Some of my favorite Cher songs happen to be about cowboys and indians. Maybe they can be a tad exploitative or historically inaccurate (as all things exotic are sanitized when they are commercialized), but they are always scenic and full of atmosphere. And they appeal to me is because I was born in the southwest. My family's history is invested in western history, but I left the area at a very young age. So now the stories and landscapes of the American West strike me as both romantically mysterious and devastating. Great and terrible things happened there. The proverbial good, the bad and the ugly.
The cowboy model is a popular metaphor in pop songs because it brings to mind this romantic and violent western US history, the conflicts of settlement and hard times. It's also tumbleweed-strewn and full of images of loners and heartache, villains, renegades and heroes. Two of the most famous western pop songs with cowboy allegories include the Eagles ballad "Desperado" and "The Gambler," written by D. Schlitz and made famous by Kenny Rogers. "The Gambler" is structured like a complete metaphor about life itself. The narrator meets an old gambler on "a train bound for nowhere." The gambler explains to him the key to life, all while swallowin' whiskey and smokin' cigarettes. Life is just a game of poker. And every trick of playing poker can be used in the game of life. "Desperado" is a metaphor as well, this time for the perpetual bachelor sitting on the fence of love through hard cold winters, betting on the queen of diamonds instead of the queen of hearts. A desperado is literally an outlaw, like the outlaw lover Cher describes in "Just Like Jesse James." In fact, "James" is almost the bravado answer to "Desperado." More melancholy Cher westerns include "The Gunman" which harks back to "Bang Bang" and "A Cowboys Work is Never Done."
On the other side of the canyon, you find Cher's Native American narrative ballads, stories about the heartache of being erased by US manifest destiny. The Indian metaphor tells a story of powerlessness. "Half Breed" is about prejudice and disenfranchisement. "Geronimo's Cadillac" is a more modern version of that same tale. "War Paint, Soft Feathers" takes a more culture-secluded look at two tribes with a Romeo and Juliet like twist.
In Cher westerns, the narrator either has all the power (usually a white cowboy man) or has no power (usually an American Indian woman).
Sonny & Cher, having lived in California for much of their lives, were very familiar with the popular West Coast images of cowboys and Indians and the American mythology of both. Cher's interest manifested itself in a collection of turquoise jewelry and a very consistent style of sparse, stone-inspired home decorating. Many portraits of Cher homes in Architectural Digest are derivative of, among other cultures, southwestern architecture and decor. Sonny explored his interest in a few of his songs. We can see his recurring images of children innocently playing the game of cowboy, usually focused on gun fighting. This game is then mirrored against the bitterly real games of cowboy bravado and emotional violence that adults grow up to play. As Sonny's characters become adults, their love relationships are haunted by childhood games of playing cowboy.
"Bang, Bang (You Shot Me Down)" first appeared on the album The Sonny Side of Chér in 1966. In this early version of the song, Cher sounds almost numb as she tells the tale of heartache. She has been dumped and is remembering her childhood with the man who has just dumped her, how they once "rode on horses made of sticks." In this version, Cher is wearing white and her lover-as-child is wearing black. She is innocent and good and he is dressed as the stereotypical bad guy, a symbolic foreshadowing for his soon-to-be heartless dumping. He would always win their play fights. He had all the power. In the chorus, she explains how the game is played: "Bang, Bang/He shot me down/I hit the ground/That awful sound." It's a premonition for the future. They grow up and are still together but he has a very cavalier attitude about their childhood games. He laughs as he remembers. He then repeats the game in its adult variation. The game now takes on a new meaning: he leaves her and she is again shot down, only this time it isn't fun and she is devastated.
Cher re-recorded the song in 1987 on her self-titled album Cher. This time her vocals are fueled with passion, bitterness dripping off the word "sticks" as if she is amazed at her past naiveté. She is not naive anymore. She is tough. She is empowered. She wears the black this time. She has co-opted the color for the side of good. Bon Jovi gives the instrumental interpretation an overhaul with the driving force of Richie Sambora's guitar and a slamming rhythm. Cher screams "Bang bang bang bang" this time. The melancholy bed is gone. Rage has replaced despair.
In 1971, Sonny re-explored innocence and experience through the game of playing cowboy in his song "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" on the 1971 album All I Ever Need Is You. This is one of my favorite songs by Sonny Bono because I think it successfully captures the very pathos of lost innocence in a very modern way, all while encapsulated in the form of the traditional western ballad. Playing cowboy is almost spiritual for young American boys. The game is full of vanquishing evil and the good guy always conquering the villain in a duel at the end. But the whole process is simply a game, no more real than the game of superhero. The process of a man looking back over innocence and naïveté is a heartbreaking scene. Life just didn't turn out the way the game promises it should.
