Thursday, July 18, 2013

Brownsville Girl and the Old Gringo

For a time in the 90's I went through a Latin American authors phase that include Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes, a Mexican novelist, essayist and playwright, achieved international recognition for his work. I'd lived in Mexico a year and enjoyed stories that took place there, especially those that would give new insights into how the country came to be what it was. Michener's Mexico falls into this category. And Fuentes' The Old Gringo is especially so.

The setting is a hacienda in Northern Mexico during the revolution of 1910-20. If "Occupy Wall Street" is about revolting against the one-percenters, in Mexico the hacienda system was the real we/they world. Picture plantations with the haves being the one-percenters who could do as they pleased, the rest being indentured servants with no rights.

Into this setting bring a naive young American woman who has been hired to come south to teach the landowner's children English. Also bring a an cynical old writer whose reaching the end of his trail. Add to this mix the revolutionaries who have taken over the compound... and what happens next?

The novel was insightful, providing an understanding as to why Mexico became a socialist country and why the revolution occurred. Like other epic novels this was a vehicle for addressing many larger issues, and human issues about meaning and life that Hollywood films can seldom penetrate effectively because it is a different medium. That is why reading novels can never be replaced by just watching movies, as the film hints at things written words can explore in depth.

The film got weak reviews, but I would suggest this is because without the book as a foundation its superficial telling of the story had no pedestal to stand on. In the film Jane Fonda is the schoolteacher who has been transplanted in Mexico. Gregory Peck is the Old Gringo.  

All this (above) is preface to a brief look at Dylan's Brownsville Girl which first appeared on his Knocked Out Loaded album and was later selected for his Greatest Hits, Volume 3.

Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck

Gregory Peck has had a rich career on the silver screen. Dylan is not the only person to draw attention to Peck in his writing. Elmore Leonard on more than one occasion has characters that reference Peck's role as a gunfighter, especially the scene where the kid comes in with guns drawn and Johnny Ringo (Peck) has to cool the hothead down by stating coldly that he has a gun pointed at the kid's belly. It's only his hand under the table, but the kid backs off. Great scene, the kind that makes for great movies.

The next verse deftly sums up the point of bringing this story to us in song.

Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath 
“Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death”

Like many of Dylan's songs they start broader in scope and then narrow down to focus on personal relationships or experiences. In this case it his relationship with a Brownsville girl. Brownsville is a border town on the Rio Grande, the eastern part of an area called "the valley."

Lee Marshall, in his book Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star, spends three pages dissecting this song, noting how Dylan inserts himself into the story of Johnny Ringo, a gunfighter wrestling the the burden of fame.

Something about that movie though, 
well I just can’t get it out of my head 
But I can’t remember why I was in it 
or what part I was supposed to play...

What's going on here?  You have to ask because as the story movies along, Dylan is still identifying with Gregory Peck, but now it's in a different film, one about the last days of Ambrose Bierce, the Old Gringo. Things in upheaval, and Dylan slinging off very personal observations in that veiled way he does, lines that speak with ambiguity yet seem specific. Lines like,

You know, it’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned


Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections 
than people who are most content 
Dylan's fascination for Peck is evident ("I'll see him in anything,") and Marshall's exploration of the song focuses on Dylan's role reversal, becoming a "fan" of another "star." He also states most directly that there is "no way this song cannot be about Dylan."

Hence, I invite you -- against the backdrop above -- to revisit the lyrics and hope you'll take away another shard of insight that you hadn't had before the next time you give this song a good listening to.

Meantime, life goes on all around you.


Reinaldo Garcia said...

When I lived in Cuernavaca, I visited THE OLD GRINGO set at Churubusco Studios. Around that time, the Argentine director said in an interview, "I am not filming Mexico's revolution, I am filming MY revolution." I walked out of the film after about twenty minutes.

Anonymous said...

The song preceded bathe movie by seven years

ENNYMAN said...

Reinaldo... Interesting. The book was good, even if the film left a lot of people flat... Cuernavaca is my favorite city in Mexico... and Tepotzlan. Anonymous: hey, you are right. I was off by three years... I assumed too much. OLD GRINGO was 1989 and Brownsville Girl 1986 on Knocked Out Loaded. I guess my world's gone wrong on that one.