November 24, 2020

Ash Wednesday with Pancho and Lefty


Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me
Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why
I guess I’ll keep on a-gamblin’, lots of booze and lots of ramblin’
It’s easier than just a-waitin’ ’round to die

– Townes Van Zandt

Our good friend Matt Redmond just wrote a poignant piece about how the late songwriter Townes Van Zandt has been a voice for him in the wilderness of disappointment Matt’s been walking through lately.

Townes was once asked about his sad songs and he said, “Well, many of the songs aren’t sad, they’re hopeless.”

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop listening to them in this stretch of wondering what I’m gonna do. For some reason all these stark sad…hopeless songs help me along. The music is otherworldly, the words altogether worldly. They are full to spilling of hurt and pain and all the hell there is here on earth.

“Disappointment, Townes, and the Kingdom of Heaven”

Today is Ash Wednesday, and thanks to Matt’s prompting I’ve been led think of Townes and his brief life, which was even sadder than his music. Marked as he was by mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, broken relationships, squandered opportunities, and an often reclusive, eccentric lifestyle, some of us might be tempted to shake our heads and turn away, admiring his talent but dismissing him as unworthy of further personal consideration.

In my opinion, that would be a mistake.

I have heard many people, including some I admire, lament that today we in America live in a “culture of death.” Spokespersons at various places along the cultural and political spectrum point to legalized abortion and other areas of medical practice where certain ethics are being challenged, portrayals of graphic violence in our entertainment media, capital punishment, the pollution of our environment, and so on. To listen to some, you’d think we’ve sunk to levels of death-dealing that rival barbarian societies.

For the most part, I think this betrays a hubris of thinking that we live in a unique time and place. As though the “culture of death” today is something altogether different and more serious than in the past. More likely, this is an overheated political case. Do we really believe that those with whom we disagree pose an unprecedented threat to our well being and future by promoting the most deadly practices ever known to humankind? Nonsense. “This world is ruled by violence; but that’s better left unsaid” (Bob Dylan) — and thus it has ever been and ever will be. If you want to talk high points of the “culture of death,” let’s go back and examine, for example, the days when Native Americans were targeted for genocide or when blacks had to endure the bitter fruits of slavery and segregation.

Of course we live in a culture of death — because we are human, and human beings die, and human beings often choose ways that lead to death rather than life. My question is how we deal with this fact.

If anything, our modern society continues to be one that avoids the reality of death. Our government knows how powerful the images of real death are, so they don’t allow television networks to show the flag-draped caskets of our soldiers coming home. Our armed forces rely more and more on tactics like drone aircraft that keep our hands clean when dealing death. We the people will watch violence and death on our TV screens and computer monitors, but we continue to hide our dying ones away in hospitals and nursing homes. We spend the vast majority of our Medicare dollars on futile care in the final days of life because we just can’t face the fact that life will, at some point, end. We’ve turned funeral services for the mourning into “celebrations of life.” Businesses give their employees three days off for bereavement leave and then expect them to be back working at full strength.

We’re not just a culture of death, we’re a culture of death-deniers, a people that tries to hide and avoid the fact that death is real.


That’s why we need to focus our attention on poets like Townes Van Zandt. He was a powerful symbol of death who walked among us. He could not hide the death that was working within him; he smelled of it, and his songs overflow with it to this day. His life represents most everything the righteous turn away from in moral outrage while at the same time his music touches us in deeply human ways. Van Zandt speaks to the death in each of us: the death of promise, the death of stability, the death of our ability to control and manage the vicissitudes of life, and ultimately the ability to hang on to life itself.

We should not avoid looking at people like him. We must not write them off as “depressing,” and unworthy of our time, as losers and fools with nothing to teach us or show us. Together with Townes, we are Pancho and Lefty.

Townes Van Zandt was a man of no ordinary pedigree. He was born into a prominent household in Texas, a rich oil family. His forbears helped found Ft. Worth and an entire county was named for the Van Zandts. His parents were wealthy and generous, caring people. He went to military school, played sports, and was a good student, perhaps even a genius. His family thought he might be an attorney or hold high office some day.

