I HEARD THE NEWS THAT URBAN COWBOY IS going to become a Broadway musical, and that turned my thoughts to an era I believed had ended far, far in the past.
It was twenty years ago that a story appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine called “The Urban Cowboy— Saturday Night Fever, Country & Western Style.” This article dissected life at Gilley’s, an immense honky-tonk in Pasadena. The movie elevated what had until then been a purely local cultural phenomenon and transformed it into a national one. Gilley’s was more than just a kicker bar. It was larger than an airplane hangar and had a dance floor that was bigger than the parking lots of most honky-tonks. And it had a row of mechanical games rather like a carnival. There was a punching bag and later a quick-draw contest, but the defining contraption was a mechanical bull. Surrounded by an open area covered with mattresses, the bull was set on a piston and could swivel left and right and pitch up and down and back and forth according to the whims of whatever malevolent soul had the controls that night. One of its nicknames was Old Ohmaballs. Only the rare cowboy could ride it without getting thrown.
Urban Cowboy, a movie based on the article, followed in 1980. Starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, it exploded into the national consciousness and did for country dancing what Travolta’s earlier movie, Saturday Night Fever, had done for disco. The soundtrack from Urban Cowboy went triple platinum. Overnight, huge honky-tonks, each with a dance floor and a mechanical bull, sprang up in every self-respecting town west of the Atlantic Ocean.
The years between the article and the movie, from 1978 to 1980, were the frenzied climax of an economic explosion around Houston that was dizzying. The petrochemical plants along the Gulf of Mexico, where much of the population of Pasadena worked, whistled and steamed and belched all day and all night. In those plants there was a limitless supply of blue-collar jobs that paid pretty good money. More than that, there was a sense of possibility everywhere, a conviction that the old rules did not apply anymore—not about business or sex or class or anything. That made it an excellent time for the nightclub business. The young workers poured out of the plants in the afternoon and into Gilley’s at night, looking for exactly what you would think. “The bottom line of a nightclub is boy meets girl,” Mickey Gilley told me recently. “That’s all there is to it. End of story.” And at Gilley’s in those years, when several thousand intense, self-proclaimed cowboys pressed into the club each night, the musk of boy meets girl hung even thicker than the haze of smoke and beer and sweat from the dancers and bull riders.
Of course it had to end. The good-money times crashed in the early eighties. Gilley’s hung on until 1989, when it finally closed. Mickey Gilley won a bitter lawsuit against his partner in the club, a tough old boot named Sherwood Cryer. The buildings were lost to arson in 1990, and now there’s nothing left except the cement slab. The soundtrack from the movie is still in print; Johnny Lee’s hit song “Lookin’ for Love” and Mickey Gilley’s cuts still sound okay, but the rest is best forgotten. The movie, unavailable for many years, has been released on videotape. It’s definitely from another era, but it has aged well. Even though no real country cowboy and no real city cowboy ever used the word “urban,” Urban Cowboy touched the very real longing of city folks for their rural roots. Most important, it was the first movie set in modern times to embrace and revel in the Texas of today rather than the Texas of the cattle kingdom and the great frontier.
As it happened, this magazine was present at the creation of Urban Cowboy, somewhat to our regret. In 1978 Clay Felker was the editor of Esquire. Our publisher Mike Levy and my predecessor as editor Bill Broyles invited him to Houston that summer to speak at the Rice University Publishing Program. Instead of an honorarium, Felker wanted to be shown around the famous boomtown, and they ended up at Gilley’s late one night. At Texas Monthly, we had discussed writing about Gilley’s but hadn’t done it. One of the aggravations of journalism is that you can be so familiar with something that you miss a story that is right in front of your face. That was what we did with Gilley’s, and after twenty years maybe we now can admit it. Felker saw the mechanical bull and the cowboys dancing with a beer bottle in their back pockets and their girlfriend’s thumbs hooked in their belt loops. He was so struck by the place that back in his hotel room late that night, he called writer Aaron Latham, who had been born and raised in Spur, but was then living in Washington, D.C., and told him to get out of bed and catch the first airplane to Houston.
Working for Felker, Latham had been schooled in what was then called the New Journalism, which used writing techniques usually associated with fiction in stories for magazines about real events and real people. But Latham wanted to see if he couldn’t incorporate more than just the techniques of fiction into journalism. He wanted to incorporate the subjects of fiction as well. To be precise, he wanted to use journalism to tell a love story. He arrived at Gilley’s looking for love, as the song says, but in a different way from any of the cowboys and cowgirls who had come to Gilley’s that night to look for it too.
Latham is a soft-spoken, bookish man, not always a common type at Gilley’s. “When I walked in, everyone looked familiar because they looked like my cousins in Spur,” he recalled recently. “But they seemed foreign to me too, because they all looked