in the shadows
Townes van Zandt wrote Pancho and Lefty.
"Townes had dozens of stories about how his famous outlaw ballad Pancho and Lefty came about. In one version Van Zandt couldnt find a motel within thirty miles of Dallas because the Guru Maharaji and Billy Graham, along with thousands of their faithful flock were both in town at the same time and there was no room at the inn for the weary Texas troubadour.
Although it was years before he saw any royalty checks Townes reaped the benefits of writing the song when he got nabbed, speeding through the small town of Berkshire while driving from Houston up to Austin. A pair of state highway patrolmen pulled his old hippie-hauler over to the side of the road to give it the once over. Van Zandt couldnt remember if he had anything questionable in the car but as a rule of thumb he always considered himself felonious when moving. They soon discovered Townes inspection sticker had expired and his drivers license, although miraculously up to date, had the wrong address. Van Zandt suddenly found himself in the back seat of their patrol car playing twenty questions, when he noticed his captors were different as night and day. One was a blue-eyed Aryan with a short blonde crew cut while the other was Mexican. Townes suddenly felt like a guest star on an episode of Chips.
What is it that you do for a living? the cops began to grill him. Im a traveling folksinger and songwriter, Townes replied, knowing it was tantamount to a plea of guilty. Then taking his best shot Van Zandt inquired if they were familiar with a song called Pancho & Lefty? I wrote that song and gave it to Willie. he said proudly. They looked at him incredulously. But their doubt soon melted away as Townes began to sing the first verse, Livin on the road my friend was gonna keep you free and clean.
The two cops began to grin and then turned around for another conference in the front seat. Meanwhile Townes waited quietly, tryin to be as nice as possible, not sayin a word and tryin not to even smell bad. A moment later the Aryan announced that the speeding charge had been dropped, but reminded Townes to file for the address change as soon as he got back to Austin. Were gonna have to get you for an inspection sticker, cause weve already written it down, the cop apologized. But that will only be about five bucks.
Grateful, Townes thanked the officers for letting him off. Van Zandt knew well the old code of the road, that once a cop lets you go, you say thanks and keep your mouth shut and split before you stir up any more trouble. But he just couldnt leave well enough alone. Townes had to know why they dropped the charges. It turned out that their radio code names were Pancho and Lefty.
Well, that sure is nice, Townes said, grinning as he walked away. But just before he reached his old heap curiosity got the best of him again. Knowing he was playing with fire, Townes turned around and asked Which one of yall is Pancho? The Mexican pointed to the Aryan and said, He is!
Van Zandt knew it is whats left unsaid that often haunts us most. He never divulges whether Pancho and Lefty were friends or a pair of desperados bound together by some ill-fated scheme. Their relationship is purposely vague. Some speculate that Lefty turned Pancho in, but we never find out anything more other than what he tells us. Pancho bites the dust in the cold, quiet desert while Lefty lives out the rest of his life in a cheap Cleveland hotel after doing whatever it was he had to do. The tale clearly implies a betrayal. The song forever remains an enigma, which is essential to its enduring beauty.
You won't find a song thats better written, that says more or impresses songwriters more, Steve Earle claimed.
Richard Thompson, the great guitarist and author of a catalog of brilliant songs that includes the outlaw opus Vincent Black Lightning openly admitted his affection for Pancho and Lefty. Sharing Van Zandts opinion that songs are otherworldly gifts, Thompson claimed Townes got some of the best songs of the century.
According to Townes Pancho and Lefty just floated in through a window one day after he made himself sit at a table until he wrote a new song. Van Zandt believed anybody couldve done it. They just had to be sitting in the right chair."
Don't feel badly about not being able to finish this song. One day you will.
"they all did what they had to do...now they're gettin' old"