Published On: Mon, Oct 11th, 2021

Urban Cowboy True Story – The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit


This article originally appeared in the September 12, 1978 issue of Esquire. It contains outdated and potentially offensive descriptions of homosexuality, gender, and class. You can find every Esquire story ever published at Esquire Classic.

Dew Westbrook is a big-city cowboy. The range he rides is a Houston honky-tonk saloon called Gilley’s, which is as big as a ranch inside. The animal that carries him is a bucking bull. He straddles this dangerous beast right there in the saloon’s south forty, where the landscape is dotted with long-necked beer bottles (in place of sagebrush) and verdant pool tables (in place of pastures). The bull is mechanized, but it bucks as hard as a real one, breaking an occasional arm, leg, or collarbone. Sometimes it crushes something worse. A honky-tonk cowboy has to risk his manhood in order to prove it.

Dew, the beer joint bull rider, is as uncertain about where his life is going as America is confused about where it wants to go. And when America is confused, it turns to its most durable myth: the cowboy. As the country grows more and more complex, it seems to need simpler and simpler values: something like the Cowboy Code. According to this code, a cowboy is independent, self-reliant, brave, strong, direct, and open. All of which he can demonstrate by dancing the cotton-eyed Joe with the cowgirls, punching the punching bag, and riding the bull at Gilley’s. In these anxious days, some Americans have turned for salvation to God, others have turned to fad prophets, but more and more people are turning to the cowboy hat. Dew paid $35 for his on sale.

The life story of Dew, the urban cowboy, sounds as if it should be set to twangy music and sung as a country-and-western ballad.

One way the Cowboy Code is transmitted to the new urban cowboy is through country-and-western music. How Dew sees his world is shaped by the songs he hears on the radio and the lyrics sung by the band at Gilley’s. Country music is the city cowboy’s Bible, his literature, his self-help book, his culture. It tells him how to live and what to expect.

Actually, the life story of Dew, the urban cowboy, sounds as if it should be set to twangy music and sung as a country-and-western ballad. Dew met Betty at Gilley’s, twang-twang. Dew fell in love with Betty at Gilley’s, twang-twang. They had their wedding reception at Gilley’s, twang-twang. But they quarreled over the bull at Gilley’s, twang-twang. And then Dew met somebody new at Gilley’s, twaaaang.

A few months after the breakup, I made a date to go to Gilley’s with Dew and his new girl friend. I knew his ex-wife would be there too. When the three of them met at the bullring, it might be like Frankie and Johnny.

urban cowboy

John Travolta who would play a fictionalized version of Dew, described here, in the film adaptation of this story, Urban Cowboy.

Hulton ArchiveGetty Images


Honky-Tonk Saturday Night

Before we could go to Gilley’s, Dew had to change clothes. He had curly hair the color of the beach at Galveston, worn a little long for a cowboy. His nose had a slight hump in it like a bull’s back. And he had pale-blue eyes that squinted. He was a good-looking cowboy who had had a hard un-cowboy day.

“The foam glass is eating me up,” Dew complained. “It’ll take the hide off you real quick.”

Dew, who works six days a week, had spent his Saturday sawing foam glass, a form of insulation, with a saw at Texas City Refining. All of the maze of pipes and towers at the refinery needed insulation. At twenty-two, Dew has already spent over three years insulating petrochemical plants. It is hard, boring work. All assholes and elbows, as he puts it.

He exchanged his hard hat for a black felt cowboy hat with toothpicks stuck in the band and his name spelled out in small gold letters on the back.

After work, the big-city cowboy had come home to his covered wagon: a mobile home. He lives in a trailer park that is built in a circle, so at dusk all the mobile homes really do look a little like a wagon train circled up for the night.

“I’ll just be a minute,” Dew said.

He was ready to turn into an urban cowboy. He exchanged his hard hat for a black felt cowboy hat with toothpicks stuck in the band and his name spelled out in small gold letters on the back. (No country cowboy ever decorated his hat with gilt lettering.) He traded dirty bell-bottom blue jeans for clean bell-bottom blue jeans that had just been ironed. (No country cowboy ever wore anything but unironed, straight-legged jeans.) Then he swapped his work sneakers for cowboy boots with a flat, rubber heel designed for a range made up mostly of asphalt, sidewalks, and linoleum. (No country cowboy ever wore anything but high, pointed, leather heels designed to let a cowboy dig in his heels if he roped something mean.) And his workingman’s T-shirt was replaced by a cowboy shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps and short sleeves. (If a country cowboy wore short sleeves, his arms would be scratched off the first time he passed a mesquite tree.) Now the urban cowboy was ready to mount his pickup truck and ride forth to Gilley’s in search of adventure. He had his armor on. The cowboy has always been America’s knight-errant. During the Middle Ages, dressing a knight in his armor was a solemnly important ritual. The dressing of the urban cowboy is no less so.

