If we wander back through history, we can observe that it was very much a tradition to elevate certain individuals in the West to popular cult status as outlaws, sometimes the rebellious kind and sometimes the fugitive kind. From Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, all the way back to Robin Hood and his Merry Men (Sherwood Forest was WEST of Nottingham), lawbreakers have often been put on a pedestal. What is it about these fellas that we like so much? How do we manage to romanticize their deeds and overlook the damage they wreak on their victims? With the exception of Butch Cassidy (more about him next week!) and possibly Robin Hood (who may not have even existed), most of the outlaws whose lives we tend to romanticize were, in actuality, vicious killers who preyed on the vulnerable segments of the population. For the most part, they fit the first definition of the word, outlaw. They were bad hombres.
I read a newspaper article the other day about a new television series called “Gang Related.” It follows the activities of a fictionalized law enforcement unit based on the prestigious LAPD Gang Unit as they try to deal with one of the most vicious and deadly gangs in Los Angeles. In it, they say they will present a “balanced view” of the two sides…law enforcement and the gang members. While lauding the efforts of the Gang Unit, they also delve into some of the negative aspects as well, such as corruption and difficult personal issues that officers experience. I suppose this is fair. We know that some of the “good guys” don’t always act like good guys. However, when they mentioned looking at some of the “positives” of the gangs, that’s when I almost dropped the paper. Are you kidding me? Through many years of work with young people, I’ve seen, up close and personal, what terrible damage being involved in a gang can cause an impressionable and troubled youth. There IS no up side.
I return to my earlier questions…what is it about these people that we are attracted to? My personal theory is that a huge segment of society feels relatively powerless, particularly in regard to the many ways in which a small number of powerful people seem to be in command of major decisions that affect our lives. We may entertain fantasies of standing up to those folks and taking back control of our lives but when push comes to shove, we don’t have the time, energy or clout to do it. I think we experience vicarious satisfaction when these “outlaws” get one over on those powerful and arrogant individuals. Since most of us are relatively decent people who don’t condone evil behavior however, we somehow transform them in our minds into “Robin Hood,” that noble scamp who “robs the rich and gives to the poor.” Unfortunately, that is seldom the case. Most of the time, the outlaws rob from the rich so that they can become the rich. They are no more interested in sharing the wealth with the masses than their predecessors. To quote that wise philosopher, Peter Townshend of the Who, “meet the new boss…same as the old boss.”
What’s the solution to this conundrum? Heck, I wish I knew. One thing we could probably do is, before we raise these media-created outlaws to hero status, try to get as much accurate information as possible about in order to decide if they’re the unconventional or rebellious kind versus the “bad hombre” kind. Another thing we might consider is becoming more actively involved in taking on those arrogant and powerful people who tend to ignore our needs. Don’t leave that to the “outlaws,” let’s do it ourselves. Just try to keep it lawful and peaceful.
As for Willie, Waylon, Kris and Johnny, I guess they never really were “outlaws.” The word, maverick, probably suited them better. They were mostly just stumbling around, sometimes quite literally, as they tried to stay true to their creative ideals while making a living in the music business. As Kristofferson wrote, they were “taking every wrong direction on their lonely way back home.” In the process, they really tweaked the accountants, lawyers and other various “suits” of the music establishment. You know what? I still kind of get a kick out of that.