Saddle sore: Busting ass on a mechanical bull
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 07.21.98 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro July 2018 here.


OKAY FILM CLASS, let’s review: in the movie Urban Cowboy, the mechanical bull as an icon symbolized what?

A) Humankind’s insistence that the forces of nature can be overpowered.

B) Bud’s intrinsic Alpha-male need to feel superiority over his peers.

C) The struggle for dominance in relationships, as evinced by Sissy’s covert riding lessons and Buck’s subsequent outrage and machismo-inspired broken arm.

D) The probability that John Travolta, Debra Winger, and that fine blond guy with the scar on his face, all more than capable of riding the mechanical beast, are pretty good in bed.

E) All of the above.

To this day, that movie is still probably more responsible than anything for keeping El Toro Manufacturing Company in business. Eddie Billingham and Cliff Cryer, two genial, no-nonsense representatives from El Toro, brought the venerable ’80s young-country-revival mascot to town for a few days this past week during Slim’s Rock and Roll Rodeo.

As bands played and beer flowed, for three bucks a pop, us city kids were given the rare chance to be fake rodeo stars for about 20 to 45 seconds at a time. To get a leg up on the rest of my pseudo-macho friends in our ongoing “Half-Assed Ernest Hemingway” competition, I went in for a quick lesson with the El Toro boys before the show.

can’t ride it good unless u hold ur mouth right

After a formal introduction and some traditional Texas small talk, Eddie Billingham patiently explained the workings of the bull, outlining a bit of history (it was invented about 20 years ago to train rodeo riders) and its options (it goes to 10, but since it wasn’t bolted to the floor at Slim’s, he’d only take it to 8 to prevent it from bucking out of place).

He’s been a bull operator for 17 years and has only hurt two people (only slightly), both because they were drunk and stupid. He knows what he’s doing.

Eddie told me that, for safety’s sake, we would begin at a speed of 3 and work upwards. We moon-walked over the enormous air pillow that surrounds the bull to the contraption itself, which is basically a motorized rawhide rectangle on a stand with a handle on top. He boosted me up onto the bull (“I only do that for the ladies,” he said) and instructed me to perch with certain parts of my anatomy so close to the handle that I had second thoughts about the whole venture. (For a millisecond, anyways.)

“Hold on tight with your knees,” he said. “Put one hand up in the air, and hold on with the other. When it goes down, you lean back; and when it goes up, you lean forward.” Simple enough.

leaning back for dear life

Cliff stepped up to the little box with knobs on it that drives the bull and turned it on. The bull spun as it bucked, and I rocked back and forth and held on for dear life. I didn’t fall, although I was completely (gleefully) disoriented.

The adrenaline rush alone made me shake, and when I tried to walk, I couldn’t really feel my thighs. (It’s even more unintentionally pornographic to ride than it is to watch.) “Can I go again?”

and squee

The mechanical bull, contrary to what the scarface in Urban Cowboy tried to fool us into believing, is much like pool, darts, Foosball, and other bar sports in that an increase in alcohol consumption does little to seriously endanger one’s life. The bouncy air mattress cushions any blow, and the technicians usually stop the machine if they see that you’re flailing.

It’s probably a good thing since, after a successful ride, I dismounted and made way for a tipsy male acquaintance of mine who was up next.

“Let me show you how it’s done,” he said, Bud-style, before jumping to mount the bull, misjudging, and sailing clear on over the other side.

He remounted, the bull started to rumble, and he was immediately thrown. Instant karma.

yes please show us how it’s done wrong

As the bar started to fill up, people tentatively circled the beast, not willing to ride unless one of their friends rode first. A friend and I took turns advancing in notches from 3 to 7 — the speeds increase gradually until 5, when they then double the difficulty of each preceding notch.

The record for a Slim’s run was rumored to be 8 seconds on 8, and my friend bravely tried to beat it. The machine bucked maybe three or four times before she started to slide sideways and Cliff mercifully turned it off.

“Don’t do 8,” she said, rolling off the air mattress onto the floor. “Ow.”

As the night went on and the crowd got collectively drunker, more people rode, more people fell off, and the ride lengths became shorter. (Those nice Texas boys didn’t want anyone to get hurt.)

By the time the last band walked offstage, most everybody in the bar sported the slow and bowlegged gait of a cowboy. After nine runs, my legs were covered in bruises, and it hurt to walk. I called it quits and went home.

I contemplated moving to San Jose to be near the Saddlerack, a bar with a mechanical bull installed permanently. For a millisecond, anyways.


Next week: The New Zoo Review

This is the 18th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

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hey, it’s not rocket scientology. get it



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