Jun 16, 2011

Pancho and Lefty

Pancho and Lefty
In the afterglow of four good versions of “Make Me a Pallet” (see my previous post), I was browsing YouTube music clips and came across “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt’s masterpiece on betrayal within a brotherhood. I probably hadn't heard it for twenty years.

Here's the famed recording by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard:

YouTube - "Pancho and Lefty" - Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Here's a less known version by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

YouTube - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings - Pancho and Lefty (09-27-1997)

 Pancho “Wore his gun outside his pants/For all the honest world to feel.”  Don’t we all wish we could wear our guns outside our pants?  What do uyou think punkers’ purple hair is about?  In the sixties, I knew plenty of hippies who were Republicans-in-waiting. Wait. That's a digression.

Pancho and Lefty
Lefty was (apparently) the sidekick, and the two rode “free and clean” for awhile, in what seemed an eternal road trip. But soon enough, the idyll grows hard, and “you wear your skin like iron./Your breath's as hard as kerosene.”

For reasons that aren’t clear—chronic fear of the long arm of the law? living hand-to-mouth too long?—Lefty betrays Pancho. In exchange for “bread” and an escape to Ohio, he informs on Pancho. 
Then comes Van Zandt’s editorial, which is problematic. Shall we pray for Lefty, the narc, the Judas? Van Zandt asks us to:

“The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
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 . . .”

Lefty can’t sing all night the way he used to because of dust in his mouth—is it just Mexican dust or the dust of Pancho’s mortality as well. Although Lefty (note that left in Latin is “sinistra,” the root for “sinister”) was able to reach Ohio with the payoff, who wants to live out his senior years in Cleveland? So maybe the gods have given sinister Lefty his due.
Pancho and Lefty

 But he’s also just another old fart, alone with his sins, living in literal and metaphorical coldness. Surely that elicits sympathy. And let’s not forget that Pancho was, after all, a bandit, the thief we all fear in our cities these days (or the thieves in our bank offices and Congress). Pancho is thug, menace, bully,  anarchist.

Yet we all love an outlaw, the antihero we’d all be if we had any guts, any character. Geoffrey Dahmer was a grotesque exception; most renegades are like Jesse James; they steal from the rich and give to the poor. And in that story, we all have our hands out . . . .

Pancho and Lefty
Should we agree with Van Zandt that life in a cheap hotel in Cleveland is ample punishment for Lefty, and we should save a prayer for him?  Did he only do “what he had to do?” Who or what coerced him? Is it enough that, in his old age, he’s wracked with guilt, huddled up against one blizzard after another?

When I paraphrase the lines and the narrative, I hear myself winking. But I really think there’s a moral, or simply human, complexity in the tale of Pancho and Lefty. If your friend is a crook, whom you aid and abet, what are you? But if you betray the same friend, especially for some filthy lucre, for thirty pieces of silver . . . what are you?

By the way, three minutes of scouting internet commentary makes clear that the song is not about Pancho Villa, but two generic outlaws roaming free and easy.  Van Zandt has a very charming story about two cops who stopped his car for going 67 in Texas. He thinks of them as Pancho and Lefty.  If you poke around, you can find that television interview, but you’ll need patience to sit through the composer’s halting speech.

Pancho and Lefty
If you know as little as I did about Townes Van Zandt’s life, I encourage you to check out Wikipedia’s version of his biography. It feels accurate, some of its details are gripping, most of them sad, and it goes to aspects of creativity we’ve looked at here before.



Michelle said...

A great song and I love Willie and Merle.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, somewhere there's a version of this tune by Waylon Jennings and Nelson that is far, far better. Can you find it?

Brenda's Arizona said...

And how can we ever see two, a pair, and not think of Pancho and Lefty?

Banjo52 said...

Farmchick, good. We aim to please.

AH, I'll look.

Well, ya know, Brenda . . . why not?

Anonymous said...

So the part of me that loves cheering wildly for bands that have no audience drew me to this version. But it is really quite lovely. Can you hear the harmonies, off-camera?


Banjo52 said...

AH, I didn't find anything.

Some, I definitely see the appeal. He seems to really FEEL the story. Wish they'd filmed the audience and the harmony singer.

Lovers' Lane