When a city cowboy dons his cowboy clothes, he dons more than garments: He dons cowboy values. These values evolved among people who lived fifty miles apart. While they were away from everyone else, they had to be independent and self-reliant. And when these people did occasionally see one another, they could not afford to waste time being anything but open and direct. And now these values, forged by people who lived too far apart, are serving people who live too close together.

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A busy night at Gilley’s, 1980.

Joe SinisiGetty Images

When Dew puts on his cowboy hat, it temporarily drives from his head the memory of his job at the refinery. When he pulls on his cowboy boots, he can temporarily forget that he is a member of insulators’ union local 22 which ties him to the city that he is always saying he is going to leave. His life is divided into hard-hat days and cowboy-hat nights. It is a way of coping. It may sound crazy, but it works. Or, as the band down at Gilley’s sings:

I’ve always been crazy,
But it’s kept me from going insane.

On the way to Gilley’s, Dew drove his orange-and-white pickup fast and loose. He made it buck. Beside Dew on the pickup seat sat Jan Day, twenty-four, with whom he has lived ever since he broke up with his wife, twang-twang. Auburn-haired Jan possessed a porcelain beauty that made men want to save her from breaking. She was so fragile, in fact, that she sometimes fainted at Gilley’s, which is no place for the porcelain hearted. She wore cowboy boots, flared jeans, and a transparent top with nothing underneath. (No cowboy-cowgirl could afford to let her breasts roam free as dogies.)

“I’d never go to the Nesadel,” Dew said of a joint down the road from Gilley’s. “It’s a rock place. A different set goes there. Sometimes there’s tension between the two groups. I’d never go in the Nesadel without twenty ol’ cowboys to back me up.”

From the road, Gilley’s Club looks like a little old shack. But when you walk through the door, you see that it is a great deal more. It’s just a honky-tonk, but it looks about as big as the MGM Grand Hotel or St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It has about forty pool tables which makes it roughly equal to forty bars under one roof. On a busy night, this capital of the urban-cowboy culture has a population greater than most state capitals had during the heyday of the Old West. When Willie Nelson played Gilley’s, 4,500 people crowded inside.

On our way to the dance floor, we passed a gang of downtown cowboys gathered to pay a quarter to smash the punching bag just to prove how hard they could hit. A dial measured the force of each punch. If the honky-tonk cowpokes slugged hard enough, a siren went off. And most of them did hit hard enough. That part of Gilley’s sounded like a firehouse. When the saloon cowgirls are watching, the saloon cowboys often hit the bag until their hands bleed and their knuckles break. At the end of an evening, there is often blood on the bag.

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Original Esquire magazine spread.

Esquire

Jan and Dew tried to teach me how to dance the cotton-eyed Joe. You make a line and kick a lot. And every time you kick you yell: “Bullshit! Bullshit!” It is a perfect shit kickers’ dance.

Then everyone danced the Shotess, which was followed by a crow’s step, which was followed by a polka, which was followed by the whip. All the cowboys danced with their hats on. When they danced slowly, the cowgirls hooked the cowboys’ belt loops with the fingers of their left hands. And the cowboys held onto the cowgirls’ hair with their right hands.

When the band took a break, everyone headed for the bullring. It costs two dollars to ride the bull, and you have to sign a waiver saying you won’t sue no matter how bad you get hurt. A cowboy on the sidelines runs the bull by remote control, making it buck according to his whim. One cowboy got so good at running the bull that he claimed he could throw off a cowboy’s hat, turn the cowboy around, and then throw him on his hat.

Dew, who hadn’t ridden the bull for some time, was apprehensive. He had brought two ace bandages from home. He used one to wrap his right knee and the other to swaddle his left wrist. Then he pulled a bull-riding glove onto his left hand.

“Why do you ride left-handed?” I asked. “I thought you were right-handed.”

“I am,” Dew said, “but that’s what I make my living with.” He held up his right fist. “I’m crazy to ride, but I’m smart.”

He placed his cowboy hat on a chair in front of Jan like a votive offering. Then he climbed aboard the big, bad bull.

As the bull started to buck and spin, Jan took in a deep breath and looked worried. As I scanned the bullring, I noticed another intent face. It belonged to Betty, Dew’s ex-wife. I knew she was still in love with the bull rider, twang-twang.


Betty and Eddie Were Lovers

Dew’s real name is Donald Edward Westbrook. The cowboys at Gilley’s made a nickname out of his initials. Everybody at Gilley’s has a nickname. There’s Gaiter and the Hippie and Armadillo …. But Dew’s family calls him Eddie. One night a couple of years ago, Eddie met Betty Jo Helmer at Gilley’s. At the time, he was nineteen and she was eighteen. Betty and Eddie liked each other right away. It seemed like destiny. After all, their names rhymed the way the names of lovers in a good country song should. At the time, it didn’t occur to them that all country songs have unhappy endings.

