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Like almost everything in Townes Van Zandt's life, the song "Pancho & Lefty" is shrouded in myth. When asked about his inspiration for the track, Van Zandt gave a typically cryptic answer: "I realize that I wrote it," he said, "but it's hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it's a real nice song and, I think, I've finally found out what it's about."
There are, I would argue, better Van Zandt songs than "Pancho & Lefty." But perhaps no other song so perfectly captures Van Zandt's role as the anti-country star: It's a story about the very real dangers of becoming the rogue cowboy that country music so mythologizes. "Pancho & Lefty" starts off with the usual horse-and-saddle propaganda: "Living on the road, my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean." If you know the songwriter's biography, then you can sense the sadness in those lines: Van Zandt lived on the road and performed in dive bars most of his life; it did not keep him clean.
Van Zandt died on the morning of January 1, 1997, at 52 years old. It was drinking that did him in; the only thing that could slow his fatal heart attack was a final sip or two of vodka, a few inhales from a joint, and some Tylenol PMs.
Van Zandt's death garnered two funerals: one for his family, and one for his cowboy blood.
Like most true country songs, "Pancho & Lefty" begins innocuously enough. While Van Zandt's guitar delivers slow, dusty fingerpicked notes, we're introduced to Pancho (an echo, some say, of the Mexican revolutionary general known as Pancho Villa). Pancho is that classic country dissident, suitably equipped with a gun and a horse "fast as polished steel." Lefty is Pancho's sidekick, a guy who's always resigned to his partner's left-overs. There's a suspicion built into the song—the dust that Pancho bit down South having ended up in Lefty's mouth—that Lefty has sold Pancho out to the Federales, who kill him "on the deserts down in Mexico," leaving Lefty to wilt away in a fleabag hotel in Cleveland, having absconded there with unexplained cash.
The song closes with:
A few gray Federales say, / They could've had him any day / They only let him slip away / Out of kindness, I suppose....
The Great Pancho, it turns out, was never really so great. The Federales let him scamper around with his pistol and lasso out of pity for his grand aspirations—for his delusion, really.
"Pancho & Lefty" first appeared on the 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. (Such was his sense of humor.) That same year, songs like "The Happiest Girl in the U.S.A." and "My Hang-Up Is on You" ruled the country music charts. Concurrently, the outlaw movement—of which Van Zandt was a key contributor—was picking up steam in Austin, Texas, largely as a counter-movement to Nashville's petty and polished (and immensely popular) sound.
Van Zandt was crucial to the outlaw movement, sure, but he was never its most memorable figure. Maybe he was its greatest heartbreak: The three months of shock therapy as a youth meant rejection from the Air Force on psychological grounds, 30-some years of dependency on needles and whiskey bottles, and even a New York Times obituary that spends more time on his failures than on his successes.
In the song, you get the feeling that Pancho won't be remembered after his death. Arguably the greatest sadness of all is that Van Zandt, too, has faded into a country music footnote. A large footnote, yes, but still, at the end of the day, an asterisk.
The best known version of "Pancho & Lefty" is the 1983 Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duet incarnation (their cover of the song has garnered twice as many views on YouTube)—an emblem, to me, of Van Zandt's very nature: After a life marred by small tragedies, not even death would let Van Zandt, or his legacy, escape misfortune. Even his most popular song isn't really his. It's just an asterisk attached to Nelson and Haggard's interpretation.
As Paul Zollo wrote earlier this year in American Songwriter, the musician Steve Earle once famously said: "Townes is the best songwriter in the world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."
The thing is, Bob Dylan now lives quietly and comfortably in his beachfront property in Malibu; Townes Van Zandt died with his ex-wife performing CPR on his listless body.
At one point in the song, Pancho's been left for dead in some street in Mexico, with nobody to hear his final words. Here, Van Zandt's characteristically unsteady voice can only offer one meditation: "Ah, but that's the way it goes."
Van Zandt and Pancho both abused too much, stumbled too often, and died too soon. But at least the former left us with the latter—and so much else.