From its “Mike Campbell turning on the tape machine after the take has started” opening to its slow build groove, “Billy The Kid” has always felt like a back-half of Echo companion to “Swingin,” right down to the Howie Epistein assists on the choruses.
As Petty freely acknowledges, Echo was a dark and difficult time for a lot of the folks involved — with both Petty & Epstein dealing with heroin addictions — and the lyrics of “Billy The Kid” allude to it, with Petty not even bothering to rhyme as he works through a betrayal.
Well, I heard you in the back room
Your friends had a laugh on me
Passed my name through the cantina
Yeah, your face was hard to read
Something in your demeanor
Should have given you away
But I was desperate for a friend
I was getting used to making mistakes
In Paul Zollo’s indispensable Conversations With Tom Petty, Petty talks about how “Billy The Kid” just came to him while he was being driven to the studio, and he had just kinda shown the band the song and as they all came together to play it for the first time, it all just clicked, and as the song moves forward, you can feel how the rest of the band started adding to it, getting more confident in how to decorate the song, but of course, the key was the chorus.
Well, I went down hard
Like Billy the Kid
Yeah, I went down hard
Yeah, but I got up again
Of course, in “Swingin,” the person going down was a “she,” or at the most a “we.” Not so with “Billy The Kid.” The person going down hard is Tom Petty. Oh, and Howie Epstein, who provides harmonies on “I went down hard” and nowhere else. Which means it was only Petty who got up again. In case you’re looking for foreshadowing. Also pretty awesome: Petty going maximum nasal as only he can, especially when he sings “Billy the kieeed.”
Anyways, apparently, they played “Billy The Kid” over and over and over that night, looking for something that sounded as great as the first run-through, but of course didn’t get it. For one thing it would be hard to do better than what Campbell does over the final repeats of the chorus, an interlaced series of notes dancing all around the song into its fade.
“Billy The Kid”
“Billy The Kid” live in Chicago, 2003
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