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Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Townes Van Zandt, ‘Pancho and Lefty’ (#498)

Written by a romantic poet disguised as a quasi-homeless troubador, Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is, in Van Zandt’s own words, “about two Mexican bandits I saw on the TV.”  And that’s at least partly true; the song is about two Mexican bandits, and it’s possible that Van Zandt saw them or someone like them on TV (though I’d be reluctant to stake my life or reputation on that being a fact)…

…but Van Zandt being the poet that he was, that’s not all ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is about.

It’s also about the gulf that exists between the tawdry demands of real life and the bright glories of mythology.  It’s about friendship and betrayal, loneliness and the slow cruel decline of old age.  Pancho may have met an early death, with no one around to hear his dying words, but he gets all the good press, and was at least spared the indignity of dying cold and alone and obscure in Cleveland.

Now, I strongly suspect that Townes Van Zandt, who passed away in 1997, would not have described or explained anything about his most famous song in the same way I just have.  I don’t know for certain, but my guess is that he’d say he simply wrote it down as it occurred to him, and that the song speaks for itself, independent of whatever his intentions were (assuming he had intentions).  Whatever you get out of it, I think he’d say, then that’s what’s there.

The stories tell how Pancho fell
And 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 only did what he had to do
And now he’s growing old

I wouldn’t say that the overall tone of Van Zandt’s body of work is one of despair — there’s joy to be found too, but it’s always tempered by the certain knowledge of human failure and the looming specter of mortality. 

Hey, it might not get better, but at least one day it’ll all be over.

Michael Strum: “First off, what a rock and roll name! ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ is a wonderful album with a great title. We’ll circle back to its release year — 1972 — as we move down the list. ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is incredible fun lyrically, and quite surprising: ‘fast as polished steel’ doesn’t take you where you think you’re going, nor does its rhyming couplet ‘for all the honest world to feel’, but you walk away happy. Fun rhyme structure. ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is relaxed storytelling, comfortable with itself, with great instrumentation. Horns are a nice touch, and not overdone. This song has it all: lyrics, melody, instrumentation, production. Risking blasphemy, I’d say that the songwriting quality here recalls B. Dylan. Far too low at 498.”

Rolling Stone: An epic story-song about a bandit and the friend who betrays him, “Pancho and Lefty” became a country hit thanks to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s 1983 duet. But it’s the songwriter’s own forlorn reading, on 1972’s The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, that best conveys the doomed fates of the main characters. It begins with what might be one of the most descriptive opening verses in the country-folk canon: “Living on the road my friend/was gonna keep you free and clean/now you wear your skin like iron/your breath as hard as kerosene.” “It’s hard to take credit for the writing,” Van Zandt said in 1984, “because it came from out of the blue.”

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