“Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” Ah, Midnight Cowboy. A true classic. Though it is undoubtedly a gritty picture depicting extreme poverty, the trials and tribulations of sex work in a major city and as one reviewer described it – a “sixties stew of potent sleaze” – Midnight Cowboy has the most authentic heart I think of any film I’ve seen. The relationship between the curiously initially innocent male sex worker Joe Buck and downtrodden disabled conman Ratso is organic, blindingly beautiful, and testament to what great actors Voight and Hoffman are. Underpinning this fabric of sensitivity is the iconic song that is weaved throughout the scenes repeatedly is the most comforting and homely of soundtracks – Everybody’s Talkin’ by Harry Nilsson – identifying with the film’s themes and plot sublimely. The song is a key example of how music truly makes a film; as William J. Mann spoke of in his biography of its director, “one cannot imagine Midnight Cowboy without Everybody’s Talkin’.” The American Film Institute listed it in its Top 100 Movie Songs Of All Time. Harry Dean Stanton of Paris, Texas fame even described it as a “heroin” song in its insatiable hold it holds its listeners under. So one may struggle to believe that this titan that has truly shaped the importance of theme music in cinema actually was never meant to be the song that it was. It was originally intended that the theme tune in fact, be Bob Dylan’s sensual ode to intimacy Lay Lady Lay.
Yep, it’s true. Nilsson’s cover of the Fred Neil classic was only chosen after Dylan missed the deadline for the submission to the film and opted to pop LLL on the Nashville Skyline album of 69. It’s incredibly hard to envision the theme for the film being any other song, let alone a tender love song aimed toward Dylan’s wife at the time, Sara Lownds. The reason that Everybody’s Talkin’ works so incredibly well within the picture is that while literally it describes Buck’s leaving from the city in search of solace with Ratso in Florida, it is also indicative of a general feeling that the film has – that of a bit of a loner with an inability to connect with others. Precisely why the two protagonists’ friendship is so captivating. It ties in both plot points and character traits neatly into a song that, incredibly, already existed before the idea for the Best Picture winner even crossed John Schlesinger’s mind.
So why did Dylan miss the deadline? Why did we end up with the pleasant happy ending of having Harry Nilsson’s electric cover change the course of film soundtracks forever? This much is unknown, though this occurred in the infamous Dylan Dark Age when a two-year literal radio silence finished rather unexpectedly with a drastically different sound on Nashville Skyline. There’s many a theory about this unexpected absence and consequent grand return; some chalk it up to a motorcycle accident (which actually happened in 66) in which he somehow severed his vocal chords (???), others claim perhaps it was a mystery larynx illness. Dylan himself stated it was ditching the Marlboros that transformed his voice – “I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes, and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso.” So by the sounds of it was a fairly chaotic and random juncture of Dylan’s life; he probably had heftier things on his metaphorical plate than soundtracking an Oscar favourite, right. Zimmerman likely didn’t pencil it in with his secterary. I like to think he applied for mitigating circumstances, like I do with every university essay ever.
Nonetheless, the single went on to be one of Dylan’s most beloved tunes, and similarly Everybody’s Talkin’ became the blueprint for music successfully complimenting complex narratives in film. But isn’t it interesting to think about iconic cultural moments being a little…different? The Graduate but with a glam-rock soundtrack. Titanic but swap Celine Dion with Bjork. They’d probably have a slightly different impact on the landscape of history. I for one, even as a huge Bob advocate, am unbelievably glad that Dylan spent too long tweaking his, erm, sex anthem. Everybody’s Talkin’ is the perfect song for the perfect film, and I wouldn’t have it any other way – not even lying draped on Bob’s big brass bed.