Sam Shepard, who died aged 73 on Thursday, will be remembered as many things: a playwright, actor, author, screenwriter, and director. Indeed, he was perhaps the greatest American dramatist of his generation.
Lost among all his artistic achievements, however, is the fact that Shepard—who died from complications from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease—was also a lyricist; and not just any lyricist, but one who, long before the stars were torn down, co-wrote a Bob Dylan classic.
“Brownsville Girl” was the sole standout track on Dylan’s otherwise reviled 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. It’s an epic in both the literal and figurative senses: an 11-minute narrative that unpredictably careens between the narrator’s wistful memories of a long-lost love and his standing in line to see Gregory Peck in a classic Western film.
No one knows who wrote which lines in the zany masterpiece (i.e., who can we thank for “People don’t do what they believe in / they just do what’s most convenient / and then they repent"?) but the tale fits squarely within Shepard’s canon with its use of Old Western themes, Mexican-border drama, mysterious women, and general disenchantment as an understated rumination on the myth of the American Dream.
By the time Dylan and Shepard co-wrote this musical masterpiece, they had both already achieved substantial fame in their respective fields.
The song feels as if the kindred spirits had become just as disappointed and disenchanted by fame as their protagonist had by the seemingly abrupt, unexplained ending to his action-packed romance (and, of course, by his own frustrating inability to recall the plot of 1950’s The Gunfighter, the movie for which he is standing in line in the rain).
At one point during the song, Dylan shifts from nostalgic reverie to directly inserting himself into the very film he’s standing in line to view. “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,” he sings, almost as if to suggest he is unable to separate his own unparalleled fame from that of Peck’s character Ringo, the fastest gunslinger in the West deeply troubled by having become a magnet for every two-bit desperado looking to make a name for himself by besting the top gun.
In 1986, Dylan was in the middle of a mostly fallow period, having struggled with damaged credibility after his so-called “Gospel Years” irritated fans and critics alike. A string of middling, quickly outdated albums (save for the supremely excellent Infidels) had failed to make noise, and his early-’80s tours were met with lukewarm reception, save for the moments he broke out half-assed renditions of his ’60s folk classics to appease those who viewed his mammoth fame as reason to expect him to never change.
With a wink and a nod, Dylan had essentially become a character in one of Shepard’s beloved Westerns.
I’ve long evangelized to friends and family about the merits of the brilliantly ridiculous lyrics, along with Dylan’s commanding, at times hilarious vocal performance, the thunderous drums, dream-like horns, and uproariously sarcastic back-up choir.
I’ve spent countless hours daydreaming about somehow covering “Brownsville Girl” during my own live shows, or fantasizing about doing it for karaoke with my wife in some smoke-filled honky tonk in the Texas panhandle.
And yet, it’s not for everyone. Many get bored midway through the story; others find the instrumentation cheesy and the production dated. The song was performed only once by Dylan and is rarely, if ever, mentioned in retrospective analysis of his most essential works.
“It’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned,” Dylan and Shepard observed in “Brownsville Girl.” You might say the the same about this epic collaboration.