Out of step isn't exactly the image I would have chosen at any age, but it's what I'm stuck with, and frankly have been stuck with, for a long, long time now. The hard part if figuring out what to say about the situation. And so I have mostly made instrumental music for several decades now. I am challenging myself to come up with songs from the point of view of a truly post-scarcity civilization commenting on the silliness of our ways. Just kidding. I'm from the 70's, not the 60's.

All seriousness and whatnot - I'm trying to find my "Pancho and Lefty" or something like that. Awesome song. But why?

The song, paraphrased goes:

  • An unknown person once made the claim that livin' on the road was going to keep them free and clean.
  • Evidence is sited to the contrary.
  • Discussion of matrilineal parentage and whom "Mom liked best."
  • Unknown person "sinks into their dreams" making Mom cry.
  • Shift to talking about a small time Mexican bandit who rides a horse, setting this in the first half of the 20th Century at the latest.
  • The chorus joins in about The Federales.
  • Discussion of the current state of Lefty's singing prowess.
  • Ironic dust to dust to dust meta-reference.
  • Pancho dies, Lefty splits for Ohio.
  • Where he got the bread to go? There ain't nobody knows.
  • Chorus away

So, it appears that the person being addressed in the beginning is Lefty, in Cleveland after helping the cops take Pancho out. Then the narrator shifts to telling the backstory. It's very American to make the Bandit the man done wrong and the guy who turned him in the bad guy. We posture a lot here as "Law and Order" but it becomes quickly apparent that the attitude is really "Might Makes Right."  Lefty didn't kill Pancho. That would make him Manly In Murka. There's no reason to think that Lefty was Pancho's friend other than they are both mentioned in the same song. The way the song is presented sets us up to imagine that Lefty knew Pancho and sold him out, but that is never even hinted at. The one that the Federales say they could have had any day is Pancho. We are led to believe that Lefty sold out Pancho, but the Federales say they knew where he was all along. In any case, we do know that Lefty is living in a cold, cheap hotel in Cleveland, Ohio and Pancho is buried somewhere in Mexico. We know that Pancho was a bandit, and can be fairly certain the narrator is talking to Lefty in the cheap hotel at the beginning of the song. Alternate interpretations include:

  • Lefty narrowly missed getting killed in Mexico and was found crippled by PTSD in a cold, cheap hotel in Cleveland by the narrator who starts with a left-handed "I told you so."
  • The line about how Pancho needs your prayers could be intended ironically, i.e. everyone hearing this song will feel sorry for Pancho (the writer intended that).
  • We naturally make connections and see patterns where there are none. Simply putting the events one after the other in the narrative causes a short circuit reaction that says, "first this, then that, which caused that..." which is so powerful that it must be really old. After all, the most important things we could pass on in stories was how to make things happen. How to make an axe. How to cook a rabbit. What to eat and what to avoid. One thing leads to another. This leads us to jump to conclusions based on a list of events that happened that is so primitive and powerful that it is nearly a reflex action. Because we share a similar frame of reference we all tend to form the same story around the minimal information we get. The most important thing is that nothing must jar the listener out of their agreement with the premise. Dude hit the road all optimistic and everything. Shit happened in Mexico, He won't talk about it. We hear stories. For all we know, there was no Pancho. Lefty hit the road and came back a shell of a person. People heard stories about why. This is what they have said. Meanwhile, Lefty appears to be kind of screwed all around anyway. 

And in the end the story revolves around the coincidence of Pancho being lynched by The Federales and Lefty ending his "life on the road." Which is left ambiguous in the song, "They're ain't nobody knows." But the association has been implied, wink wink, nudge nudge... We can't stand it when we don't know. And that is what modern songwriting and to a greater extent, popular storytelling relies on. The ability and the willingness of our minds to generate a plausible story given a list of things that happened. Which matches up with the leading explanation of how our cortex functions. The mind contains a model of the environment occupied by a model of the person containing the whole thing in an actual environment with other people in a similar situation. Or as has been said elsewhere, consciousness is a tool that brains use to solve problems. But more importantly, the brain makes predictions about the future and then checks, or in some cases doesn't appear to care if it is correct, but it has to be right. This is what modern storytelling and popular song rely on. That we will all reach a vaguely similar conclusion from the minimal cues we are given when the majority of the population share a common set of assumptions and behaviors. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that this is good or bad. I'm just describing the world around me and attempting to communicate through music. I'm working on lyrics that are cryptic, but about some tiny sliver of modern life. The daily thoughts of a left turn signal. I'm not kidding here. This will be a great song. The secret is to make the lyrics so vague and foggy that they can become nearly anything. Immediately I think, "I'm just waiting for the - right decision..." and it sounds all 90's hair metal MTV Rocks. "I"m just waitin' fuh duh... ... ... right decision!" "Oh Yea-ea-ea-ah!" "Uh huh!" "Uh huh!" 

I suspect that the message, if any, from this song I'm fantasizing that I am writing is that whether their paths crossed or not, things didn't and probably couldn't work out too well for either of them, and by extension... Server! I'm not driving. May I have another?


I feel the need to emphasize that I have no negative feelings about the song, the author, any meanings that might be wrung from the lyrical content in the context of the times and the point of view of the author, blah, blah blah blah blah....

My point was really about the sheer minimalism of the lyric relative to the story most Americans will make up on hearing the minimal story line. That is an art right there. Yup. That is the songwriter's craft. To spin gold from rumpled stilt skins. Or something like that.

There is nothing to the story, but we all follow along. "When they laid poor Pancho low; Lefty split for Oh-High-Oh; where he got the bread to go; there ain't nobody knows." We assume that they are in the same town. The narrator doesn't tell us that. The only clue that Lefty was even in Mexico is the cryptic, "the dust that Pancho bit down South, ended up in Lefty's mouth." This, along with the implication that Lefty got paid off leads us to assume that Lefty was Pancho's buddy who turned him over to the law for plot twisting reason and now lives as a recluse in The Heartlands in a cold, cheap hotel. 

So, it's not that much different being a dead bandit than to be an alleged snitch living in a hotel in Cleveland post mortem of said bandit in another country than the one you now reside in. Or whatever.

Which is true, but it is smothered in a soft fog of formulaic story structures that, again, leaves us with feelings and impressions but no distinct conclusions. But the goal of the songwriter and here we can see it clearly, is less to lead us to conclusions than it is to give us feelings and impressions. Once again, not for or against feelings and impressions. Simply describing the scene I have happened upon and the sequence of events as I have had them described to me. The feelings and impressions most people seem to be left with are that Pancho and Lefty were well acquainted and Lefty sold out Pancho to the Federales for a one way ticket to Cleveland, Ohio. No offense intended to Cleveland, but really? That was his first choice? Did he never watch Midnight Cowboy? Somewhere warm? Regardless? 

Which I bend back toward me. Because I own the keyboard. Or something stupid like that.

But still, here I am wondering how to make a modern para-fable like Pancho and Lefty today.

This is where the more well funded blog would give you an answer.