On that first night, Betty came to Gilley’s with her girl friends. She wore pants, not having worn or even owned a dress for years. She had a turned-up nose, an adolescent pout, and long brown hair. She wasn’t quite beautiful, but she was as cute as a picture on a T-shirt. Dew came up and asked her to dance. She accepted.

“Now you’re stuck with him,” one of her girl friends said.

urban cowboy

John Travolta and Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy.

Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

But that was fine with Betty. She had been watching him dance, and she liked what she saw. An urban cowboy doesn’t have to know how to brand or rope or hog-tie or bulldog … but he does have to know how to dance. Eddie took hold of Betty’s hair, and she hooked her finger through his belt loop. They danced until closing time as the band sang good old honky-tonk lyrics like:

Help me make it through the night….

The next night, Betty and Eddie came to Gilley’s together. And the next. And the next. Betty and Eddie were lovers.

One night after two A.M. closing time, Betty and Eddie went from Gilley’s to Granny’s all-night omelet joint. (There are more nicknames ending in “y” and “ie” in Texas than there are at an Eastern girls’ boarding school.) At Granny’s, Eddie tickled Betty until she pinched his leg. He got mad and hit her right there in front of everybody. But Betty loved Eddie in spite of the pain, twang-twang.

An urban cowboy doesn’t have to know how to brand or rope or hog-tie or bulldog, but he does have to know how to dance.

They decided to get married. Eddie wanted to have the wedding at Gilley’s. (Actually, there have been several marriages performed in the saloon. Judge West, a colorful old-time justice of the peace, comes over and joins the couples in matrimony.) But Betty refused to get married in a honky-tonk. She wanted a Baptist minister to perform the ceremony in church. So they compromised, agreeing to get married in church but to have the wedding reception at Gilley’s.

The only dress Betty ever wore at Gilley’s was her wedding dress. And she didn’t want to wear it. She wanted to change right after the exchange of vows so she could go to her wedding reception in her Levi’s. But her father insisted that he wanted pictures of his daughter dancing in her wedding dress. So another compromise was in order. Betty went to her Gilley’s wedding reception in her wedding dress and danced just long enough for the photographer to snap a few pictures. Then she went into the ladies’ room and took off her wedding dress. When she emerged to enjoy the rest of her wedding reception, the eighteen-year-old bride wore pants.

Betty had expected Eddie to want to stay until closing time. She was shocked when he suggested leaving early. They spent their honeymoon at the Roadway Inn, which is only about a mile from Gilley’s. There was no place to stay any closer. The Roadway is built in the shape of a tower. Because the building is round, all the rooms are triangular. When they ordered breakfast on the morning after their wedding night, room service brought it up on a tray with plastic silverware.

editorial use only no book cover usage
mandatory credit photo by paramountkobalshutterstock 5882420p
debra winger, john travolta
urban cowboy   1979
director james bridges
paramount
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Winger and Travolta in Urban Cowboy.

Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock


Bull Riding Saturday Night

Dew spurred the bull, even though he didn’t really have spurs on his boots. He slammed his heels again and again into the machine between his legs. The mechanical bull bucked and spun. Dew was getting bruised and dizzy. He came up off the bull’s back and thought he was headed for the mattresses, which surround the bull, stacked two layers thick. But somehow Dew saved himself. He crashed back onto the bull’s back, his sexual organs taking a beating. Dew winced in pain.

A honky-tonk cowboy named Steve Strange was manning the bull’s remote controls. He made it spin first one way and then the other. Cowboys who have ridden real bulls say that in some ways the mechanical bull is harder to ride because you can’t watch its head and tell which way it is going to turn. The treachery of the bull depends upon the treachery of the man at the controls. Steve, who was once badly hurt by a real bull, is treacherous indeed. He seems to believe that everyone should get mangled as badly as he did when a real bull gored him in the chute. He told me that as a result of his injuries he has a plastic bone in his leg, a plastic plate in his head, and a plastic testicle. I was not sure whether to believe him, so he knocked on his leg. It sounded like plastic. Then he knocked on his head. It sounded like plastic too. I was afraid he was going to keep on knocking, so I stopped him. Bragging about your injuries is another important part of being an urban cowboy. The more banged up you are, the more of a he-man you are.

