Looking for Love

Urban Cowboy rides again.

November 1998By Comments

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 tough. They were cowboys, but there was an undercurrent of urban violence. You thought a fight could break out any second, and occasionally one did.” He knew if he didn’t ride the bull immediately, he wouldn’t ever ride it, so he got on, got thrown, and jammed his thumb. He spent the night interviewing people, looking for his love story. “Finally,” he says, “about two in the morning a girl came in and rode the bull standing up. It turned out she was married to a guy working in the plants, but they were separated because she could ride the bull better than he could. He had ordered her not to ride the bull, and when she did it anyway, he had gone off with a little more uptown girl, and she was dating the guy running the bull. So here was a guy whose main problem was that he had met a girl who was a better cowboy than he was.” After the article appeared and a movie deal was signed, Latham returned to Gilley’s, and everyone asked him if he had heard what had happened to Les, the man who ran the bull. It turned out he was an escaped convict hiding out at Gilley’s and had been taken back to prison. Latham says: “We changed it to a paroled convict in the movie because we didn’t think anyone would believe that an escaped convict would choose Gilley’s as the place to hide out.”

Mickey Gilley faults the movie for being toned down to maintain a PG rating. “Let’s face it,” he told me, “a lot of things go on in nightclubs people would rather their children didn’t see.” This is an expert’s opinion and no doubt correct, but I find the movie to be generally right on key. The story follows the love quadrangle Latham found swirling around the ability to ride the mechanical bull. In the end the two lovers separated by the bull get back together. Along the way so many little details are right. John Travolta does the bent-knee, gliding cowboy dancing as if he really had been born to it. Debra Winger’s hair is the big mass of cascading curls you can find on cowgirls even today. And the rich Houston girl Travolta takes up with really looks like a rich Houston girl as opposed to a rich Dallas girl, a distinction any male who attended college in Texas learns to recognize automatically. The work in the plants is shown to be hard and dangerous, and the landscape is one of refinery towers, mobile homes, and new tract houses on dusty lots. Most of all, the movie is not condescending to its subject. The characters struggle with life as they find it, make mistakes, and either do or do not learn from them.

“We thought we were writing Don Quixote,” Latham told me. “These kids had grown up on the cowboy myth just as Don Quixote had grown up on the knight-errant myth. Quixote really believed it just as Gilley’s kids really believed their myth. Quixote jousts with windmills, and they joust with a mechanical bull. The windmill is mechanical too and spins like the bull, so there’s an archetypal story underneath it all. I guess the city is the big machine, really, and the kids riding the bull are riding the mechanized world, if only for a few minutes.”

Today, of course, it’s not just Gilley’s that is gone but the whole world it symbolized. The plants along the Gulf Coast haven’t strained at the seams for years and no longer hold out the promise of an endless supply of blue-collar jobs. The path from the country to the city isn’t through Gilley’s anymore, if it ever really was. Today the flow seems reversed, as city people fan out to buy up the country where their grandparents were raised. The biggest country stars play in stadiums, not honky-tonks, and the crowds who go to hear them may be cheering, but they aren’t dancing. Latham, meanwhile, is working on Urban Cowboy, the Broadway musical. He pondered whether to set it in 1978 or today, and he came to the right conclusion. It’s set in 1978.

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