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Pancho and Lefty - Townes van Zandt

So also in Guy Clark's Valhalla bar at Mission Beach, as we've said, was "poor Port Worth boy" Townes van Zandt, a great and prolific singer / songwriter, the ultimate modern day troubadour. He wrote many great songs, the best of which are poetic love songs, but he is becoming more and more well known as the years go by, for just one song, Pancho and Lefty.

He was also famous for his live singing and beautifully delicate and complex guitar backing, but nowadays he was the man who wrote "Pancho and Lefty". It's been covered by many people, most notably Merle Haggard and Willy Young who had a US country number one with it, but the best version, by far, is his own studio recording:

A rumination on the relationship between reality and legend, subject and poet, the dreams of youth and what life does to them.

Townes Van Zandt died on January 1st 1997 at the age of 53 of a heart attack brought on by alcoholism and years of substance abuse.

Townes is one of those performers who was appreciated much more by his peers (such as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash who all covered his songs) than the public, and he never made it in the way he deserved. I’ve always thought that the endless tours and one man, one night shows before moving on, just him and his guitar, and afterwards either drinking with fans, or winding up with an admirer or,worse, alone with a bottle in a hotel room, gave his music its sad, despairing feel. In the early 1990’s, Polar Promotions put him on twice at the Union Chapel in London. When he performed he always peppered his act with jokes and humorous bon mots, many of which I remember to this day. When I heard them the first time I thought they were really great and also his guitar picking was exquisite, but when we put him on again two years later, much of the finger picking was gone, replaced by chords alone, he was run down due to drink and drugs, but what was striking is he told the same jokes between the songs in the same order. I now realise that he knew that the e sadness and intensity of his repertoire needed this light relief otherwise it might have become unbearable, for the him if not for the audience. Especially for him. You feel he carries a heavy burden, being among the most romantic songwriters ever, particularly when dealing with relationships.

And this is about a relationship. Between an eighth rate bandit and a sixth rate poet, both scrabbling a barely adequate living around the border between the U.S. and Mexico in the mythical era of the wild west. The songs begins with someone – we’re not sure who - starting out on the road to be something, to follow their dreams, whether as a bandit hero (like say Billy the Kid) or a poet (like Townes himself?).

Townes was often asked what the song meant but always dodged the issue, fobbing questioners of with vague answers. I always felt that he thought you either got it or you didn't, and no explanation could help you if you didn't but it's worth a try anyway.

Right from the start the song is consciously poetic, he is addressing someone (Pancho? Lefty?)

"Living on the road my friend

was gonna keep you free and clean"

who started out hopefully but

"Now you wear your skin like iron

and your breath’s as hard as kerosene"

with Bolanoesque irrelevant but irresistible detail

".. you weren't your mother's only son

but her favourite one it seems"..

and leaving his mother he “sank into your dreams” which sounds romantic, but the grim seriousness of it is that he will drown in his dreams. It doesn’t matter who it is, Pancho or Lefty, they both start out with the optimism and dreams of youth.

Like Lefty, Townes is narrating to an audience, possibly a barroom audience,

“Pancho was a bandit boys”

and we realize that Townes sees in himself the tragic figure of the poet Lefty.

Then we get Pancho the legend:

"his horse was fast as polished steel

he wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel."

and the reality:

“Pancho met his match you know

on the deserts down in Mexico

and nobody heard his dying words”

-he’s alone, no friends, no-one with him-

“but that’s the way it goes”

and even worse, he wasn’t much of a bandit, they couldn’t even be bothered to catch him, had better things to do:

"and all the Federales say,

they could have had him any day

they only let him hang around

out of kindness, I suppose"

And then we get Lefty, the singer / poet, the man who wrote, sang and made his living by creating the legend of Pancho the bandit, as dilapidated as the real man behind the legend he has created, has to “split for Ohio” when he dies as, suberbly,

“the dust that Pancho bit down south

ended up in Lefty’s mouth”

and the legends begin again

“Well the poets tell how Pancho fell….” but

“…. Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel.

The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold

and so the story ends we’re told

Pancho needs your prayers it’s true

but save a few for Lefty too

he just did what he had to do

and now he’s growing old”

and so are the federales.

This is the real west, real life, dirty, seedy, crappy and dusty, very Cormac McCarthy. Townes appreciates that both the source and the creator of the myth are in reality shabby affairs, and wonders which is worse, to die a grubby death alone in the desert in Mexico, or to slowly fade away in a difficult old age. His weary voice suggests that it’s all the same to him, but his wordly awareness suggests he knows that this is his own fate, and he is iterating its tragedy in advance. But although everyone’s forgotten about Lefty, they’ll still be talking about the legend he created, about Pancho the Bandit, no matter how sordid his life really was, just like the country stars will still sing Townes’ songs, long after the public have forgotten him, and his own youthful dreams of stardom.

Here’s to you Townes!

“a few grey Federales say

they could have had him any day

they only let him go so long

out of kindness, I suppose.”

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