Dew pitched forward on the bull, which is how you can get hurt the worst. I knew what he was going through because I had tried riding the bull myself a couple of days earlier. When I asked for instructions, one of the cowboys told me: “Put your left nut in your right hand and hang on.” Armed with this advice, I crawled aboard. When the bull started bucking, I desperately wished I could think of some way to do what the cowboy had told me to do. I kept crashing into the rigging, which was supposed to hold me on but which had become a hammer banging between my legs. A bell tied to the bull clanged maddeningly in my ears. I was frightened. Deciding it was time to get off. I began to wonder how you let go of a tiger. I looked for a good place to land. Then I felt myself flying horizontally through the air. I hit the mattresses with my right shoulder first. Stumbling to the sidelines, I sat down to record my impressions, but my hand was shaking so much I couldn’t write.

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Esquire’s cover September 12, 1978.

Esquire

Dew pressed himself back up into a sitting position, somehow staying aboard. The bull on which he rode had the heart of a pickup truck. A piston rather than sinews made it buck. The urban cowboy was trying to tame a wild, woolly machine. Which was as it should be because the urban cowboy knows a lot more about horsepower than about horses. He lives in a world where machines have replaced every animal but himself, and he is threatened. In his boots and jeans, the urban cowboy tries to get a grip on and ride an America that, like his bull, is mechanized. He can never tame it, but he has the illusion of doing so.

A sideline cowboy yelled, “Hurts your nuts, don’t it?”

As Jan watched, she was obviously afraid the cowboy might be right: Had Dew hurt himself badly? As Betty watched from a greater distance, she was worried about something else: Could her former husband ride better than she could?


Betty and Eddie Were Bull Riders

Betty and Eddie spent much of their marriage at Gilley’s. When they weren’t honky-tonking, they both worked. Betty worked in construction, putting hardware in houses. Eddie insulated petrochemical plants and moonlighted at an auto racetrack.

Betty and Eddie are both second-generation non-country cowboys. Betty’s father works in construction like his daughter. And Eddie’s father is an insulator like his son. Way back, one of Betty’s grandfathers did have a trading post, but it doubled as a wrecking yard.

Eddie was born in a small Texas town named Longview. But he lived there only seven years before moving to the Houston area.

All the urban cowboys talk about going back to the great good country. In the meantime, they keep going to Gilley’s, or some other honky-tonk.

“I lived in a town on top of a mountain,” Dew reminisced one evening in his trailer. “That’s how the town got its name. I’d like to get back to Longview someday. Have my own insulation shop.”

All the urban cowboys talk about going back to the great good country. In the meantime, they keep going to Gilley’s, or some other honky-tonk. “It’s like Peyton Place out here,” Betty said one night at Gilley’s. “Everybody’s been with everybody.” She even told me which cowgirls had given venereal disease to which cowboys and vice versa. Gilley’s is a very small town in the middle of one of America’s biggest cities.

While the Gilley’s cowboys keep saying they are going home to a real small town someday, they grow more tightly bound to the big city, the union, and the petrochemical plant every day. They are ready to move at a moment’s notice, but they don’t move. They live in mobile homes that aren’t mobile. Dew would need a semi to move his trailer. He lives in a home on wheels that has never rolled an inch since he moved in.

Dew has two pickups and used to have even more vehicles before he smashed up several cars. The driveways of the homes in his neighborhood are overrun with cars and trucks and campers. Everyone seems to have a herd of cars in his front yard. These car pokes have stored up all this potential mobility without going anywhere. As the band at Gilley’s sings:

So many times these few dreams of mine
Seemed hidden behind a mountain too high to climb….

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Dew Westbrook, photographed for Esquire.

Esquire


Betty was born in the Houston area. The closest she ever came to real cowboy life was gathering eggs on a relative’s farm. But if she is not part of a long cowboy tradition, she is part of a long Gilley’s tradition. Back in the alleged good old days, her mother used to run around with Mickey Gilley and Sherwood Cryer, the creators of Gilley’s Club. Gilley, the country canary who sings “A Room Full of Roses,’’ gave his name to the honky-tonk, but he owns only a piece of it. The principle owner and real boss is Cryer. This king of the urban-cowboy business never wears anything but mechanic’s coveralls. Betty’s mother knew the two partners many, many dollars ago. Which makes Betty second-generation Gilley’s.

Both Gilley’s Club and Gilley’s career started doing pretty well. The honky-tonk went from a place that would hold 500 to one that would hold almost ten times that many. Cryer kept tacking on tacky additions. As Gilley became better known, he started coming to the club less often because he was touring more. Now Gilley plays Gilley’s only a couple of times a year.

When George Jones was playing Gilley’s, the president of his fan club was murdered after she left the saloon. She was raped and beaten to death with a tire iron. The police suspected all the Gilley’s regulars. Even Cryer had to take a lie-detector test. The case was written up in True Detective. Eventually, the cops arrested a local auto mechanic who seemed to fancy his tire iron as a six-shooter.

