There is a sad, elegiac quality that infuses and informs Rudy Wurlitzer’s masterful wordplay, like a poet composing a last verse from his death bed or a Zen master serving up his final parable between sips of hot tea laced with arsenic.
From his first foray into fiction, the existential counterculture novel Nog (1969), reissued in trade paperback format by Two Dollar Radio in August, to The Drop Edge of Yonder (2008), a mesmerizing revisionist western that may represent Wurlitzer’s final journey into publishing, there is more than enough connective tissue in his body of work – five novels, ten produced screenplays, and one book of non-fiction, Hard Travel to Sacred Places – to confidently assert that Wurlitzer is a true American master of literary form.
Wurlitzer, 72, refuses to mine the zeitgeist to make his work more popular and accessible (certainly the path a commercial novelist would take), choosing instead to focus on a slender thread of life-long themes and preoccupations: the disintegration of self, the lies hidden within the myth of the road and the hero’s journey, and “all the noisy chaos that marked the new frontier” in the American west that still plagues us to this day.
The connective tissue in Wurlitzer’s literary oeuvre is best summarized in a single line from Malcolm Lowry’s masterwork Under the Volcano, the story of the last desperate day in the life of Geoffrey Fermin, a dispirited alcoholic and former British consul in Mexico in the ‘30s.
“What is man” Lowry asks, “but a little soul holding up a corpse?”
Our story begins, appropriately, in Mexico.
The Last of the Real Outlaws
In 1973, 36-year-old Rudolph Wurlitzer was living in New York; his path as a screenwriter “on the celluloid trail” (as the writer refers to his Hollywood years fondly or acidly – it’s hard to tell sometimes) was secure thanks to the critical success of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the brooding road film and portrait of disaffected youth that Wurlitzer wrote for MGM and director Monte Hellman.
Music artist Bob Dylan was in a state of transition, personally and musically in 1973. His last hit single had been Lay Lady Lay from the country-themed album Nashville Skyline four years prior. Dylan’s first contract with Columbia Records was about to expire and the troubadour had no desire to continue in the dubious role as the voice of a generation (Dylan had refused to appear at his generation’s most revered music festival, The Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August 1969, even though the orgy of music, drugs, and free love transpired on land adjacent to his farm in Woodstock, New York, where he had gone into seclusion after a 1966 motorcycle accident).
Wurlitzer’s next film project for MGM was Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a meditative screenplay about the final days of New Mexico outlaw William Bonney, largely based on historical record. Monte Hellman was the original choice as director for Garrett, but the lackluster box-office receipts for Two-Lane Blacktop – in the days before studios saw ancillary benefits from cable and home video sales – sent MGM looking elsewhere for a helmsman.
The studio settled on the maverick and iconoclastic Sam Peckinpah, an edgy alcoholic with a notorious temper who was largely known for the blood-soaked 1969 elegy to the west, The Wild Bunch, that earned him the nickname Bloody Sam. (Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that The Wild Bunch was “one of the defining moments in modern movies” and that Peckinpah “did more than anyone else to bring the traditional Western into the gloom of a modern, ironic age.”)
When Bob Dylan learned that Rudy Wurlitzer was penning a script focusing on the Bonney-Garrett legend, he tracked the writer down and requested a meeting.
“The script was already written when Bob came to see me in my apartment on the Lower East Side of New York,” Wurlitzer recalled earlier this month from his getaway home, a cabin in his beloved Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. “He said that he had always related to Billy the Kid as if he was some kind of reincarnation; it was clear that he was obsessed with the Billy the Kid myth,” a notion that was validated 34 years later in Todd Haynes’ multi-persona Dylan movie biography I’m Not There (2007). In the film Richard Gere assumes the Dylan shape-shifting persona of Billy, a bespectacled, enigmatic outlaw.
Initially, Wurlitzer suspected that the elusive singer wanted to contribute an original tune to the score of the film but Dylan had other plans – he wanted to be in the movie, despite having no acting experience whatsoever.
Wurlitzer continues: “I called the producer (Gordon Carroll) who was thrilled that Bob wanted to be in the movie and then I wrote the part for Bob off the cuff in New York. We flew down to Durango, Mexico, to see Peckinpah – who had no idea what was up – and we found him in his house, drunk and half-naked, shooting at an image of himself in the mirror. When I told him I had written a part for Bob Dylan and ‘here he is’, Peckinpah turned and after a long pause, said to Bob, ‘I’m a big Roger Miller fan myself’.”
From that moment on, the author remembers, “Dylan followed Sam around like he was one of the last real outlaws, which, who knows, he probably was, at least in my partial experience.”
James Coburn, who keenly interpreted the role of the politically-motivated lawman Pat Garrett in the movie, recaptured the booze-saturated film-maker’s reaction for Garner Simmons in Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage (Limelight Editions, 2004):
When Dylan came down to Mexico, Sam didn’t know who the fuck Dylan was. But when he heard Dylan sing, Sam was the first to admit he was taken with Dylan’s singing. He heard Dylan’s Ballad of Billy the Kid and immediately had it put on tape so that he could have it with him to play.
The singer-songwriter elaborates in the liner notes to Biograph (1985):
I moved with my family to Durango for about three months. Rudy Wurlitzer, who was writing this thing, invented a part but there wasn’t any dimension to it. And I was very uncomfortable in this non-role. But time started to slip away and there I was trapped deep in the heart of Mexico with some madman, ordering people around like a little king … It was crazy, all these generals making you jump into hot ants, setting up turkey shoots and whatever and drinking tequila ‘til they passed out. Sam was a wonderful guy though. He was an outlaw. A real hombre. Somebody from the old school. Men like him they don’t make anymore … At night when it was quiet I would listen to the bells. It was a strange feeling, watching how this movie was made, and I know it was wide and big and breathless.
For awhile, Wurlitzer says, “Dylan and I were joined and we hung out in Mexico and talked about writing a remake of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player; we actually wrote a few pages, just to keep from being bored between scenes” but in the end it was nothing more than an exercise in relieving on-set monotony.