"Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl..."
According to Billboard Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990 (Hal Leonard Publishing, 1991) Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” was the “Number 1” single in the United States for two weeks beginning the week of January 4. “El Paso” is indebted to the corrido (a narrative song, often a ballad, sometimes with a rhythm much like that of a waltz) that Robbins transformed into a country-western ballad. It told the story of a cowboy who fell in love with a Mexican cantina dancer (her name is not important). She was wicked, though, and mocked his love by flirting with other cowboys. One night, so the narrator tells us, in a jealous rage, he shot and killed a boy to whom the girl was being overly attentive. The cowboy fled El Paso, but soon realized that his love for her was stronger than his fear of death, and he returned. He was set upon by the vengeful friends of his victim, and was mortally shot by them. He dies, seemingly happy, in the feckless girl’s arms. He died exalted because of his passion, and yet his passion remained unfulfilled, and thus his desire brought him not ecstasy, but death.
Another pair of famous lovers, Romeo and Juliet, who had only a few days to celebrate their passion--after all, they met on Sunday and died on Thursday, and had just one blissful night of erotic pleasure together--and whose love ended in mutual suicide, are nonetheless celebrated as the happiest and most famous lovers in the western world. Paradoxically, the brevity and misery of their fated love is touted as the model to which lovers should aspire. For love to be genuine, it has to be autonomous, intense--and calamitous. On the one hand, our myths uphold the idea of living happily ever after, but on the other, we measure authentic love only by the degree to which it incites misery and suffering. Denis De Rougemont, in Love in the Western World, says that obsessive passion is really the desire for death: Isn't that the lesson "El Paso" teaches us? In order for love to be real and authentic, we must be unhappy. In one of those delicious ironies possible only in art and not life, “El Paso” was covered by none other than...The Grateful Dead, who played the song in concert several hundred times. Perhaps Bob Weir, or Jerry Garcia, or both, knew what the song was really about.
Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, released in September 1959, was one of the very first LP records I remember (as opposed to 7" 45s and my parents' 78s). Holding the cover in my hands, I would study the cover, flipping it back and forth, first the cover, then the back, examining every detail, reading every word. And I would play the record over and over and over. My mother was very tolerant. I was fascinated by it—and still am. The songs are remarkably diverse, each one a narrative in miniature; they were about religious conversion, Fate, Destiny, Love, and Death, filled with unexpected reversals, catastrophic endings. I now own it on CD. Robbins, gifted with a beautiful, remarkably expressive voice, was a mystic who died prematurely in 1982 at age 57.
In 1976, a few years before his death, Robbins revisited “El Paso” with a song titled “El Paso City.” The narrator is a passenger on an airplane flying over the west Texas desert, near El Paso, who remembers a song he’d heard long ago—“El Paso.” The narrator experiences an anamnesis (a sudden remembering of something he’d forgotten he'd forgotten) and asks, “Could it be that I could be/the cowboy in this mystery/That died there in that desert sand so long ago,” which I’ve always interpreted as Robbins’ admission that he believed he was, in fact, in his previous life the doomed cowboy he wrote about in the earlier song. Of course, in exploring his relationship with the muse that resided within him, "El Paso City" is also about the mystery of artistic creation.
And of course, "El Paso" is not about the real place, the Texas border town. In its figurative sense, "El Paso" names a certain imaginary location, a border kingdom where Desire and Obsession meet Death. In El Paso, you can find the answer to the daunting riddle, Why is passion so strongly linked with death?