However, major depression, binge drinking, sniffing glue, and erratic behavior began to take over his life in college. Diagnosed with manic depression, he underwent insulin shock treatments that eliminated large portions of his long-term memory. Mental health and addiction problems would dog him the rest of his days. An almost obsessive focus on songwriting took over his life and though there were periods when he performed and recorded successfully, Van Zandt remained mostly a cult figure, well-regarded among critics, fellow musicians, and the small crowds in the clubs where he played. Other artists recorded a few of his songs and made them hits, most notably Emmylou Harris (“If I Needed You”) and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (“Pancho and Lefty”).

The poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty’s livin’ in cheap hotels
The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold
And so the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true
Save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do
And now he’s growin’ old

As we pursue lives that actively affirm life, we must not hide from the death within us and all around us. We generally shy away from calling attention to the symbols of death in this land, but they are there, for those with eyes to see.

I remember one afternoon in the city of Mysore, in south India. We were out for a walk when we saw a small procession coming down the street toward us.  Four men were holding poles on which a covered sedan chair was set. On the chair was an elderly woman. As they approached, it became clear the woman was dead! This was a funeral procession and this Indian family was carrying their loved one to the pyre. There we were, on the busy street of a city, and death was in our midst: visible, disturbing, real. Death was allowed a presence among the living. In the most public of spaces, a symbol of death confronted us all and forced us to face reality. A member of my human family had played her part and was exiting the stage for all to see. We could not help but pause.

When I think of Townes Van Zandt and his strange, sad combination of image-of-God poetic genius with personal disarray and dissolution, I get a feeling like I had that day in Mysore. A symbol of death is here, demanding my attention. I cannot, I must not look away until I have seen myself being carried in that chair — or holding that guitar, or grasping that bottle.

Well to live is to fly
All low and high

So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes

Today, the dust flies. And to dust we shall return.


  1. I love Townes Van Zandt’s music, Chaplain Mike, and after I saw a movie of his life, I was even more amazed that within his “messed up” life he was able to produce such great music.

  2. Very poignant story of a man I wasn’t aware of. I’ll have to look him up and listen to some of this music. Thanks for sharing it today.

  3. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    Oh, I can’t begin to tell you how Townes’ music has impacted my adult life. I discovered him via the the “Third Coast” hour on our amazing local college radio station when I was in my very early 20’s. His album Live from the Old Quarter is one of the most important things in my musical collection. When a friend and I were dabbling in playing the local music scene, we covered so much of Townes’ music that we came to preface his songs by saying something to the effect of “For those of you playing the Townes Van Zandt drinking game, it’s time for another shot!”

    I think the reason he touched me (and my then-music-partner) so much is because of the reality he spoke of and how poetic he could make the crappiest of situations sound. And let’s face it, there is a lot of crap in life that could use a good dose of poetry. But it wasn’t a romanticizing of the crap; it was just viewing it from the eyes of an artist and poet.

    I’m a newly-ordained Anglican clergyman who is somewhat of a traditionalist, but serves at a rather contemporary parish. While there are lots of things in the less-traditional way we approach things that I’d do differently if I had a say, the biggest one is probably the new-ish practice of wearing white vestments at a funeral/memorial and turning it into the “celebration of life.” Certainly we can have hope in the Resurrection and entrust the departed into the arms of Christ. But for those of us left behind, mourning is appropriate. The traditional purple (or even black) vestments are appropriate. The poetry of the traditional BCP’s burial liturgy allows us to recognize that death isn’t how things are supposed to be. There’s nothing *right* about this. And we should be honest and open about it. As my favorite preacher, Steve Brown, would say, we gotta kiss that demon on the mouth.

    • Scooter's Mom says

      Isaac (or possibly Obed):

      Amen!!!! I just recently lost my sister to breast cancer. Although I know and am grateful she is in heaven with God and mom & dad, I could punch the next person that tells me to be happy. It is great for her, but it sucks for me!!!!! I am grieving and there seems to be a new party atmosphere among some christians in regards to the death of a believer. I need time to get over the anger and loss. I wish they would allow me that.

      I have been attending an episcopal church since November. I was saved in an IFB church and the difference is a breath of fresh air. This church is more traditional. I find that I love the structure of the liturgy and the prayers in teh BCP can bring tears to my eyes as I say them.

