I know why I think of this old song. Usually, the month of March does it to me. Since 1978, it is the month when I think of my mother in clear, wistful terms. And now Breaking Bad drove that point home — more on this later. As a young child, I recall the woman who bore me moving across the apartment she lived in, singing right along with the grand balladeer Marty Robbins whenever El Paso, released on the Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs LP in ’59, would drift out from the radio she kept.
This indelible old number, casting a tale of heartache, sets my memory wandering so. To how she’d grab me up to dance with her. How I’d gaze up at her in return, in loving awe, as we’d meander about that small room that made up the home she manifested. As my wife reminds me regularly, that nostalgia gene of mine can sure cut a wide swath. She’s right. And I know exactly who I inherited the trait from, too.
Though I was a small boy, when she listened to it, I could tell that part of my mother instantly transported back to her place of birth. Back down Texas way. The Tejano roots of the western melody, with its tale of star-crossed lovers, gave the tune an emotive, heartfelt quality. Mom and her sons sensed it…don’t know how dad felt about it. He actually came from the town in the title. No surprise, she remains the only one of my parents who still lingers like a haunting refrain.
Even though more than half of her life was spent outside of the 28th state of the Union, I could always pick out the tinge of that Texas drawl of hers that remained whenever she spoke. Whether it was in English or Spanish. As she would jokingly recall for her sons years later, mom would relate the chastising she took (or maybe put up with) after arriving in Los Angeles from her cohorts because of the way of speaking she held close.
Still, the “Buenos dias, y’all” twang of hers would yield a distinct fondness by those around her.
El Paso would be a hugely popular crossover ballad for the established singer/songwriter Marty Robbins. This major hit, likely his best known still, peaked on both the pop and country music charts in 1960. So well-liked, it’s the only song I know of that generated not one, or two, but three sequel tunes. The first, San Angelo, arrived in ’62, and the last one in 1976 with El Paso City.
But out of all of the follow-ups, I have a soft spot for the second, Feleena (From El Paso)*. The 1966 prequel to Robbin’s popular hit had the same poignant quality of the original. Offering an affecting counterpoint that told the backstory of the “Mexican girl”. The same one who’d intersect a doomed, lovelorn cowboy of the tale in the years to come. Told in third-person narrative, as compared with the first-person account of El Paso, you can see why it attracted me.
Both remain evocative songs, and worth a look back. Although my mother was born at the mid-point of the state, in Cisco, and raised near the Texas Gulf area of Corpus Christi and Brownsville, my memories of her will always in rooted in that border town on the other side of the state from where she grew up. All due to her love of this tune, and how she shared it, along with her soul, with her children.
The reason I’ve reprised this piece, like I’ve did similarly last year, comes from the landmark Breaking Bad series. This time, concluding its final season with the episode last Sunday. Its brilliant writers, directors, cast and producer closed it out in keeping with what Vince Gilligan envisioned. I’m in complete agreement with colleagues Vickie Lester and ckckred’s assessments of the finale:
Why am I adjoining this here, you ask? It’s because the writers’ and the show’s use of music, in general, and the song my mother adored, specifically. [Spoilers ahead from this point forward] A number of folk have pointed to the finale’s use of Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ as you-know-who lies dead on the floor of the Neo-Nazi’s meth lab as most fitting. Well and fine, but it’s El Paso that gave the most direct and foreshadowed touch to Walt’s journey, in my opinion.
Titled Felina*, the episode began with Walt attempting to steal an old snow-covered car. Digging around the glove box for some sort of tool to jimmy the ignition, out popped a vintage Marty Robbins cassette tape. After Fate, or the Devil, averted a run in with the law — the police lights flashing through the snow encrusted windows wordlessly spoke volumes — he found the keys. Much like Arnie’s Terminator did in T2. Low and behold, what launched after cranking it back to life? Right, El Paso, played on the aged auto’s deck. Walt would sing a bit of it, later.
While the song spoke of a man obsessed with a “Mexican girl” named Felina, here it represented Walt’s meth. The brand and business he created in a couple short years of time (that’s five seasons in cable-years). That was his true love. Not the family Walt said he’d done it for, repeatedly. The sole adoring reason he had killed and ruined lives, as Robbins wrote in his ballad decades earlier. Moth to the flame. Like the cowboy who couldn’t stay away, Walt’s maiden, not cancer, would be the single, solitary reason for his demise. And in whose arms he’d die.
* already picked apart by fans of the show, ‘Felina’ is also an anagram for ‘finale’. You’ll note the name of the prequel song Marty Robbins wrote and sung was released as ‘Feleena’ on The Drifter album (1966), and differs in spelling with the episode’s title. Whether they used the spelling of the lyrics posted somewhere online (like those below), or done purposely to meet the demands of rearranging letters to form another name, bothers me little. The show ended on a true high point for me. Heck, I even think mom would have approved.
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl Nighttime would find me in Rosa's cantina Music would play and Felina would whirl Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina Wicked and evil while casting a spell My love was deep for this Mexican maiden I was in love, but in vain I could tell One night a wild young cowboy came in Wild as the West Texas wind Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing With wicked Felina, the girl that I loved So in anger I challenged his right for the love of this maiden Down went his hand for the gun that he wore My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor Just for a moment I stood there In silence Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there I had but one chance and that was to run Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran Out where the horses were tied I caught a good one, it looked like it could run Up on its back and away I did ride Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso Out to the badlands of New Mexico Back in El Paso my life would be worthless Everything's gone, in life nothing is left It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden My love is stronger than my fear of death I saddled up and away I did go Riding alone in the dark Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me Tonight nothing's worse than this pain in my heart And at last here I am on the hill overlooking El Paso I can see Rosa's Cantina below My love is strong and it pushes me onward Down off the hill to Felina I go Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys Off to my left ride a dozen or more Shouting and shooting, I can't let them catch me I have to make it to Rosa's back door Something is dreadfully wrong, for I feel A deep burning pain in my side Though I am trying to stay in the saddle I'm getting weary, unable to ride But my love for Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen Though I am weary, I can't stop to rest I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle I feel the bullet go deep in my chest From out of nowhere Felina has found me Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for One little kiss, then Felina good-bye