Townes Van Zandt’s 1972 song Pancho and Lefty tells a story of comradeship and betrayal and the price we pay for the choices we make.
The story is told in outline and has an emotional reality that far outweighs the bones of the narrative.
There are spaces in the song, gaps allowing it to float into our consciousness and take a shape which is indefinite.
The song’s elegiac tone and quality of elusiveness have a resonance that makes it sink deep into your soul.
The romance of the road is evoked in the first line: ‘Living on the road my friend.’
The road calls you away from home. Your mama weeps as her favourite son leaves to follow a dream of freedom. But it isn’t so easy to lead a free and clean life. You have to toughen up. Images of skin like iron, breath as hard as kerosene, a horse as fast as polished steel, suggest the carapace of hardness which is essential for survival.
Pancho and Lefty survive, it’s suggested, because the federales play cat-and-mouse with them. They could have had Pancho any time, or so they say, but it seems they need Lefty’s co-operation. And one fateful day, they get it, or so we assume.
Death in the desert, cold in Cleveland
Pancho is killed in the desert, and dies alone. And on that very same day, Lefty, who the feds say they could also have picked up at any time, leaves for Ohio with a load of cash.
And there he remains, that old guy in the corner, the one who lives in the cheap hotel down the road. There are stories he could tell, but he can’t sing the blues like he used to.
Townes asks that we pray for both Pancho and Lefty. Each deserves compassion, poor Pancho who dies a lonely, violent death and is buried in the quiet of the Mexican desert, and Lefty, who feels he had no choice – he just did what he had to do – but who grows old in the cold of Cleveland with the bitter taste of betrayal in his mouth. The song is a plea for forgiveness.
The poet Robert Browning, when asked about the meaning of one of his more obscure poems (and if you know Browning, you will know that bar is set pretty high) said that when he wrote it, only God and Robert Browning knew what it meant: ‘And now only God knows.’
Defining the meaning of texts is an all-absorbing task, inevitably and enjoyably one in which the journey is more fruitful than the destination.
What happens in Pancho and Lefty?
What actually happens in Pancho and Lefty? Who tells the story? Can we trust the story-teller? Are Pancho and Lefty really the same person, or two sides of Townes’ personality?
Some comments refer to ‘The Rhetoric Of Fiction’, Wayne Booth’s seminal literary theory book. Perhaps someone somewhere is working on a thesis, The Unreliable Narrator In The Songs Of Townes Van Zandt (and others).
Pancho and Lefty has been covered by many august musicians, including Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. There are two live performances I will always remember. One is by Townes himself, at the Union Chapel in London in 1994.
Fifteen years later, at London’s Bush Hall, Rodney Crowell’s final encore of the night was a terrific version of Pancho and Lefty. With that opening line, so familiar yet arousing so much anticipation, all intrusive thoughts about last trains, night buses and babysitters disappear.
You’re there in the quiet of the Mexican desert, breathing in the cold air in which Pancho died, and along with the musicians on stage and everyone in the audience, celebrating all the troubadours and outlaws whose demons were turned into songs which have become legends.