  4. “Pancho and Lefty” is one of my favorite songs. Thank you for sharing the life story of the writer.

  5. What a poignant counterpoint to a recent blog mourning the “culture of death”, written by Dr. Ben Witherington at Mostly I enjoy his writing and perspective on biblical issues and cultural values, but this time his anger and “righteous” outrage at the USA (as if we are the only ones!) for its pursuit of death really angered ME! It seemed to me that he spent too much time looking in the metaphorical mirror of self examination and ignored the rest of the world around him. Your piece here, on the other hand, more evenly parses the problem as the world of fleshly mankind itself, and for that I am grateful.

    Chaplain Mike, this is one of your more eloquent entries

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Do we really believe that those with whom we disagree pose an unprecedented threat to our well being and future by promoting the most deadly practices ever known to humankind?

    Like the Witches in the Malleus Malefacarium?
    And their heirs in the latest Conspiracy Theory du Jour?

  7. My youth pastor used to say that while our current society criticize the Victoria era for being repressed prudes about sex, the Victorians could criticize us for being even more repressed in dealing with death and dying.

  8. Why Chaplain Mike, you have definitely waxed poetic! One of your best pieces ever, I even went to YouTube to play “Pancho and Lefty.”

    I agree with you that we have “played” the culture of death card to the point that we diminish those in North Korea, in Syria, Holocaust survivors, etc., who have truly and fully known what it means to live in a culture of death. And, as a result we actually do NOT know what it means to live in a culture of death.

    I teach a World Religions class at a state university every other semester. One of the questions that I ask every semester is what would happen if the USA would ever end up in the same state as an Arab Spring, or a Sudan, or even a Hunger Games scenario. I have yet to have a student who has answered that question with some answer other than that we would somehow rise up and overcome. It is a movie and television answer. But …

  9. Like Rachel Held Evans’ banned ‘v’ word, evangelicals have successfully banished “death” from their approved vocabulary. I’ve heard oodles of sermons on living well, none on sermons on the practice of dying well. And I often aks myself how that someday not that far off will look, when megachurches will be filled with frail X-Gens and Millenials confined to walkers and hover-rounds. How will life-on-a-plate sermons play to a congregation filled people whose best life right now has come and gone?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      How will life-on-a-plate sermons play to a congregation filled people whose best life right now has come and gone?

      You mean Five Fast Praise-the-LOORDs didn’t fix everything?

    • One of the more memorable lines from Braveheart is, “Give me the strength to die well.”

      • I’m very conflicted about the phrase “dying well”. I was a hospice nurse for two years, best part ever of my nursing years. Went to well over 100 funerals. Also worked in many nursing homes and growing up, my friends were old folks. I don’t think necessarily that the best has come and gone. Our society devalues aging and all that goes along with it. I have to get down off the soapbox now while I still can. The best thing about death? For believers, it’s the doorway to Jesus and heaven.

    • I think some of this has to do with the church planting attitude amongst many evangelicals. The elderly don’t join church plants, ergo, death and dying aren’t really a part of these church experiences.

  10. Nicely done piece on a tortured soul.

    Ever since the Fall, humankind has been on a path God never intended, full of pain and suffering. There are Townes Van Zandts all around us. I know five or six myself. What am I doing to help them? Not sure. So awkward and uncomfortable. Lord have mercy on me, and on them.

  11. Very eloquent piece and spot on. Thanks for introducing me to Van Zandt.

    I think our culture’s tendency to hide death out of sight is part of a larger problem of hiding our general fallenness and brokenness out of sight. Evangelical culture has pretty much fully adopted both from the larger culture, and maybe even helped make them more prevalent. As Michael Spencer wrote, we evangelicals love to talk abouthow screwed up weused to be but almost never about how screwed up we are.

    If we can’t even do that, how do we expect to be open and honest about death and dying?

    Other cultures with less individualism and therefore less individual isolation seem to do better with this, as do the Christian communities in those places. This is one Western cultural value we should not be exporting.

    • I think our culture’s tendency to hide death out of sight is part of a larger problem of hiding our general fallenness and brokenness out of sight.

