Songs that tear you apart and put you back together

As age creeps up and taps you on the shoulder day after day, you ask yourself various questions. These are usually prefixed with “When?”, but sometimes drift on to “Who?”, “What?” and quite often “Why?”

Recently I have been thinking about songs. The ones you really love usually date back to your youth and stick with you: I don’t listen to very much modern music – not because I don’t like it, but because I am full of the music of my earlier years.

What are my favourite songs of all time? I could give you a list, but I would almost certainly forget an important one or two, or three. My favourite songwriters are pretty easy – Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen – but favourite songs are more difficult. If pushed, at this point in time and space, I might say Dylan’s Visions of Johanna and Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving.

But maybe my favourite song of all is not by either of them. It could be the breathtaking Fountain of Sorrow, by Jackson Browne, or the almost perfect Lady with the Braid by Dory Previn. Perhaps it changes every day.

The other day I came across a new contender for the very long list. It is not a new song: it was written in the early 1970s by Townes van Zandt – a great songwriter but one who perhaps because of his character and lifestyle never really became widely popular. The version that did it for me, however, is by Emmylou Harris and The Hot Band, performed – also in the 70s – on the Old Grey Whistle Test, perhaps the best of all pop music TV shows.

The song is called Pancho and Lefty, which I have to admit is not a promising start. But the words are beautifully understated, with a great deal left unsaid and a tragedy that unfolds and then folds back. The music is perfectly attuned to the lyrics and – as performed by The Hot Band, featuring the brilliant guitarist Albert Lee, who I should know much better – heart-rending and uplifting at the same time.

There is mystery too, of course. The story sounds as if it should be true, but even the writer couldn’t or wouldn’t say: he even claims he didn’t really write it – it came into his head out of the blue.

Anyway, see what you think. You can find it here. And, as Groucho Marx almost said when asked about his principles, if you don’t like it, I have others.

PS If you have problems hearing the lyrics, which are pretty important, you can hear them clearly on the same song sung by its composer, Townes Van Zandt, here.