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REVIEW: The Billy Bob Tapes

Reviewed:

The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts by Billy Bob Thornton and Kinky Friedman 

(William Morrow, May 2012)

I can’t explain what compelled me to check out The Billy Bob Tapes, an anecdotal autobiography of Billy Bob Thornton recorded and transcribed by comedic country musician-cum-politician Kinky Friedman. I like Billy Bob Thornton as an actor (Slingblade is a classic and The Man Who Wasn’t There is criminally overlooked), but I tend to begrudge and suspect that most every jibe that passes through the lips of the famous is met with phrases like, “seriously, you’ve got to sit down and write this stuff down!” and “they oughta make a book out of you!” The short history of modern fame provides enough examples of the correlation between stardom’s trappings and a general disconnect with reality to make autobiography an out-of-bounds genre for the wealthy and well-known, destined for bargain bins alone. So I picked the book up with trepidation. Well, The Billy Bob Tapes might not have been as mind-blowing as listening to non-elevator-jazz music for the first time, but Billy Bob’s life, like his celebrity, is unconventional enough to make his story a rarity worth reading and relishing.

The book is mostly a written record of Thornton holding lively and conversational court with friends and retelling his life story along the way. Thornton’s natural knack for crackling the old yarn is undeniable. Anybody who can make reminiscing about growing up in Alpine, Arkansas, as entertaining (and interesting) to read as an account of being married to Angelina Jolie has a special gift. “Alpine was rich with characters,” Thornton explains up front in chapter two. “[F]rom the time I was three years old, I was aware of people and interested in characters and the weird shit that went on around me.” It's a claim that gets backed up with story after story. Like so many great Southern storytellers, this raconteur possesses a set of ears appreciative of terrific dialogue (and a memory sharp enough to retain what was said). Whether he’s looking back at his mother’s psychic abilities (“before I was ever thinking about being an actor, my mom told me that one of these days Burt Reynolds was going to be 'instrumental' in my life”; Thornton later got his break in a short-lived Reynolds sitcom) or clarifying how he wound up in a ZZ Top cover band called Tres Hombres, Thornton’s congenial, spirited delivery makes the story of his life before stardom an unexpected scene stealer.

Playing fast and loose with dates and places might seem detrimental to an autobiography, but it’s actually one of the strengths of this offbeat title, which is sometimes rife with hilarious glosses. Whether or not the ellipses between moments in his life are intentional or editorial, I can't say for certain, but they work so well it doesn't much matter. While his friend and early writing partner Tom Epperson goes into a multipage saga detailing their journey to California, their many struggles, and finding love just to have their hearts broken in Mexico, Thornton is much more economical, stating that “We stayed in San Diego for three or four months and Tom ended up getting engaged to a Mexican girl in Tecate, Mexico. I got her sister’s name tattooed on me.” The end.

Thornton’s evolution from the guy from Slingblade into a regular guy might be the most impressive achievement of his autobiography. It takes a lot for a poor scamp like myself to identify with and relate to a well-known millionaire, but by the time you’re reading about Thornton living in the Sunset Marquis Hotel in Beverly Hills for years at a time, you’ve already traveled on a story arc that goes from eating squirrel meat to nearly starving to death in Hollywood to...well, four-star room service. Admittedly, his shoes are scuffed up from all the names he’s dropped by the end of the book, but I’d brag, too, if I had Dwight Yoakam on speed dial or Robert Duvall was a “sort of mentor to me.” Like his approach to acting, The Billy Bob Tapes have a natural, unrehearsed style that’s sure to not only entertain but also to charm. 

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