Focus on the song: Pancho and Lefty
First, an explanation: I like songs, always have. I know that’s kind of a gross understatement, but sometimes stating the obvious is helpful for understanding fundamental truths.
I’ve been on a journey with music for as long as I can remember, and have yet to truly understand exactly what it is that makes a song matter. The first song I remember loving was “Papa Don’t Preach,” by Madonna. I must have been four or five years old. There’s no way I could have possibly understood the complicated narrative, the abortion issue and all its complex layers, the daring involved with Madonna tackling the topic in what was a fairly palatable mainstream pop song. I knew it was a little smarter than other songs. I knew it was about something I didn’t understand. I new the melody was memorable and the string section was surprising, the lyrics were innately rhythmic, with all the well-placed p’s and the intrinsic musicality of a phrase like “papa don’t preach.”
Since then, I’ve studied a bit and come to understand what makes a song work, technically speaking. I have a fair grasp of music theory, enough to know when a modulation makes sense and when it’s forced and formulaic. For a long time after I abandoned my close study, I thought all my knowledge of music theory and composition inhibited creativity, but I’ve since changed my mind about that. As a critic, I’ve come to understand and appreciate all those years of looking at music closely, studying the minutiae of melodic progression, etc. I now delight greatly in understanding what it is about a particular song which is so stirring. I think about it obsessively. When music strikes me, it strikes so hard. I can get lost, torn from everything that needs to be done, while I consider exactly what it is about the song which slays me.
And yet, I really don’t like criticism. When I sit down to write a formal review of an album, I get caught up in all the things I would have done differently. It feels unfair to the artist. It’s not my favorite thing to do. But songs, individual tunes, are a different matter. I could consider them for hours, days, and I do. So, I thought it might be fun to post here, now and then, with some ideas about what makes certain great songs great. And I’m starting with the most obvious tune, in my opinion: “Pancho and Lefty.” If you’re unfamiliar with the song, here’s a link to download Townes Van Zandt’s version from Amazon.
First, a little about the song. It’s been recorded by some of the most well-respected artists in this genre, whatever it is – Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, etc. But, it was written by Townes Van Zandt, an artist revered among songwriters, admired among hard-core music fans, and unknown to most of the rest of the world. I don’t want to assume anyone reading this knows about Townes, because I understand how the internet works and know someone may have found this blog post while searching for something else. So, for those folks, here’s his Wikipedia entry. If you don’t want to click, just rest assured, Townes Van Zandt was one of the greatest songwriters to walk this earth.
And now for the song. “Pancho and Lefty” is confusing. Townes left a lot of the story out, which I believe is the source of the song’s strength. You can’t do that with any other form of storytelling, not in the same way at least. With novels and poetry, you can only leave things out after you’ve convinced the reader their opinion is part of the story. With songs, you don’t have to involve the listener in order to leave space. You do, however, have to manipulate a melody so that it gives the listener room to fill in the holes on their own while you take a break between verses.
The instrumental breaks in “Pancho and Lefty,” at least in Townes’ version, seem deliberately un-developed. There’s no show-off guitar solo, no sudden, out-of-left-field other instrument to pull your mind along the journey. There’s some slight development, but it’s so distant and understated that it’s easy to not even hear it. You’re left to follow your own train of thought.
He sets up the story – about a couple of outlaws, their friendship (if that’s what it is…I sometimes think it’s a love affair, but that’s another matter), their exploits, their mistakes and ultimate failures. He gives you a few context clues, a few verses and lines about their personal lives. Most telling, in my opinion is this line from early in the song: “You weren’t your mama’s only boy, but her favorite one it seems / she began to cry when you said goodbye and sank into your dreams.” It’s not clear whether the “you” here is Pancho or Lefty, and it almost seems irrelevant. It’s also not clear whether the “you” is the one sinking into their dreams, or whether it’s their mother who, no doubt, was more saddened by her son’s dreams than he was. Dreams aren’t generally something you sink into, unless they’re misguided. It’s probably one of the most fantastic lines to set up a song that I’ve ever heard.
Townes had a way of nailing life’s complexities and shortcomings, expressing pity for people’s personal plights. His songs, all of them, shed light on the numerous layers of everything, underscoring the fact that no story is cut-and-dry. What has made “Pancho and Lefty” more resonant than some of the others is confusing to me. It’s not my personal favorite from his body of work. How many of us can truly relate to the overall story? Sure, most people can relate to lines like “Lefty can’t sing the blues all night long like he used to.” We get the way life changes us, though we often don’t understand why. This song nails how it feels for life to slip away on its own, leaving one to catch up to their own self. Early into the final verse, he sings, “The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold / so the story ends, we’re told.” Then he continues with the story, which only makes a point that the story never really ends. Nothing ends as simply as a camera panning away on a quiet desert and a cold city. Even a made-up story in a song is more complex than that.
What makes this and, for that matter, all of Townes’ songs great, are the spaces he leaves. The unexplainable emptinesses. It doesn’t require any understanding or participation from the listener. It simply sheds light on the parts of us which emerge in its presence. When the song backs off, away from the narrative and the lyrics, when it breathes, and when it ends on that unresolved chord, it leaves us with our ideas exposed. In such an unassuming, subtle way, it pulls something to the surface.
Then again, maybe it’s just a song, just a story with some music behind it. What do you think?