"A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done," similar to the adage "a woman's work is never done," literally means that the chores of a cowboy on a ranch are never ending. It's very cyclical, demanding work. Sonny's song, with the touch of Snuff Garrett, has an almost Marty Robbins sound to it, and again romanticizes the childhood game of cowboy with lines like "I got shot but I never died." Girls could play along, but they weren't accepted because they weren't any fun and were, in fact, standing in the way of fun. If they were allowed to play, they were to do everything the cowboy would say. The cowboy would fight the crime and win the game until his mom would intervene and the game was over. But the cowboy must grow up. In a bitter turn, the adult says he would like to play cowboy once again. He thinks he remembers all the moves. He plays "games now, but it's not fun." Games are hurtful now, he loses more often. And a cowboys work is never done, the game of bravado is never done, the fighting is never done, adult work is never done but ironically, this childhood game of playing cowboy, where a boy happily always wins and never dies, has ended and is done forever.
Cher recorded one of her signature songs, "Half Breed," in 1973 on the same-titled album. This song was written by Mary Dean and Al Capps in the same dramatic narrative ballad vein as the song "Gypsys Tramps and Thieves." The narrator of the song is typical among Cher narrative ballads, a disenfranchised woman in an exotic setting (see "Gypsys Tramps and Thieves," "Dark Lady," "Pirate"). In 1973, the words played straight into the public's perception of Cher as Native American and the album's back cover reinforced that perception with a studio picture of Cher in a stunning Bob Mackie Indian outfit complete with a Chief's head-dressing and wrist bands. A veritable Navaho rug with sequins. On the cover, in a rugged locale, Cher sits on a spotted horse looking very natural and Indian. "Half Breed" was a very popular Cher song and it's fun and light and as far as that goes, it's a fine pop song but as a sincere study of the plight of being a half breed, the song is missing some heart. The war drums tend to trivialize and stereotype Indian cultures. Not all tribes were warriors, especially not the relatively peaceful Cherokee tribe, but somehow war drums have become synonymous with Indians as if they all skip around a fire popping their hands over their mouths and sleeping in tee-pees.
Other critics could very easily focus on the "how can you presume to know" reproach that writers often face when trying to create characters who have problems the authors have never experienced first hand. Songs like this tend to be viewed skeptically by people who have direct knowledge of these problems as being false and exploitative. Personally, I would like to give the authors the benefit of believing that they indeed tried to be sincere and not oversimplify the situation.
It is irksome, however, that the song portrays the heroine as a perpetual victim. She had this hard half-breed childhood and since then has "been from man to man." She's in a victim-loop: she's a social outcast so she sleeps around which makes her life more unstable. This half-breed needs an intervention by Cher herself. "Take control of your life. Snap out of it! You are a wolf who bit off your own hand."
"Geronimo's Cadillac," on the other hand, has always been my favorite Native American song Cher covered because it has an element of smirking at the white man for being dumb enough to try to buy him off with a cadillac. This song, written by Michael Martin Murphy (who later recorded "Wildfire"' and "What's Forever For"), appeared on Cher's landmark album Stars in 1975. It's true, the song has it's share of pathos and powerlessness, but the Indians in this song are empowered spiritually by the knowledge that they are right and "in the sunset, too." The song is less of a caricature of Indians and more of a political statement. The lyrics address more subtly the depth of the predicament of the Native American peoples, directly referencing Geronimo, the famous Apache war leader who terrorized the southwest for fifteen years after being incited by the brutal slayings of his wife and three children. Geronimo surrendered to the US Calvary in 1886 after killing more than 2,500 white US citizens.
In "Geronimo's Cadillac" we find Geronimo on the reservation after his surrender. The US government has made peace with Geronimo but he is still a prisoner of his physical reservation and the relocation policy that displaced thousands of tribal peoples. And instead of releasing Geronimo, the US government sends him a car. But what use does he have for a car? "You never see a car on the Indian range." It's an attractive distraction, Geronimo and his pals enjoy it, the narrator even wants to ride in it, but it won't give them freedom. They have no place to go. The main plea is to set Gerry free. In her appeal to this effect, Cher works her way up the government line starting with Sargent, Sargent; Warden, Warden; Gov'nor, Gov'nor; People, People.
Treaties were signed, land was stolen, wars were fought. And the government tried to pay the debt with a Cadillac, symbolic for both the white mans bad deal and the encroaching technology quintessentially out of sync with and destructive towards any native religion's spiritual alliance with natural simplicity.
In 1977, Snuff Garrett, the producer of Cher's album Cherished, made an attempt to recapture some of the chart-topping magic of "Half Breed" with the song "War Paint, Soft Feathers" written by C.K. Miller, Sandy Pinkard and Al Capps. The album cover once again accentuated Cher's Indian-esque look with a suede, fringed and beaded Indian top, made 70s-modern with blue-jeans and heels.
