I totally stole those lyrics from a Violent Femmes song, I’ll admit, but hey, they’re catchy right? Lately, probably catchier than anything that I could pull out of my bag of magical words. Writers block is a total female dog (for those of you not savvy on the technicalities of what male and female animals are called, female canines are called bitches.) I honestly can’t remember the last time I was able to sit at this machine and actually put something in paragraph form that actually meant anything to me, or would be of any interest of anyone else, until about a half an hour ago.
Gasp, inspiration just strikes? Yes. Yes it does. As you might know I “used” to be a writer, I “used” to be a pharmacy technician, I used to be a lot of things, but the one thing that I’m not is a quitter, so I kept my chin up and knew that there would be a day that words would come out of my fingers again. Daily, I would look down at my hands and see more holes from plants and weird stuff I have to handle at work than I would tools to write with. I got into the car today and looked at my hands as they rested on my steering wheel and I actually started humming the song “Pancho and Lefty”. Appropriate, seeing as how they are hands, and there is a left and a….well, I guess I’ll call the other one Pancho from now on.
The lyrics, if you’re unfamiliar with them, are about two haggard dudes, named Pancho and Lefty (big surprise) and their rough lives. I looked down at my hands, not only saw the scars of life, but also the ability to evolve into better things. The first lines describe a set of hands about as tough as a womans skin that has laid in a tanning bed three times a day for about seventy years. Pancho chased Lefty in the song, or if you want to think of it, Lefty chased Pancho. Typical good guy bad guy story. The left always wanted to keep up with what the right (or Pancho) was doing, and in the end it was like a wild goose chase.
Pancho dies in the song, Lefty (the “good guy”) sort of lost meaning in life. His purpose was trying to get Pancho, which never indeed happened, which sort of resonated with real life. Aren’t we always trying to keep up with something, even if it’s our mind that creates the vicious circle. Are we not always chasing a dream, looking for something, striving for something, but sometimes, it seems, we can sabotage ourselves. You’ve heard of one had washing the other, well, as I looked at my hands today on the steering wheel, I was Pancho and Lefty, one hand slapping the other.
Some would call it clapping, but that’s not the point. The song was haunting me, and I had to hear it, and the only version of it I knew of was the Townes Van Zandt version (which is perhaps the most haunting, amazing, and gut wrenching song I know of). I grabbed my phone to appease my need to hear it, googled the song title, and one of the first things that came up was Merle Haggard – – and his passing. I knew he did a version of it, and I had heard it, but I wasn’t exactly a fan. Don’t get me wrong, I love Merle, but his version was a bit to “poppy” for me. I listened to it anyways, knowing that he had passed and that he had the guts to try to cover this challenging song was something for me to think about.
Polar opposites, just like Pancho and Lefty. Townes made the song so depressing, it was the perfect song for those days that you want to just curl up in a ball and wonder what direction you’re going in your life, sort of like a Pancho. Pancho was on the run, his only future was being chased, that was life, but that was the life he chose. Townes version of it made it seem like life was doom and gloom, life is all about he decisions that you make. Townes wrote the damn song, and he decided that it was a sad song. Of course it had dying, cheap hotels, and federales, how could you make a pop song of that. I honestly think if Townes was still around he would turn in his grave at the remake of his song that Merle did.
After listening to the Merle version, then the Townes version again, I realized that life is just a dichotomous key. The upbeat demeanor of the song made it seem like, well, everything was going to me okay. Merle belted out the part of Pancho falling, Cleveland being cold, and the begging of prayers, and it was almost a encouragement to pump your fist in the air and say “I’m a freaking Lefty”. Merle made it seem glamorous to be either party involved. After looking down at my hands after hearing that version of the song, I realized these hands don’t have to be the Townes version of Pancho and Lefty, they could be the Merle version.
Of course, I go on musical tangents and kept ping ponging back and forth from Merle and Townes, and there were so many parallels, I had to remind myself of who I was listening to. “Dead Flowers”, one of my absolute favorite songs (although it’s about drugs), was an echo to the song “A Place to Fall Apart”. The song “Cocaine Blues” with Townes was a weird parallel to “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”. The apex to this musical memory match was “Waiting Around To Die” and “Mama Tried”.
If you’re not a music snob like me, this might be in over your head, but really, every single one of these songs are ones to really look into. Every song reminds you that there really is a Pancho and Lefty. The songs have very similar subjects, but one encourages hope, the other promotes giving up on life. However, one thing that Townes had over Merle was “White Freightliner Blues”, a ballad of keeping on keeping on (think Mr. Natural here). With the lyrics of “bad news from Houston, half my friends are dying”, the next verse didn’t mention going to join them, it proclaimed, in so many words at least, that he was going to keep on. He wasn’t going to quit, he was gonna keep rambling.
I mourn the passing of Merle, and for me to try to compare him to perhaps one of the best (albeit whiny at times) songwriters of all time, is wrong. Merle was a spectacular talent, and I really have a vision of them jammin’ in the big truck stop in the sky. What I did get, was a sense of optimism. I can be a Pancho (of the Townes sort) or a Lefty (of the Merle sort).
Life is in my power, I can sing a sad tune, or I can throw a catchy beat in the background and keep my chin up. Until I take a bow, and say goodnight, like these two remarkable talents.
The point fingers in the air and do a little dance version:
The place hand on your chin in a cupping manner and wonder what life is all about version: