Art lives and breathes in the details. And in the mystery. Stories are told in the words on the page, and in the spaces between.
Is the woman in the painting smiling for the artist, or laughing at an intimate joke in her head? What happened to the lead characters before the story line of the movie begins? Just because there are no more pages in the book, is the story really over? What are we being told? What are we left to imagine? What are the dots that we have to connect?
Townes Van Zandt confessed he did not really know what the song “Pancho and Lefty” was about, even though he himself wrote this great, classic neo-western tale in 1972. He says it flowed out from him in a way that was beyond his control. Who are these people? What are they doing? He had no clue.
The more often Van Zandt sang the song, and the more popular it became, the story and its pedigree crystalized for him in his mind. He recognized some historical references he must have picked up in the ether. He connected the story between the words. Ultimately, he was able to fill in the blanks.
Although “Pancho and Lefty” is truly one of the finest songs of the 20th century, let’s not talk about the music (beautiful though it is), because the real genius of “Pancho and Lefty,” the real perfection, can be found in its lyrics.
The first two verses tell us about Lefty.
“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
You weren’t your momma’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams”
We are beginning to learn Lefty’s story, but we have not yet even heard Lefty’s name. All we know is that this person was his mother’s favorite son, and she cried when he left home. He went out on the road to be free and clean, but he became a hard man, with “skin like iron,” and breath like kerosene. He dreams about mother, and home.
“Pancho was a bandit boy
His horse was fast as polished steel
He wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
But that’s the way it goes“
And now we learn about Pancho, and we are bombarded with imagery and information. A horse as fast as “polished steel.” A gun worn outside his pants so the “honest” world would immediately see him as the bandit he was. And then Pancho dies, just as we meet him. Pancho dies, just as most bandits do. The police immediately start to tell stories. They add to the legend.
“All the Federales say
They could’ve had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose“
And now we are brought into the relationship, the connection between Pancho and Lefty. Pancho’s death has made Lefty bereft. He is not the man he once was, and he feels guilt about Pancho’s untimely demise. Because Pancho bit the dust “down south” we are left to believe that Lefty is somewhere else. Lefty has run.
“Lefty, he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows“
Pancho is buried in Mexico, and Lefty has left for Ohio…to be safe? To be home? Maybe just to be far away from the Federales. Either way, Lefty was somehow able to find the money to pay for his travels. Pancho was dead, Lefty had the money, and now he was gone.
“The poets tell how old Pancho fell
And Lefty’s living in cheap hotels
The desert’s quiet, 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”
The story is left to those who tell the stories, to the ones who create the legends, the ones who survive. Pancho was assassinated, or he took his own life, or he died in a blaze of glory shootout with the Federales. Lefty is left to wander alone. From the heat of Mexico to the cold of Cleveland. From a life of crime to a life of regret and loneliness. They both deserve your prayers.
“A few gray Federales say
They could’ve had him any day
They only let him go so long
Out of kindness I suppose”
The story of Pancho and Lefty is vague. We are left to guess the details, and what really happened. The song starts in the middle of the story, and then backtracks, and then summarizes plot points we didn’t even know. We have to work to fully appreciate this song. The beauty is found in the spaces in between. Just like the smile in a painting. Just like the end of a movie.
Years of alcohol , drug abuse and mental illness caught up with Townes Van Zandt, and he died at age of 52 in 1997 after falling down some stairs and breaking his hip. He refused to have it treated. He drank instead. Though he never achieved the level of fame and recognition he so richly deserved during his lifetime, his legend and impact continued to grow. People continue to find inspiration in his songs of desperation and despair. They look between the words. They listen to the music. They find so much beauty.
And so the story ends, we’re told.
“Pancho and Lefty”
Written and Performed by Townes Van Zandt
Released in 1972