A quarter of a century is a long time to stay aboard a maniacally bucking mechanical bull. Aaron Latham has done just that — through four different reincarnations — but then he is the ultimate Urban Cowboy, a bona-fide son of Spur, Texas, who settled, if not Way Out West on West End Avenue, at least within spitting distance of it, off Columbus Avenue.
Back in 1978, on orders from editor Clay Felker, he trekked to Texas and wrote an article for Esquire about young love among the blue-collar white-trash down there. He called it "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy," and it went down so well he was tapped to turn it into a movie two years later, tailoring it to John Travolta specifications. With the movie's release in 1980 came his novelization, which, for all practical purposes, should have been period and paragraph on the subject. Then, out of the blue one July day in 1997, Latham got a letter from the late producer-director (and, more importantly, Houstonian) Phillip Oesterman proposing a Broadway musicalization.
"I thought, 'That's interesting,' and promptly lost the letter," Latham admits a little sheepishly. "Several weeks later, my wife [Lesley Stahl, of 60 Minutes fame] asked about it, and I told her I'd lost it. She forced me to look for it till I found it. It took me two or three days, but I finally found it, and I called him up. It was his idea to do it as a musical, but I'd always thought there was one there. We said, when we were shooting the film, that we were making a musical where nobody turned to the camera and sang."
Oesterman envisioned this musical Urban Cowboy as a country-musical Cabaret where the plot takes place within Gilley's, a roadside honky-tonk. Lording over the dance floor was a huge mechanical bull that young bucks of the area would try to ride before they joined the filly-chase.
From the comfortable distance of 25 years' hindsight, Latham looks at the mechanical bull "as a powerful symbol where the old West and urban America come together. It's the new age of the pickup instead of the horse. It's also the oil refinery, which is just a bigger bull, and the refinery is an emblem of the city, which is the biggest machine of all. If you can stay on the mechanical bull, you sorta have the illusion that it's somehow important." His first brush with the bull, minutes after he hit the swinging doors of Gilley's, was less lofty. "It was the most fascinating thing in the club. I got on it, and I rode it almost as soon as I got there because I knew, if I saw too many people get hurt riding it, I would lose my nerve, so I climbed on top and rode it and got hurt, and that was that."
Contrary to Mickey Gilley's hit ditty which came out of the movie (and, of course, has been cleverly recycled for Broadway), Latham was not "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places." Fact is, it couldn't have been righter: "I had long had an idea which I had never had a chance to try. It was back in the days of The New Journalism, and the mantra for The New Journalist was: Use the techniques of fiction to tell a nonfiction story — point of view, dialogue, scenes. I thought the one thing that was left out of the equation was love. Almost all fiction is about love, one way or another. A love story is not the only thing people write books about, but it's right up there close to the top, so I figured if there was a way to combine a real love story with a real journalism story, I'd have the powerful engine of a love story pulling the other story. I'd really be using nonfiction and fiction."
With that in mind, Latham scanned the dance floor and scrutinized the prospects. "I went there that night, looking for a girl and boy who'd met there. I wanted him to work in a refinery. There was something wrong with everyone I talked to — they didn't work in a refinery or they had met seven girls there, not one — then, finally, at two in the morning, just as they were about to close, a girl came in and rode the bull standing up. I'd never seen that before, so I went over and talked to her. She'd met her husband at Gilley's. Their wedding reception was at Gilley's. She rode the bull better than he did. Eventually, they broke up. She went off with the guy running the bull, and he went off with this uptown girl. Then one day, the sheriff arrested the guy running the bull. He'd escaped from jail in Oklahoma and was hiding out, running the bull at Gilley's."
Such was the saga of Bud and Sissy — and that interfering Wes. In the movie Travolta, Debra Winger and Scott Glenn played the characters that Matt Cavenaugh, Jenn Colella and Marcus Chait will reinvent March 27 at the Broadhurst Theatre.
The story has a postscript, which Texas Monthly recently delivered with a 25th anniversary roundup of whatever happened to the original characters. "The outlaw was captured," says Latham, "put in jail, served his sentence, came out, married the girl he'd been in love with before he went to jail, had some kids and is leading a fairly stable life, running a garage and fixing cars."
Knockabout Bud and Sissy broke up, and he married the uptown girl. That didn't work out, either. Nor did his next marriage. "For a while," says Latham, "he was working in Ohio and living in a trailer. For some reason, the neighbors objected to him shooting his gun off inside his mobile home. He liked to take target practice, which I guess he could get away with in Texas, but in Ohio they wouldn't let him, so he bought a crossbow and would practice with a crossbow inside his trailer.
"All his life he told people he was the original Urban Cowboy, and nobody believes it."