As the state that gave the world Bonnie and Clyde, and even celebrated some of their murderous exploits, Texas has a thing for couples’ all-out hell-for-leather crime sprees. It has become something of a trope in our popular songs. For example, Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever” is a strong contender for unofficial state anthem. Say, “Sherry was a waitress…” to a Texan of a certain age and you will soon find yourself singing an impromptu duet.
Less-known is Charlie Robison’s “Desperate Times,” which builds on the lyrical material of “The Road Goes on Forever” and welds it to the music of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.”
In both of these songs we’re introduced to some complex characters. The Jackie of “Desperate Times” doesn’t go to college after leaving Bandera High School. He instead joins the Army, blows his money on a new truck, serves a few years, and still can’t find a job in Bandera—so he becomes a San Antonio cop. He marries a bank teller named Jill, and “his ends still wouldn’t meet,” at least not to the extent where they could drive a new Corvette.
So Jack and Jill plan to rob the Texas Commerce Bank where Jill worked, with Jill giving Jack the inside knowledge and him providing the firepower. It goes off as planned, and Jack buries a suitcase full of $100 bills on a hill outside of Bandera, but then Jill came under suspicion and rolled over on Jack “‘cause she was in over her head.”
“The G-men gave Jack wind of this when they made his arrest,” Robison sings. “He asked her why she turned on the one that she loved best/Well it wasn’t easy, Jack/These are desperate times.”
And then there are Sherry and Sonny, the heroes of Keen’s Lone Star anthem. We have the chain-smoking, hard-drinking waitress “with a reputation as a girl who’d been around,” and the loner, small-time pot dealer who had tried and failed to get into the Navy. Sonny avenges a sexual assault against Sherry one night and the two of them run off together, twin outcasts from a cruel small town. They roar off toward Miami, where Sonny knew a guy who knew a guy who dealt in contraband. The deal goes sour, the law comes busting in, Sherry blasts a cop for Sonny with a single shot .410. Then Sonny lays down his life for Sherry, who gets to keep the money from the drug deal while Sonny takes the rap and heads for the chair.
All of which is, as we say now, highly problematic material. But at least Keen gave us some reason to root for Sherry, the hard-working victim of small-town judgment, and Sonny, the noble soul who gave his own life in exchange for hers, a woman he barely knew. And Keen’s world-weary, cynical chorus—”The road goes on forever/and the party never ends”—provides the narrator some level of detachment from the cop murder in the song.
Still, we are talking about the cold-blooded murder of a policeman who was just doing his job, so the song’s iconic status is curious. But not as curious as the pass Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run” has gotten for many decades now.
Over the years this song had become something akin to sonic wallpaper. “Take The Money and Run” just kept on ah-roooga-in’ on through the years. Alongside the Eagles, Beastie Boys, and Boston, the song from the once-Texan Miller was part of the soundtrack to so many 1980s high school and college keg parties. I’ve heard it billowing from truck speakers in vacant lots in Houston, blasting out of a boom box on the beach in Galveston, and in the parking lot at Strake Jesuit high school.
And until quite recently, I never really heard the song, or considered the immensely troublesome morality of its lyrics. You know how sometimes you can hear an old song with fresh ears every now and then? How sometimes, it can, as Foreigner might put it, “feel like the first time” you’ve heard an old warhorse like “Stairway to Heaven” or “Freebird”? That’s what happened to me driving on Houston’s Katy Freeway while jamming “Take the Money and Run” just the other day.
I finally realized that Steve Miller is asking us to do nothing short of actively cheer on the sociopathic exploits of Billy Joe and Bobby Sue, two young lovers with nothing better to do than commit a home invasion, kill the presumably innocent occupant of that home, and then steal all his money and run away.
We are offered no motivation other than the fact that they were bored, sitting around the house, getting stoned, and watching the tube. The victim is not denigrated in any way—we have no reason to cheer on his demise. He didn’t do anything to Billy Joe and Bobby Sue. As far as we know, he could have been a neighborhood saint who hated banks and hoarded cash in his house. And then there is Billy Mack, that detective down in Texas who makes his living off the people’s taxes, and is perhaps the most inept cop in all of modern American popular culture. (Aside maybe from the guy who made the decision in “Road Goes on Forever” to send a single cop all by himself to raid a high-stakes Cuban drug deal in a cheap Miami Beach motel.)
I mean, this is capital murder we are talking about. By the law of parties, you could fry both Billy Joe and Bobby Sue. And we have been urging them to “Go on and take the money and run” for all these years!
Once all this hit me, in dazed astonishment, I turned to Houston Chronicle culture critic Andrew Dansby with this classic rock radio epiphany. “I must be morally bankrupt, because I hadn’t considered the ethics of it,” he says. “My problem was just how silly the narrative was if you did a CliffsNotes version.”
He then provided his synopsis:
- Two bored people get high and watch TV.
- They decide to shake things up by going to El Paso and shooting a guy.
- There’s a detective.
- He’s not going to let them escape justice.
- He lets them escape justice.
- They escape justice.
- Roll credits.
While I am more troubled by the fact that Miller has us rooting for Billy Joe and Bobby Sue, Dansby has it in for Billy Mack. “‘He ain’t gonna let those two escape justice’ to me implies, he’ll stretch the law if he has to,” he says. “He’ll plant evidence, beat out a confession. Whatever it takes. Nope. She slipped away. How?”
Still fuming, Dansby adds: “I still find myself blaming Billy Mack. I mean, why even introduce him? They promise Buford Pusser and give us Buford T. Justice.”
Dansby finally concludes: “If he spent more than 15 minutes on that song, he wasted his time.” Well, modern morality might say yes to that, but the royalty checks definitely say no. And even after all these years, it still a catchy tune, questionable lyrics or no.