Some years back, I had occasion to be interviewing
Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who got to talking about the song fragment, how one of the things he liked best about folk music was the wealth of songs that are clearly remnants of much larger works. "I've always been fond of the fragment, the song that has one verse," he said. "You don't know anything about the characters, you don't know what they're doing, but they're doing something important.
I love that."
Few songs written in modern times epitomize that quality so well as Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty," which from its opening line ("Living on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean/ Now you wear your skin like iron, your breath's as hard as kerosene") imparts a compelling sense of something gone catastrophically awry and makes you hang on breathlessly to learn more. It's impossible not to keep listening as the terse verses glance off a central story that's never quite told, of the bandit Pancho's untimely demise in the Mexican desert, the mysterious Lefty and his possibly treacherous involvement, and those mainstays of the Western tradition, Federales and Mama. The core event is clear; the underlying relationships and karmic connections, so profound that "the dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth," remain elusive long after you've memorized the lyrics. Left to write your own story from the song's fragments, you become inextricably entangled with it yourself.
"Pancho & Lefty" alone would have been a pinnacle of any songwriting career; much covered by other artists, it's almost surely the best known song by the late Van Zandt, who died in 1997. It's certainly one of the high points of this posthumous greatest-hits collection.
Scion of a prominent Texas family, Van Zandt survived a troubled adolescence (during which, among other things, he was subjected to shock treatments) to take up the vagabond life and become one of the pioneering Texas singer/songwriters in the late '60s, going on to inspire such contemporaries as Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. He released numerous albums in his lifetime, from which most of the selections on The Best of Townes Van Zandt
It says a good deal about where Van Zandt was coming from that the album's three cover tunes are the Bo Diddley classic "Who Do You Love?," Jagger-Richards' "Dead Flowers" and Pete La Farge's "Ballad of Ira Hayes" plenty of tragedy, decadence, substance abuse and spooky juju to go around. Even the relatively cheerful songs in this collection have a strong undercurrent of desperation: for example, the tender love ballad "If I Needed You" (a hit for Don Williams and Emmylou Harris), with "If you needed me, I would come to you, I would swim the seas for to ease your pain"; or "White Freightliner Blues," working the time-honored connection between truck songs and drug songs (cf. Lowell George's "Willin'") to the point where the truck becomes the drug. Or vice versa.
There aren't too many happy moments on the album; its songs tend to feature people so beaten down by hard living that, in the words of one song, they're just "Waiting Around to Die." The first track, "Tecumseh Valley," pays tribute to Caroline, the miner's ill-fated daughter; the next presents the lover-turned-demon cautionary tale of "Our Mother the Mountain." Another classic, "Tower Song," is as eloquently poignant as regrets about life-gone-wrong can get. Van Zandt tells the stories with a forceful, urgent economy of words in a hard-traveled but engaging voice; he's not only an excellent songwriter but a stellar picker, and many of the tracks showcase this nicely.
The album does an excellent job of introducing Van Zandt's work to an audience that's come up since his death. In this era of a recording studio on every desktop, new listeners may marvel at the echo-y bathtub-sounding audio of some of the live recordings, but hey, back in the '70s it was quite an achievement, and in any case Van Zandt's performance transcends the recording tools.
Where this album falls down is not in the material itself but in some of the editorial decisions made in packaging the CD. Lyric sheets, for example, would have been awfully nice, particularly for the new listener at whom this is chiefly aimed. But a more egregious omission is songwriting credits, the closest approximation of which appears in the liner notes with a great deal of other verbiage. Neither on the disc itself nor in the CD booklet's track listing, which thoughtfully informs the reader which album the song came from but not who wrote it, is there any indication that anyone other than Van Zandt wrote any of the material. True, he does a great job of making the cover tunes his own, but it seems subtly disrespectful of the songs he did write to fail to make the distinction.