Friday, March 6, 2015

I Caught a Good One. It Looked Like It Could Run.

When I was 12, I just loved Marty Robbins’ spectacularly corny "El Paso," and for the past four years have been performing it at karaoke at the slightest provocation, once (in Ramsgate, Kent, UK) so successfully that a member of the audience offered to buy me a drink.  

Let us consider this towering work of cowboy kitsch together. As the song opens, the Narrator [hereinafter Narry, unless I forget] has fallen in love with a Mexican girl named Felina (though no Mexican girl in history has ever been named Felina), who dances at Rosa’s Cantina. In the film version, had there been one, she'd have been played by Rita Moreno, whose surname I suspect should have a tilde that some studio head talked her out of. The beautiful maiden’s eyes are “blacker than night…wicked and evil while casting a spell,” but Narry falls in love with her anyway, though it was always my understanding that life was harsh enough in the Old West without somebody being masochistic in the bargain. 

Still, I can understand where he’s coming from. In high school, I secretly lusted after the sinister-looking chicana girls with Ronettes-ish hair (in which they were said to conceal razorblades) and immoderate eyeliner.

Everything presumably is just peachy between the happy couple until one night when “a wild young cowboy” who is that irresistible combination of dashing and daring comes in and buys “wicked” [though there’s no mention of what she’s done other than have very dark eyes] Felina a drink. This so infuriates Narry that he “challenge[s] [Mr. D-‘n’-D’s] right for the love of this maiden,” and winds up gunning him down, which was apparently illegal even in westernmost Texas. Narry is shocked by “the foul evil deed I had done,” but has the presence of mind to get the hell out of Dodge, or at least El Paso. “Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran,” he sings, “out where the horses were tied. I caught a good one. It looked like it could run. Up on its back and away I did ride.” When I was 12, that good one/could run struck me as the absolute pinnacle of lyric-writing brilliance. I have spent my career as a songwriter trying in vain to surpass it.

Poor Narrator’s so hopelessly in love with Felina, her wickedness and improbable name notwithstanding, that he returns to El Paso, only to discover “five mounted cowboys,” presumably deputies of some sort, waiting for him. And that’s only to his right. To his left, there are a dozen or more! We pause to marvel at El Paso’s apparently bottomless financial resources. Imagine the expense of keeping 17 mounted cowboys on high alert, waiting for our hero to return to the scene of the crime! Maybe Narry's victim was the mayor's son, or even the governor's. 

Woefully outnumbered though he may be, Narry makes a dash for Rosa’s Cantina, and comes quickly to feel “a deep burning pain in [his] side” which precludes his continuing to ride. But Felina, who’s apparently forgiven Narry's having killed Mr. D-‘n’-D in the meantime, materializes, and here there isn't a dry eye in the house.
From out of nowhere Felina has found me,kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side. Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for,One little kiss and Felina, good-bye. 
I think we can agree that if Narry had been a lot less impulsive — if he hadn’t become so deeply infatuated with Felina just on the basis of her being exotic, and apparently a bad girl, and then hadn’t been possessive, and finally had sent her busfare to meet him in Albuquerque or somewhere, rather than returning to the scene of the crime, he might have lived to show his and her grandsons how to ride and shoot and kill Injuns.

It seems to me that the song might very well be updated to appease those in the Middle East who hate us for our freedom. Felina might become Fatima, an Iraqi, rather than Mexican maiden, though Yemeni would work better rhythmically. “Felina,” by the way, was the title of the final episode of Breaking Bad, whose creator was as big a fan of the song as I. My affection for the song has withstood my having just learned that the song was often performed by the Grateful Dead, whom I loathed even before discovering that they were big favorites of the yuppie crypto-nazis for whom I processed words in my daughter’s Gymboree days. Lead vocal by Bob Weir, with harmony by Jerry Garcia? Not Johnny's idea of a great time at the concert hall!

I wish I hadn't found out that Marty campaigned for both Barry Goldwater and then the segregationist demagogue George Wallace. 

1 comment:

  1. During my first (and only) trip to the UK back in 1971, I was surprised to observe that the Brits seemed to like American country music, particularly Marty Robbins, whose music was played in all of the pubs we stumbled upon. By the way, I think Narry would have sent Felina stagecoach fare.