When Jerry Lee Lewis was playing Gilley’s, Cryer himself got hurt. A woman hit a man over the head with a bottle of V.O. When Cryer went to the man’s rescue, she cut the back of his head and neck with the broken bottle. His white shirt suddenly turned red, and he was terrified. The next day, he ran into the woman in a liquor store buying another bottle of V.O.

“I don’t like anyone to tell me I can’t do something,” Betty told me one night at Gilley’s. “To me, it’s them saying I can’t because I’m a girl. And I’ve got to show them I can.”

“She looked at me like she knew me,” Cryer remembered, “but couldn’t place me.”

There is a local Monopoly-like game with a card that says not “go directly to jail” but “go to Gilley’s and get stomped.”

Cryer began trying to think of ways to cut down on the violence. So he put in the punching bag to give the honky-tonk cowboys something to hit besides one another. When the cowboys started lavishing more attention on the bag than on the cowgirls, the women cut the cord. But Cryer had it fixed. And he says the number of fights has gone down.

Then Cryer heard about the mechanical practice bulls used on the rodeo circuit. He thought a bull would go over in his shit-kicking honky-tonk. The bull was installed shortly after Betty and Eddie’s wedding. The merciless machine was rough on the marriage. At first, Eddie did not want Betty to ride the bull. He said she would get hurt, but perhaps he was already worried she could out-buck him. Eddie even went so far as to order the man who ran the bull not to let Betty ride.

“I don’t like anyone to tell me I can’t do something,” Betty told me one night at Gilley’s. “To me, it’s them saying I can’t because I’m a girl. And I’ve got to show them I can.”

She and her husband quarreled about whether she would be allowed to ride the bull. In the end, she decided she would have to show him. She had a drink to fuel her courage and to kill the pain. But when she got on the bull’s back, she felt all too sober. When she got off, she was drunk.

The bull can be adjusted to buck hard, harder, or hardest. Betty kept riding it at higher and higher and higher speeds. Eddie rode the bull too, but he had a hard time keeping up. After all, a woman has an advantage over a man when it comes to bull riding. As the cowboys around the bullring put it: “A woman has nothing to lose.” As strange as it may seem, bull riding is really woman’s work. Poor Eddie.

Soon Betty wasn’t only riding at higher and higher speeds, she actually started trick riding on the bull. She learned to stand up on the bucking bull’s back. While Eddie had to hang on just to keep his seat, Betty was riding the bull like it was a surfboard.

Eddie found himself married to a honky-tonk Annie Oakley whose theme song seemed to be:

Anything you can do, I can do better….


Cowgirls’ Saturday Night

After about eight seconds on the bull’s back—long enough to qualify in a rodeo—Dew yelled that he had had enough. Steve pressed the bull’s off switch. Sliding down. Dew staggered to the sidelines. He had lived up to the Cowboy Code, proving himself brave and strong, but it made him walk funny.

“That’s the longest eight seconds I’ve ever seen,” Dew said.

“I’m shaking like a fucking leaf. Stand still, leg. My insides are going everywhere.”

Jan handed him his hat.

“Were you worried?” he asked her.

“Just a little bit,” Jan said.

Then the women took over the bullring. Jessie LaRue, a nineteen-year-old barmaid at a pool hall, rode the bull wearing jeans and a braless halter. Her breasts bucked along with the animal. Standing up on the heaving back, she taunted all the men who had gathered to watch.

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Dew Westbrook on the mechanical bull.

EsquireEsquire

“Get up here and ride,” Jessie challenged. “It’s tame. I done tamed it. I’ll ride with you. That’s bad, lettin’ a girl outride you. If I can ride with no hands, you can ride with one.”

When she finally jumped down, Jessie came over to the cowboy running the bull. She had a favor to ask.

“Would you put this on my ass?”

She held out a Band-Aid. He agreed to help her out. and she lowered her jeans partway. The bull had rubbed a blister.

The next rider was Rita Sharp, a twenty-six-year-old waitress at the Red Lobster. She too challenged the men. If she could ride it, why couldn’t they?

“I can ride her,” called out one honky-tonk cowboy.

“I’ll bet you can’t stay on,” she called back. “If you’ve got $100, we’ll see.”

“Can I help it,” said the cowboy running the bull, “if the girls are better at riding on top than we are?”

The honky-tonk cowgirls keep putting more and more pressure on the honky-tonk cowboys.

Then Debbie Welburn, a nineteen-year-old waitress at the Pizza Hut, rode the bucking bull so well it seemed she could have ridden and carried a pizza on a tray at the same time. She is something of a legend around the bullring because she rode last fall right after her feet were operated on. She came to the bullring on crutches with her feet encased in soft casts. Cowboys had to carry her out to the bull and set her on its back. If she had been thrown, she would have ripped out all her stitches or worse. She might have been crippled. No male rider ever did anything that brave or that crazy. The honky-tonk cowgirls keep putting more and more pressure on the honky-tonk cowboys.

