The original Urban Cowboy is still looking for love.
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“Dew’s got the cutest ass in this bar,” said Pam. “Show her!”
The Gilley’s reunion in July had brought out a few regulars from the legendary Pasadena honky-tonk that closed in 1989. Dew stayed firmly planted in his chair across the table from me and let out a belly laugh. “I’ve made it to every one of the reunions, but this guy only made it to two!” Pam went on. “I looked for this guy every year, and when he finally showed up, I didn’t recognize him. I said, ‘Who’re you?’ and he said, ‘I’m Dew,’ and I said, ‘Oh, shit.’ And the movie was made about him.”
The movie was Urban Cowboy, based on the life and loves of Pasadena’s own Dew Westbrook, whose fortunes have come full circle since Aaron Latham wrote the “Urban Cowboy” story for Esquire magazine in 1978 as well as the screenplay for the 1980 movie that featured the world’s most famous mechanical bull. The night before the reunion, Dew had been leaving his regular Pasadena hangout, the Texas Saloon, when the band started playing the theme song from Urban Cowboy, “Lookin’ for Love.” Nobody had requested it; it’s a standard country ballad around here. And like a scene from the film, Dew had stopped by the bar to share a moment with a beautiful blonde before stepping out into the truck-filled parking lot, where the song echoed in the sticky, oil-scented air.
“Lookin’ for Love” could be the real-life theme song of the original Urban Cowboy. Dew (for “Donald Edwin Westbrook”) doesn’t feel any nostalgia for the Hollywood version of his life. He’s never even watched the movie. “Who’s got time?” he said. “I’ve seen bits and pieces of it. Travolta did good. I think he did a good job from what I’ve seen.” He squinted his blue eyes mischievously as he smiled, then he laughed from the gut. “I’ve been survivin’—doin’ life, you know? Traveled around the U.S. building nuclear powerhouses, doing a lot of construction.” After he left Pasadena in 1980, he worked in 32 states, roaming around the country with his third wife, Kelly, and their two girls, who are now twelve and fourteen. But two years ago, when he and Kelly separated, Dew moved his daughters to Pasadena.
The night of the reunion, Dew drove his truck around the bend in the highway where Deer Park’s refineries were lit up like a miniature city skyline. He passed the sign “Pay Checks Cashed” as he pulled into the parking lot of G’s Ice House, the new joint run by Gilley’s owner, Sherwood Cryer.
A man wearing the exact same attire as Dew, a blue Wrangler shirt and dark blue Wrangler jeans, told the original Urban Cowboy to park out back. “Out back?” Dew said. “I’m the guy who started all this shit.”
“Well, then park way out back,” the doppelgänger replied with a smile that said “I’m kidding” and dead-serious eyes that said “I’m not.”
Dew parked beside the dumpster next to the Ice House and walked past five mechanical bulls to the entrance, where he was immediately spotted by Debbie. Debbie is one of the Gilley’s gals who hasn’t changed much since the seventies—she still wears her long, straight brown hair parted down the middle. (She also wears her jeans so tight, Pam discovered, that slapping her rear makes your hand sting.)
Debbie grabbed Dew’s arm and shouted, “Hey, baby!” above the din of the band as she hugged him. “You know, three years ago this place was packed. This year nobody’s showed up. Half of ‘em are dead; the other half don’t care.” She threw her head back and laughed. It’s true: Many of the old Gilley’s regulars still see each other three times a week, so only about twenty of Dew’s friends and acquaintances had shown up. Dew smiled and nervously stroked his mustache.
They walked over to a large table in the open-air room lit only by red bulbs, where some of the Gilley’s crowd were swigging beers. A woman with a pixie haircut who goes by the name “Little Debbie” squeezed Dew’s arm from across the table. Women have been gravitating to Dew since long before John Travolta imitated his swagger. They like to grab his arms and his neck and his behind and flirt like crazy. Dew was used to the attention, but he still looked uncomfortable when Little Debbie asked him to sign her copy of Saturday Night at Gilley’s, by the late music critic Bob Claypool, which was for sale at the door.
“What do I write?” he asked his friends at the table, taking a pen.
Debbie with the long hair said, “Write ‘To my dear friend Little Debbie, who I shared—moments with.’”
Everyone laughed, even Little Debbie’s husband, who may or may not have heard the joke above the loud music.
“How ‘bout: ‘To the only woman I cheated on my wife with?’” Dew asked, prompting more laughter.
Debbie whispered to herself, “Probably true,” then leaned over the table and told Dew in a hushed voice, “Don’t write that. Her husband gets jealous.”
“That was a long time ago,” Dew replied.
“Don’t matter,” Debbie insisted with a smile.
“Well, don’t look at me while I write then,” Dew said, blocking the group’s view with a barricade made from a couple of beers and a bucket of ice.
The opening band finished its set, and the Gilley’s crowd sang along with the jukebox selection “Kiss This” while Dew started to make the rounds. He caught up with Gator, the Fred Astaire of the petrochemical plains; Gator mentioned that he had seen Dew’s first wife, Betty, whom Dew had famously met at Gilley’s (and who was played by Debra Winger in the movie), working in a bloodmobile. Then Dew strolled up to the bar to talk to Cryer, who noted that some of their mutual acquaintances had had some bad luck of late. Looking down the length of the bar, Dew admitted, “I had a bout with depression a while back too.”
“You had a loss of joy for yourself?” Cryer asked, part football coach, part preacher.
“Yeah,” Dew said, still looking away.
They stood there in silence. Then Cryer said, “Yeah, well—how old you now?”
“Forty-five,” Dew replied. Cryer, who is 75, nodded. The night’s headliner, Billy Joe Shaver, started playing “You’re as Young as the Woman You Feel,” and Cryer’s beautiful young wife, Debi, shouted into her husband’s ear, “Billy Joe’s playin’ a song for you!” Dew laughed and moved on.
To some of the friends he hadn’t seen in a while, Dew explained that his big dream—to become a real cowboy—remains intact. He plans to move to Longview. He’s tired of the construction life; it’s time to raise some cows, and he can do it now that there’s no woman to stop him. It won’t be a rough transition, he thinks. He folded his hands and twiddled his thumbs as he told me what it means to be an Urban Cowboy: “We’re as much cowboys as this town allows you to be. We still ride horses when we can. The way of life is just different, but you can still be a cowboy in your heart.”
After he caught up with a few more of the old Gilleyrats and took a few trips around the dance floor, it was time to go. On his way out the door, Dew saw that his doppelgänger was trying out a mechanical bull. He tried to leave, but a few folks stopped him and said, “Come on, Dew! Get on!” After all, riding the bull had once been Dew’s specialty. That skill—and his Gilley’s love story—is why Dew is the Urban Cowboy.
“Not without a glove,” he said.
“Aw, come on!” they insisted.
He walked away, laughing and shaking his head.
“You scared?” one of them yelled.
“Not scared. Just smart,” he shouted back, not turning around.
“You’re scared!” somebody hollered.
“Not scared. Just smart!” he repeated, still smiling.
Back in the truck, the smile faded. John Travolta had a happy ending, tied up nice and neat, but life’s a whole lot messier. “The ladies sure adore you,” I pointed out.
His jaw tightened. “If that’s the case,” he said, “then why am I alone?”