The title names the lead characters, War Paint, a young Apache and Soft Feathers, his Cherokee sweetheart. First of all the song is not geographically likely, being that the Apache tribe was located mainly in New Mexico and Arizona and the Cherokee tribe were situated in the southeast, that is until they were persecuted and packed-off along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. But by then, the Indians had mainly stopped fighting with each other and were now squabbling with the US government and white manifest destiny. Apaches and Cherokees had little opportunity to mingle while they were still autonomous tribes.
This story is one part a Romeo and Juliet tale (two lovers doomed because of their warring families), and one part a-single-mother-copes-because-of-an-absent man story. This song finishes the work "Gypsys Tramps and Thieves" and "Pirate" began. The song is wallpapered cliché from one end to the other, full of horse thievery, headbands, crossed spears, a pinto horse and an eagle soaring above. The war drums are back, more urgent this time because this is the story of warring families and two young turks who sneak away and do "what tribal laws forbid." Tsk tsk. This time, pow-wow chanting is thrown in with some very grating lines like "they were from two different tongues but their lips met anyhow." Despite these problems, the song is still satisfying in a Hollywood, saccharine sort of way.
After her unfortunate Warner Brothers years, Cher swore off her westerns until the 1980s. "Just Like Jesse James" appeared on her Heart of Stone album. Written by Diane Warren and Desmond Child — two heavy-hitter songwriters of the '80s, this song is about a sheriff bringin' in the law-breaker of love who "struts into town like he's slingin' a gun." She's gonna bring him to justice, challenge him to a duel, dare him to love her until "her heart is cryin' Indian and she's beggin' for more." She promises he will go down in flames just like that famous outlaw train-robber of the late 1800s. Stock western images in the song include wild horses and a loaded gun. A construction of similes keeps things light. More light western fare.
Cher's latest foray into the Wild West is found on her melodic and fragrant It's a Man's World album. "The Gunman," written by Paddy McAloon, references less western images. In this final struggle between the powerful hombre and the powerless lover, we find Cher in a state of surrender. Gone is the cock-sure bravado of Jesse James. The gunman is all-powerful. He has no mercy. Like the gunslinger in "Jesse James," he's comin' into town and Cher has no hope to be able to resist him this time. The Gunman is Love itself and Love will shoot you down, setting sights and blazing barrels. Cher speaks to the everyman, using the 2nd person address of "you." You can "saddle up and ride" away but that is just an illusion of escape. Love (a.k.a. The Gunman), will hunt you (and all of us) down. Only death will set us free. This song is the most metaphorical, most high-concept of all Cher westerns and probably Cher songs in general. She enters some vague room—it is a saloon? Devoid of details, the song takes place almost symbolically. A very mature lyric and cryptic in its use of western jargon.
Cher has come full circle to "Bang Bang," except that the surrender and defeat in "The Gunman" is very bittersweet and almost inevitably beautiful whereas the defeat of "Bang Bang" was tragic and depressing. Along the way, Cher has been an Indian, struggling against her own lineage, bringing down cowboy outlaws, soliciting awareness for the descendents of Geronimo, retelling Indian love-stories. She has also been a child, a victim of the American cowboy dream of good vs. evil, grown up, shot down and disillusioned. The Cher western is a rich bed for storytelling, lyrical and majestic just like the landscape from which it is inspired. Cher may have been a bit typecast in the role of Indian, some of the lyrics may have bordered on cliché, but Cher, in her vocal performance, always stopped short of doing cartoonish renditions. Her performances are sincere. The best, deepest, most touching of Cher westerns happen to have been the least over-the-top: "The Gunman," about love in general and "Geronimo's Cadillac," about the relationship between American Indians and the US Government. And Sonny's two efforts, "Bang Bang" and "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done," touching because of their character portraits, small pop biographies of children coming to terms with the pain of growing up, one of the most universal and timeless of themes transformed with spurs and a cowboy hat. ◙
(Cher Scholar, 2000)
"Bang Bang" was written by Sonny Bono and published by Five West-Cotillion Music, BMI; "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" was written by Sonny Bono and published by BMI; "Half Breed" was written by Mary Dean and Al Capps and was published by Collage Songs; "Geronimo's Cadillac" was written by Michael Martin Murphy and published by Mystery Music, Inc., BMI; "War Paint, Soft Feathers" was written by C.K. Miller, Sandy Pinkard and Al Capps and published by Blue Monday Music/Hobby Horse Music, BMI; "Just Like Jesse James" was written by Diane Warren and Desmond Child and published by Realsongs/SBK April Music Inc./Desmoblile Music Co., ASCAP; "The Gunman" was written by Paddy McAloon and published by EMI Songs, Ltd./Blackwood Music, BMI; Encyclopedia of the Old West by Dennis McLoughlin, Barnes & Noble Books.
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