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Dan Sportiello | Thursday, March 4, 2010

Not one word of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is true.

He was born not in Wheeling, W. Va., but rather in the Irish heart of New York City. He neither started with a bank in Colorado nor robbed his way from Utah to Oklahoma — for he was a ranch hand and sometime horse rustler, not a bank robber. And he was never ordered to be strung up by a judge for what he had done, as the law shot him in the chest in the dark.

He may never have travelled heavy, but he did not ride alone: he was a member of the Regulators, a deputized posse who aimed to avenge the murder of their employer, New Mexican rancher John Tunstall. And while he soon put many older guns to shame, he did in fact have a sweetheart — Paulita Maxwell, who may well have served as the unwilling bait for his ambush by Sheriff Pat Garrett. In the end, the ballad is wrong even about the home he finally found: his Boot Hill grave bears the name “William H. Bonney” — the alias that would, in time, grow to mean more than “Henry McCarty” ever did.

“Every verse in this song is a lie,” admits Billy Joel. “You have to imagine it’s a Western movie, with the credits rolling across the screen: ‘Randolph Scott. Lee Van Cleef. Clint Eastwood.'” It is not a novel thing, of course, for a musician to alter — or invent — the details of his protagonist’s life for romantic effect: Rossini’s William Tell and Lennon’s Bungalow Bill come immediately to mind. But the Kid’s life — his real life — was already wildly romantic by any reasonable standard. What is revealing, therefore, is the form that Joel’s invention takes: out of nothing, he weaves the story of a colossal antihero, a boy driven to rage against the gods of his world and, in his defiance unto death, become at last a man. It is the story of one who struggles against all odds to become what each of us has it within himself to be — if only we could, like him, cast off the chains of law and order.

There is an element of the ridiculous in all of this, of course: it is only possible to identify with Billy as we do because the story that Joel has woven is maximally generic — an archetypal bank robber robbing archetypal banks and fighting archetypal lawmen. But it is worth asking why it is this particular archetype that inspires us: his fictional Kid is an outlaw who steals from the banks to whom ordinary men and women have trusted their money — and when their elected officers of the law do their duty and try to stop him, he shoots them dead. He is a thief and a murderer, differentiated from other thieves and murderers only by the magnitude of his crimes.

And yet, when that posse finally captured Billy, the cowboy and the rancher came pouring in like the sea to watch him die — in awe of his contempt for the world they had built. And their reaction is not foreign to us: when the judge at last orders Billy hung by the neck until dead, I can feel only outrage at the injustice of it — and when he is buried in his Boot Hill grave, only sorrow.

It is no great insight to suggest that each of us sees himself in this Kid — that each of us feels Billy’s death as his own. The same is true, I think, of Billy’s eventual rebirth in Oyster Bay, Long Island: the boy with a six-pack in his hand is every one of us, most of all Joel himself — his protests to the contrary irrelevant. “By the way, ‘Billy’ in this case is not me, myself and I,” he insists. “He still tends bar in Oyster Bay.” Which is, of course, the first real lie in all of this.

It is no mystery that each of us sees himself in the Kid — and, for that matter, in any of the great American antiheroes: these men are the real heirs to our ideals — to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Our nation was born in the spirit of Billy the Kid — in our revolt against King and Country, in our theft of his property and our murder of his officers of the law. It is better to die, we proclaimed, than to live unfree.

And yet, it turned out that to defend our freedoms, it was necessary to sacrifice them, one by one. This has been increasingly obvious ever since our Civil War, even if it has never been an easy thing to admit to ourselves: the power of government, corporation, and union over us grows without apparent limit. The libertarians claim that this loss of freedom is, in fact, due to a vast conspiracy — that it was done without our knowledge or consent. Which is, of course, the second real lie in all of this: we gave up our freedoms willingly, even eagerly, as did the citizens of an earlier Roman Republic. The hard truth is that men, then and now, are cowards — that they will always sacrifice their freedoms, one after another, for security. That modernity — whether in the Empire of the Romans or in our own — will always, in the end, collapse under its own weight.

I do not say this with censure: what is a man’s freedom, after all, next to his wife and children and home? I do not know that he is wrong to sacrifice the former to protect the latter. But I can appreciate the tragedy of it — and so can all of us, I think, deep down. This is why we glorify our antiheroes: they have the courage to be what we do not — free. And this freedom is a dream from which we are anxious not to wake: it is who we are — or, at any rate, who we desperately want to be. In this sense, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is true after all.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show on WVFI every Sunday at 4 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.