After Debbie’s impressive ride, two cowgirls got on the bull and rode it together. They faced one another, bending, swaying, bouncing, moving together in a rhythm which was almost sexual. They were the queens of the mountain.

Then a woman mounted the bull who had never ridden it before. With the speed turned down, she rode the bucking machine easily.

“Throw her,” begged her boyfriend, “or I’ll never hear the last of it.”

But she wasn’t thrown.

Several cowboys responded to the cowgirls’ challenges. They paid their two dollars and took their chances playing Gilley’s roulette with their sex lives. One by one, they were thrown. And one by one, they crawled off the mattresses with their hands between their legs.

gilley's urban cowboy

Gilley’s photographed for Esquire.

Esquire

“I just busted two nuts,” Steve bragged after throwing one cowboy. “He won’t get none tonight.”

The lot of the urban cowboy becomes harder and harder. He tries to escape from the overwhelming complexities of his petrochemical days into the simplicity of his honky-tonk nights. But then Gilley’s turns out to be a complicated world too. Once the bullring was the simplest of the simple entertainments at Gilley’s. Either you rode the bull or you got bucked off. You beat the bull or it beat you. It was perfect for an urban cowboy who never beat anything beyond the walls of the saloon. But then Eve entered the bullring. The cowboys were no longer simply measured against the bull, they were measured against the cowgirls.

And yet the values represented by the cowboy hat prevailed. The cowboys did not try to exclude the cowgirls from the bullring, for that would have violated the code of openness. The cowboys didn’t tell the cowgirls that a woman’s place wasn’t on the back of a bull. No, the cowboys just tried to keep up with the cowgirls as well as they could. I could tell, though, that they weren’t happy with the way things were turning out.

“My favorite thing,” said Betty, who had come up to talk to me, “is to watch all the guys fall off. Then I get up and ride it.”

Dew decided to ride again. He got back on the bull a little stiffly. He braced himself, leaned back, and raised his right working hand. He was ready. The bullring master put the bull into a dead spin. It turned about half a dozen circles in a row. Dew did not sit the bull very prettily, but he sat it.

“My favorite thing,” said Betty, who had come up to talk to me, “is to watch all the guys fall off. Then I get up and ride it.”

“I think,” Betty said, “I can ride it better than he can.”


He Done Her Wrong

Betty and Eddie’s marriage turned out to be a rough ride. They quarreled about the bull and many other things too. He didn’t want her to ride the bull, so she rode it. He told her not to do other things, so she did them. Soon Eddie was going to Gilley’s without Betty, twang-twang.

On Friday night, February 10, 1978, Dew met Jan. He felt her watching him on the bull. Actually, he had sensed her studying him for two months. But now he decided to do something about it. When Dew got down off the bull, he walked over to chat with the bullring master. The woman came closer. They continued to circle each other warily for a while, like beginners approaching the bull.

Then Dew spoke his first words to Jan: “When are you going to take me home and rape me?”

Reminiscing about his opening line later on. Dew explained that he was a “direct” person. He said meeting someone was like driving a car. He didn’t want to “piddle around.” He wanted to get where he was going. Directness is one of the cardinal cowboy virtues. Dew had his cowboy hat on so he could say what was on his mind.

Jan answered: “Whenever you get ready.”

Sometime after they had agreed to sleep together, they got around to introducing themselves. But these introductions were not really necessary. After all, they both had their names clearly tooled on their belts. Everyone at Gilley’s does. It is part of the Cowboy Code of openness. The belt goes with the hat.

Dew and Jan stayed until closing time. He showed off by riding the bull again for her. And then Jan took Dew home and raped him.

They stayed together all night Friday and all day Saturday. Then they went back to Gilley’s Saturday night. Sunday night they went back to Gilley’s again. Monday night they went bowling.

On Tuesday, Dew started work insulating an offshore drilling rig. That meant working a twelve-hour shift from noon until midnight. Jan would drive down to the dock, pick him up, and whisk him back to Gilley’s. They would get there just before closing time, but they would get there.

Betty obviously must have known something was going on, but she didn’t know just what or with whom until she came home and found Eddie ironing his blue jeans. She asked him why he was ironing. He said he was going riding with Jan. Which was bad enough. What made it worse was that Eddie was going riding with Jan on Betty’s horse. As the band at Gilley’s sings:

Honky-tonk, the same old song,
Honky-tonk, all night long,
Honky-tonk, my money is all gone,
Honky-tonk, he done me wrong.

