Have they always been there, or I’m just beginning to notice them? Tons of people reading the Bible in public have caught my eye lately. The first impulse was to roll my eyes at these coffee shop Bible readers (mostly because I find highlighting those unusually thin pages to be a little bizarre), but then I thought maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that some of these folks are finding true comfort in the chapters and verses they’re reading. How could I possibly know what their intentions are as newly curious or long-time devoted readers? There must be some good in that text that the good are able to find; it can’t simply be a piece of evidence that the fearful use to justify fear. So I made a decision: as long as the members of this specific book club refrain from running towards me hell-bent on saving my rainbow soul, I vow to stop judging The Book by its reader.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun (that Jesus wants me to own), but as the years fly by and my laugh lines hang around longer than they used to, I feel less of an attachment to religion. The venom that some of the so-called good folks are able to spit at the nonbelievers continues to fascinate and frustrate those of us who . . . well . . . tend to lean heathen. When a writer has to come up with an entertaining tale of “the good townspeople versus the alleged tramp who runs the saloon on the gusty wind side of town,” that writer knows he needs to come up with more than a simple, cookie-cutter battle of morals. To add a decent helping of fuel to the hellfire, the audience needs a personal conflict between two characters on opposing sides, and a selfish competition over money is never to be neglected. Hmm, the high and mighty religious types determined to bring down the little guy over money, but disguising it as a righteous battle of morals? How do these writers come up with such preposterous plots? The world is full of folks “with itchy fingers and a coil of rope around their saddle horns, lookin’ for somebody to hang. And after riding a few hours they don’t care much who they hang.”

Who doesn’t love Joan Crawford with a gun? Mercedes McCambridge, apparently. In Johnny Guitar (1954), the former is our saloon-running railroad tramp, while the latter leads the group of upstanding men determined to bring her down. Oh yes, and there’s a character named Johnny who plays a guitar, but trust me, he’s hardly worth mentioning. Never one to dismiss rumors, I began searching furiously for any truth to the story that a jealous Crawford slashed all of McCambridge’s clothes to shreds (or at the very least flung them from her costar’s trailer on to the street). Labeling Crawford “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady,” McCambridge started a rival that I imagine outlasted both women’s careers. It may pale in comparison to the snarky feuds Crawford had with Miss Bette Davis, but according to my cookbook, a juicy rumor or two always brings out the flavor of any film. A talented radio star, McCambridge would later go on to provide the voice of Pazuzu, the demon in The Exorcist (1973), a vocal performance that redefined the word “terror” for its audience.

There are two sounds that can lighten the worst of moods. One is the song “Islands in the Stream,” which gratifyingly pairs Dolly Parton with Kenny Rogers, and possesses the power to end to all things evil in this world. The second is the sound of Peggy Lee’s voice. It was an embarrassing moment when I reached the end of Johnny Guitar and heard that sugar-coated, velvety voice of Peg’s purr a song that was not available in my vault. The last time I checked, I had about 90 tunes of hers in my collection, and I’m proud to report now that the title song is moving up swiftly on my list of top-played tracks. The song “Johnny Guitar” also launches one of the greatest playlists I have ever created; a soothing list that goes from Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Dusty Springfield to B. B. King, Barbra, Dolly, and Katey Sagal (seriously, if you haven’t heard Katey Sagal sing, put her name through the Internet machine and give her a try. The songs she recorded for the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack give me chills ‘n’ things).

Indeed, Peggy Lee is the cherry on top of this campy western, but even she knows not to steal the spotlight from Miss Joan Crawford. Hell, if the righteous Pazuzu couldn’t gun her down . . . Heaven help us.


Add Johnny Guitar to your queue.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Love the picture, it may be worth a watch just for her and the music. Great writing as always.


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