These are the iconic sounds of the Old West—or at least the iconic sounds of the Old West, as imagined by Hollywood. When you listen to "Blaze of Glory," you can practically hear the tumbleweed blowing ominously across Main Street at high noon while rival gunslingers stare each other down under the blazing sun. The flinty-eyed sheriff has an itchy trigger finger; the outlaw with the heart of gold wonders if his luck has finally run out. Both know that only one will walk away from this fight; the other will spend his last moments on this earth in mortal agony, bleeding out in a dusty road. Destiny has arrived; it's time for someone to go down in a blaze of glory.
If this all sounds horribly clichéd… well, it probably is. Jon Bon Jovi wrote the song expressly to serve as the theme song for the 1990 Western film Young Guns II—the formulaic sequel to the already rather generic Young Guns I—so what else could it really have been but clichéd? The Western, after all, is surely the most hackneyed of all Hollywood genres. The first great Western—which was also one of the first great movies, period—was The Great Train Robbery, a silent-era classic released all the way back in 1907. That movie's now more than 100 years old, but it introduced a set of moral themes, a cast of characters, a visual setting—and hell, a bunch of specific plot points—that have been reworked and recycled, again and again and again and again, through a full century of Hollywood Westerns.
Sure, the genre has evolved. The earnest melodrama of Gary Cooper's High Noon (1952) looks a lot different than the morally ambiguous revisionism of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992). The brilliantly bloody "Spaghetti Westerns" created by Italian director Sergio Leone in the 1960s transformed the genre with their gritty, sweaty aesthetic—an ironic contribution of quasi-realism from a director who spoke no English and had never even seen the American West with his own eyes. Before the 1950s, American Indians ("Injuns"?) tended to be portrayed as cartoonish bad guys; by the late 1980s, with contemporary society moving in a more multicultural direction, a film like Dances With Wolves could flip the script by casting Native Americans as misunderstood heroes and white settlers as uncomprehending villains. Recent years have even seen attempts to overturn the traditional gender dynamics of this manliest of film genres in the creation of girl-power Westerns like Bandidas (2006) and Bad Girls (1994).
Through it all, though, the central themes—the timeless clichés—have remained largely the same. Westerns portray a world in which rugged individualists, constrained by no law and beholden to no man, have only the strength of their own moral code to guide them. Outlaws can be heroes and lawmen can be villains, or vice versa; the content of a man's character is more important than his social role. Everyone must struggle to impose civilization upon wild nature—or, alternatively, to escape civilization by becoming one with the wilderness. Either way, the dominant cliché of the Western is pure, unadulterated freedom.
Now, a historian might interrupt here to say that this West is a myth, a fabrication of pulp novelists and Hollywood filmmakers. In reality, the West is and always has been the most socialized place in America; all that rugged individualism was only made possible by massive federal government subsidy of just about every aspect of Western life. The government paid for the railroads and (later) the highways, the telegraph and telephone lines, the huge waterworks that allowed deserts to bloom with agriculture and (later) golf courses, the great dams that provided cheap electricity, the military campaigns that captured new territories and "pacified" hostile Indians. The government gave away millions of acres of land for free, and leased out rich mineral and forest resources to private companies for a tiny fraction of their true value. A historian would argue that the West of John Wayne and Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood (and Jon Bon Jovi)—the West in which cowboys and gunslingers lived wide-open lives of pure freedom—is little more than a myth.
And maybe that historian would be right, on the merits. But the myth, however factually accurate it may or may not be, remains deeply powerful. There's a reason why Hollywood has kept churning out Westerns for more than 100 years.
Everybody wants to be a cowboy.
Even in New Jersey, a place about as far—geographically and culturally—from the wide-open spaces of the Old West as you can imagine. New Jersey, of course, is Bon Jovi's homeland (not to mention the name of a multiplatinum Bon Jovi album). But even in the Garden State, along the Jersey Shore or in the leafy suburbs of New York and Philadelphia, the cowboy image maintained its power. Bon Jovi's music has repeatedly invoked Western imagery.
Jon Bon Jovi imagined that his own rock n' roll lifestyle echoed that of the mythical cowboys of yore. "I think it's that kind of lifestyle [that attracts me to the cowboy image]," he told interviewer Mick Wall. "I feel that you ride into town, you don't know where the f--- you are. You are with your 'gang': stealing money, getting what you can off any girl that'll give it to you, drinking as much of the free alcohol as you can and being gone before the law catches you. Before someone wakes you from this wonderful dream and says, 'You're an a--hole, you're going to jail.' Because it's not the real world I'm living in, it's a dream sequence, a big f---ing wet dream."
Bon Jovi put that idea to music in the 1987 hit "Wanted Dead or Alive," which offered a mashup of trademark Bon Jovi pop-metal with classic Western sounds and imagery to describe the vagabond life of rock stars on tour. "I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back / I play for keeps, cause I might not make it back / I been everywhere, still I'm standing tall / I've seen a million faces and I've rocked them all / I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride / I'm wanted dead or alive."
About the same time, out in Hollywood, a screenwriter named John Fusco was working on a project to update the tired Western formula for a new generation of fans. While he wrote the script to Young Guns, he played Bon Jovi's "Wanted" on his stereo for inspiration. The end result retold one of the most iconic of Western outlaw stories—the story of Billy the Kid—but did it with a more contemporary sensibility. The movie, which starred a whole crew of the era's hottest emerging young actors (Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Dermot Mulroney), was not so much a traditional Western as a Brat Pack action flick, set in the Old West.
The movie was successful enough to warrant a sequel, Young Guns II, and Estevez and Fusco asked Jon Bon Jovi if they could use Wanted in the credits sequence at the end of the film. Bon Jovi, a big fan of the first Young Guns movie who happened to be on a hiatus from work with this band, proposed something bigger: he'd write and record new music, its lyrics specifically tailored to the plot of the movie. After composing "Blaze of Glory," he flew out to the film set in the frigid mountains of New Mexico to play it for the cast and crew. They were blown away; Bon Jovi ended up recording not just that one song but an entire full-length soundtrack album, and even acting in a brief cameo in the movie itself.
The single "Blaze of Glory" was clearly the high point of Bon Jovi's Young Guns-related material. It reached #1 on the Billboard chart and won a Golden Globe Award. Like the movie, the song cast the story of Billy the Kid in the familiar terms of the archetypal cowboy myth. And while there's not too much that's terribly original in "Blaze of Glory"—the music is a virtual re-do of "Wanted," and the lyrics read like a cut-and-paste job from a hundred different Western film scripts—there is something undeniably powerful in a song that offers up the distilled essence of cowboy mythology in five minutes and forty seconds of hard-rocking power ballad. Everybody wants to be a cowboy, and there's probably not any better song in the world at capturing that cowboy dream.
"I think anyone can be a cowboy," Bon Jovi once told an interviewer. "You know, in your heart and soul, if you believe you are, then you are. There is a dream that you can fantasize and disappear from the world for just a minute."