Betty went home to live with her parents in a little house on Peach Street with a herd of cars out front. But Betty, who still loved Eddie, was so unhappy that she wanted to get out of town completely for a while. She decided to visit her sister in San Antonio for a couple of weeks.

Betty was happy to get away to San Antonio, perhaps the most beautiful city in Texas. But when the sun went down, she missed Gilley’s. The later it got, the more she pined for her saloon. She missed the music and the dancing and the friends. And perhaps most of all she missed the bull. The next morning, Betty called Les Walker, one of the bull masters, and asked him to come get her. Les drove to San Antonio and picked her up. Betty lasted exactly one night away from Gilley’s.

Jan agreed to move in with Dew on one condition: She wanted him to give up riding the bull at Gilley’s.

But Betty still did not know herself. A short while later, she decided she had to get away again. She went to visit a girl friend who lived in Huntsville, the home of the prison rodeo. This time she didn’t even last the night. At eleven P.M., Betty told her girl friend that she had to get back to Gilley’s. They drove to Houston together. Without even stopping by Betty’s home, they went straight to the saloon. The two cowgirls arrived at Gilley’s at one-thirty A.M., a half hour before closing time. The night was saved. Betty could ride the bull before she went to sleep.

Meanwhile, two months after they met, Jan agreed to move in with Dew on one condition: She wanted him to give up riding the bull at Gilley’s. She didn’t want the man she slept with to get hurt. They had a big fight. He would ride the bull if he damned well wanted to. Not if he wanted to sleep with her, he wouldn’t. He was threatened with a kind of sexual strike unless he gave up his violent ways. It was Lysistrata in cowboy clothes. Dew chose loving over bull riding. And Jan moved in.


Green-Eyed Saturday Night

Dew kept his promise. He didn’t ride the bull again until I came into his life. And I brought a photographer with me. The old bull rider could not resist riding for the camera, but his bull riding days are really behind him now. At least, they are behind him as long as he stays with Jan. When a real cowboy rides a bucking animal, he is trying to break it, to tame it, but Dew could never break the mechanical bull. A motor doesn’t get tired. But an urban cowboy can be broken. Jan has broken Dew.

After Eddie’s ride, Betty walked up to him and said hello. But Jan was there, so Eddie did not return the greeting. This scene has been repeated at Gilley’s ever since Betty and Eddie broke up. It usually ends with Betty going to the far side of the bullring and crying. The worst night was back in May, when Betty saw Eddie at Gilley’s and tried to tell him that their divorce had come through that day. But Jan wouldn’t let him talk to her. Betty went in the cowgirls’ room and cried for a long time, twang-twang.

dew westbrook

Dew Westbrook and his girlfriend, Jan.

Esquire

But Betty didn’t cry this Saturday night. She decided to try to make Eddie jealous instead. Walking up to Steve, the head bull master, she asked him to put his hands up in the air. He looked like a badman caught by the sheriff in a western movie. With her victim now properly positioned, Betty reached out, grabbed the front of his cowboy shirt, and popped open all his mother-of-pearl snaps with one motion. Steve just stood there for a moment, more or less topless, with his shirt gaping open from his navel to his throat.

Then he counterattacked. Steve grabbed Betty and started trying to pull her knit halter off. The honky-tonk cowboy bulldogged the cowgirl to the floor and kept trying to do to her what she had done to him. They rolled together on the bottom of the saloon with the cigarette butts and the expectorated chewing tobacco. Steve got Betty’s top partway off, but then she pulled away from him.

Dew and Jan tried to ignore this whole scene. They moved off toward the dance floor. If Betty had expected her ex-husband to come to her rescue, she was disappointed.

Steve got up and re-snapped his cowboy shirt, but by then the urge to unsnap had become infectious. Another cowgirl came up and popped open his shirt. This time Steve’s counterattack was more fruitful. Since his new assailant wore a cowboy shirt, Steve reached out and unsnapped her from top to bottom. She had nothing on underneath.

Betty stood by calmly combing her hair. When she finished, she returned to her favorite toy. Jan had gotten Dew, but Betty had gotten the bull. She crawled up on its bucking back and played. She stood up, moved from one end to the other, sat down, turned around, and rode backwards.


Hard-Hat Monday

Dew had to get up at six-thirty Monday morning to go to work. After getting dressed hurriedly, he drove his pickup thirty-eight miles to Texas City Refining. That is a long commute for someone who lives in a mobile home. He could move his trailer closer to the refinery, but then he would be farther from Gilley’s. He would rather commute to his hard-hat days than to his cowboy-hat nights.

