The West is wack that way, buckos.

Pat Garrett’s resting place? In the Masonic Cemetery in Los Cruces. It’s a sober-looking marker, without all the cheesy hooplah around Billy’s. But where Garrett was shot and killed in 1908, in a tangled tale of loyalties and vengeance and the kind of frontier justice that isn’t so pretty-sunset-perfect, is located in a Las Cruces subdivision with the pretentious name of “The Vistas at Presidio II,” south of U.S. 70. It has a marker, too, created by his son around 1938.

from Friends of Pat Garrett

It’s on the edge of an old road, an almost forgotten site except for Garrett’s son’s sullen resolve to make sure people knew his father had been murdered, shot in the back while pissing. No way what a fabled lawman deserves, so the Friends of Pat Garrett started a campaign to get that murder site on the map, to make sure that a memorial is set aside. Looks like they did it, although I’d love a pic to show their success.

Happiness is elusive–the more you seek it, the faster it backs away out of reach. Maybe Billy the Kid–with his wild ways and hyper-real  afterlife had a better understanding of that than the driven lawman did. After all, how happy would Garrett feel about being a ghost in the midst of McMansions in a mesa? Maybe, like author Mark Lee Gardner portrayed so well, he would just be happy to get what he could.

April 12, 2010

Lonely Are the Brave; or, Hearting/Hating That Brave Cowboy Thing

by cowboylands

Another movie for the Iranian president to see, or any other person who yearns to be a movie-type cowboy instead of a real one.

Lonely Are the Brave, filmed in 1962 with Kirk Douglas as the drifter rejecting the modern West, and the great Gena Rowlands and Walter Matthau as his costars.

It was based on The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, written over twelve years before Desert Solitaire. In its pages his unsentimentality about the West and humanity’s cherished dreams crashes into pretty-sunset-cowboy-romance pictures with forty tons of steel and the shriek of air brakes, literally two short pages before the last line.

The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey, cover illustration by Roy Gifford, Pocket Books, 1957. from the collection of E. Smith

The book begins like most other mid-fifties western novels, with a cowboy drifter in the mountains, at peace with himself and his surroundings. “He was sitting his heels in the cold light of dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass,” Abbey writes, letting the drifter then enjoy a smoke under a juniper, scour his pan with sand, and then cajole and outsmart his horse, Whiskey, “the bitch”–a pastoral of the human as one with the wilderness. But the book ends with this elemental being struck from the face of the earth, as “…the traffic roared and whistled and thundered by, steel, rubber, and flesh, dim faces behind glass, beating hearts, cold hands–the fury of men and women immured in engines.” Damn that Abbey. If it weren’t such a good book, I would’ve sank into depression the size of Hells Canyon, Idaho.

Blowing through the text is a deep ambivalence about humans’ place in the wilderness and the movie kept that uneasy love/hate relationship with the mythic cowboy.

Although Jack Burns (Douglas) boldly proclaims his manifesto…

A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them…. Have you ever noticed how many fences there’re getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?

…he’s fully aware (okay, okay, the scriptwriter is aware) that that drifty thing comes with a steep price:

Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It’s his life, the way he wants to live. It’s all for him. A guy like that, he’d kill a woman like you. Because he couldn’t love you, not the way you are loved.

(Note that “you” was Gena Rowlands–honestly, I would hang up my spurs for her. That Burns guy was nuts.)

So there’s a movie for the Human Beings Versus the West and the West Wins Category.

BTW, it’s not a movie from the fifties though; if you want one of those, check out *Wild Western Web newflash50 Westerns from the Fifties, which promises to reveal plenty of undervalued gems.

April 9, 2010

Finally, Obama's a Freaking Cowboy Already

by cowboylands

I read Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent words with a dizzying feeling of deja vu. Wait–wha?–we’re cowboys again?

“American materialist politicians, whenever they are beaten by logic, immediately resort to their weapons like cowboys,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech before a crowd of several thousand in northwestern Iran.

Interesting that our statesmanlike leader–intellectual to the point of at-times dismaying distance and wafflement–is being called a lowdown, dirty cowboy. Who knew that Ahmadinejad had such a grasp on Western frontier history? His use of the term “cowboy” is historically accurate. Before the days of John Wayne, cowboys were the ruffian types. They were the thugs that Wyatt Earp despised, none other than–hold on to your ten-gallon hat–the Democrats, a populist group at odds with the Republican bankers and railroad magnates.

We’re talking the kind of nineteenth-century American history that heavily mustachioed novelists and Americana experts adore. Iranian schooling must be incredibly cosmopolitan.

But that’s not all, folks.

Ahmadinejad then throws in an awesome shoutout to spaghetti westerns, referencing the trash talk the Spanish-speaking villains growled at Clint’s Man with No Name (you know, when the lips move but the dubbed-in voice doesn’t quite match up).

“Mr. Obama, you are a newcomer [to politics]. Wait until your sweat dries and get some experience…. [American officials] bigger than you, more bullying than you, couldn’t do a damn thing, let alone you.”

I am in awe. Ahmadinehjad must know for a fact that Americans of a certain age, suckled on the celluloid milk of Hollywood westerns, would look to strap on guns and, like Kurt Russell in Tombstone, tell him to “skin that smoke wagon” and then bitchslap the eff out of him.  (Check out minute 2 on of this fine piece of Americana.)


The problem is with the Iranian president’s ploy is twofold.

A.) Most rational politicians with foreign policy experience know that bitchslapping leads to missile crises.

B.) Most rational Americans understand that Hollywood takes the truth out of history to make exciting stories with lots of shooting and happy endings.

I hope we have a president who fits this profile.

And an aside on the historical Wyatt Earp:

Sure the skanky cardshark in the bar had it coming to him,  but Earp was looking to a.) take his place as a dealer, b.) ingratiate himself with the local Republican moneybags in town, and c.) make a living and a name for himself. What history shows is that Earp isn’t so different from most Americans–just wanting to get ahead, earn a nest egg, have a wife and kid and house, etc, etc. In the days before Social Security and Medicare, you were on your own; I can’t blame the guy for being ambitious and looking out for himself. But let’s not make him into a figure worthy of hero worship, shall we? Mr. Ahmadinejad, kudos to your knoweldge of Western history, but may I suggest some movies for further research into the American love/hate relationship with the macho cowboy image? The Searchers, is what I recommend.

Any others?

April 1, 2010

The West's Westness, part 3

by cowboylands

Where is the West? It is in you and me and you, too, bucko.

Fresh (or not so fresh) from yet another sojourn into the wilderness of Self, the Great Plains of Novel…my answer can only be that while we goggle at yowling coyotes and saguaro cookie jars, sunsetted cowboys and pretty prairie lasses in way-too-tight jeans, the real West is that frontier between what you know as your self, and what you know as no-self. Call it despair. Call it the wilderness. Call it no man’s land, unmarked territory, death. Sorry to be so melodramatic, but, sweet cheeks, once you’ve even stepped a toe into that place and returned, things like taxes and getting into fights with siblings seems quaint, like gingerbread Victorian towns that need to prove themselves worthy of an Interstate rest area.

Westness can come in two basic shades: optimism and pessimism. When you are face-to-face with that hairy cliffhanger between self and no-self, what are you?