Pulling into the refinery’s dusty parking lot, Dew got out of his truck with his tape measure strapped to his hip like a six-gun. He walked into the plant a little stiffly. He was still feeling the aftereffects of his bull ride.

editorial use only no book cover usage
mandatory credit photo by paramountkobalshutterstock 5882420m
john travolta
urban cowboy   1979
director james bridges
paramount
usa
scene still
urban cow boy

Travolta in Urban Cowboy.

Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Inside the refinery, Dew found himself swallowed up by one of the most denatured landscapes on the face of the earth. The petrochemical cowboy works on a giant spread crowded with metal trees (oil derricks and cracking towers), with metal underbrush (valves and pipelines), and with metal lakes (giant oil tanks). This is petrochemical pastoral. It is a barren landscape.

Taking hold of his saw, Dew cut into the foam glass, which in turn dug its teeth into him. And as he worked, he remembered the band at Gilley’s singing:

Take this job and shove it!

It is one of Dew’s favorite songs. After a day spent working inside the refinery, no wonder Gilley’s seems like the great good place. When Dew talks about his saloon, he sounds idealistic. But when he talks about his job, he sounds sullen, complaining about Mexicans who, he says, will work so cheap they are taking away union jobs. At work, the urban cowboy is a small, threatened creature, but at the honky-tonk, he rides tall in the saddle.

A mechanized refinery can actually be a lot more dangerous to ride than a mechanized bull. On May 30, an explosion killed seven workers at Texas City Refining. Luckily, Dew was home asleep at the time. Back in 1947, almost all of Texas City blew up. Close to 550 people were killed.

After a day spent working inside the refinery, no wonder Gilley’s seems like the great good place.

One workday at the killer refinery, a valve near Dew caught on fire. He dropped everything and ran as fast as he could in his track shoes. He doesn’t wear boots on the job. He wouldn’t be able to run fast enough. This time someone put the fire out before the killer refinery went up again.

Dew has had much worse falls on the job than he ever had in the bullring. He once fell off a scaffold 200 feet in the air, but he landed half on and half off a grating ten feet below. Somehow he hung on.

Right now, Dew works in the shop sawing and sawing. When all the foam glass is cut in just the right curving shapes, like pieces of a giant girdle, Dew will help fit these pieces around towers soaring hundreds of feet in the air. Some days, he will work on scaffolds high over the dead earth. Other days, he will labor suspended at the end of a rope, like a spider.

Dew makes $9.60 an hour and time and a half on Saturday—a forty-eight-hour week. But he pays 25 cents an hour to his union. Theoretically, he earns $460 a week, but he only takes home $250. He wants to save up to move to Longview, but so far he has not been able to save anything. He says he hopes his little brother stays out of the refineries.

Quitting time is four P.M. After work, the refinery parking lot is full of men in pickups taking off hard hats and putting on cowboy hats. Some of the pickups have bucking broncos painted on them.

editorial use only no book cover usage
mandatory credit photo by paramountkobalshutterstock 5882420l
john travolta
urban cowboy   1979
director james bridges
paramount
usa
scene still
urban cow boy

Travolta showing his roping skills

Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

When Dew reached his mobile home Monday evening at five o’clock, he found an unexpected note waiting for him. It had not come in the mail. It had been hand delivered and tucked under the windshield wiper of his second pickup. It was a request for money to pay for a vacuum cleaner. Eddie had given Betty a vacuum cleaner as a Christmas present, then later, he insisted she trade it in for a better one. He never made any payments on the expensive model after the marriage broke up. Now Betty was convinced she was going to jail. So she carried the bill over to the trailer park. It was more than a bill, it was also a love letter. On the back, Betty had written in huge block letters: “I LOVE YOU.”

A love letter on the back of a bill … it sounded like a honky-tonk song.

Dew looked up from the love bill and said, “Bein’ a cowboy ain’t easy.”

He didn’t go to Gilley’s that night. He stayed home and saved his money.


Betty and the Bull

At six P.M. Monday evening, Betty started getting ready, as she does almost every day of her life. She took her time. She washed her hair, and she dried it while she watched some television. In all, she spent almost four hours getting ready. At ten P.M., right on time, according to her rigid internalized schedule, she walked through the door at Gilley’s.

As always, Betty headed right for the bullring. On the way, she looked for Eddie, but she didn’t see him. She hoped he would come later, but even if he did, he wouldn’t come back to the bull. The bull was all hers now.

“Bein’ a cowboy ain’t easy.”

Entering the ring she vaulted onto the back of the beast. She stood, she sat, she jumped back and forth over the rigging. From on high, Betty surveyed the saloon again, looking for Eddie. But he still wasn’t there. Oh, well. She clung to the bull, which pounded her harder than any man had ever been able to.

Wrung out, she slid off the bull and came to the sidelines. She would take a break and then ride again. She would ride over and over all night long.

“I’ve got people to tell me,” Betty said, “that I care more about this bull than anything else.”




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