      Yes, this. The “overcomer card” is true…..but overplayed and out of balance. Nice post, John.

    • Agreed Greg. Great post John. It seems that we are in such a hurry to be “sanctified” we forget and don’t want to admit to being the broken people we truly are, not were.

    • Our Victorian great-grandparents buried sex under an avalanche of euphemisms but were shockingly forthright about death.

      We won’t shut up about sex but we’re terrified to give death so much as a sidelong glance.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        In Victorian times, you didn’t reach 18 without burying a couple siblings on the way (and each of them could have been you). The most common photographs of children from the time are “mortuary portraits” of the dead child in his/her coffin.

  12. Neil Young’s albums “Tonight’s the Night” and “Zuma” and “On the Beach” have always been my own “Tibetan Book of the Dead” to musically guide me through all the small deaths that have made up so much of my life.

  13. I do not know the man or the music, or the neurological wiring or events that shaped him. PLEASE forgive me for sharing that my first reaction was “Awww……poor little rich boy can’t deal with First World Problems [or more vulgarly, “White People Problems”] so he buries in a bottle or a spoon and pulls a Sylvia Plath. My issue, my cross is NOT acknowledging death and dying (hospice nurse) but for lack of sympathy for those who seem to take a perverse “joy” in misery and nilism. My sin, but a true sharingg.

    Re: culture of death??? I hypothesize that a culture of death can only arise concurrently with a an era or culture that values LIFE in the first place. Spartans exposed weak infants—they needed to die and were of no value. Unless you were a king or warrior, you life was expendable easily, by disease, childbirth, accident, or being value as much as the kitty-cat who kept the barn free of rats. Life was brief and death a daily event, and if you weren’t valuable—who the hell cares??? THere were 17 babies born that month, interchangeable down the road. In some times and palces, even mothers held back on attachment as so not to mourn babies quite likely to die.

    Hope this makes sense…in a seminar all day after driving IN last night and HOME tomorrow and I am exhausted and out of my element. If this is doo-doo,, please delete.

    • Not doo-doo, and certainly against the grain of the conversation, but definitely a line that needs to be added to the spectrum.

      • I agree with Mule. The beauty of a place like iMonk is feeling like you can share openly and honestly, even if your thoughts run counter to most others. Thanks for helping me see a different viewpoint.

    • I need clarification of your sentence referring to the hospice nurse. I think you are saying you are OK dealing with death and attendant issues, but not with people who find joy in other people’s pain. I agree with that. If you are saying I’m one of those who find joy in other’s pain, i.e., it gives me purpose, way off the mark. Not trying to be hostile here, just mining for the intent behind the statement.

      • Pattie can answer for herself, Melissa, but I read what she said as this: that she can understand and accept death, but that her cross/challenge is learning sympathy for those people who deliberately and perversely screw themselves up. I don’t think she is saying that observers are taking a perverse joy in nihilism, but that people like van Zandt seem to embrace misery, and that she finds that frustrating.

      • No, not at all Melissa. Sharing only that death and dying has been part of my life, professionally and personally, for decades. I have BEEN a hospice nurse for decades…that is all I meant, to show my bona fides with death and dying. (hospice nurse) meant ME!

        I was also apologizing for my lack of patience with self-destructive nilhism in those born lucky, healthy, and protected, when so many who have so little (and really good reasons for bitterness and depression) soldier on as best they can.

  14. Was discussing this topic with my Pastor last night. He gave me a book to read, “The Problem of Suffering. A Father’s Hope.” By Gregory P. Schulz. He is a professor of theology, among other things. Two of his four children have died. Not the usual oft repeated platitudes. Wholly grounded in Christ.

    • I’ll check to see if there is a Kindle version. I remember being greatly influenced by the Rabbi who lost a son and wrote “When Bad things happen to Good People” back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. I was a young woman struggling with this quandry at the time, and it helped me to understand that God has His reasons, and it is OK NOT to understand them all.

  15. Thank You Thank You Thank you!

    I have been trying to figure out WHY Townes is so important, and you’ve finally given words to my intuition!

    If I could pinpoint a musician who got closer to what I want to do as a musician than anyone else, it might be Townes. I don’t know how he did it, but in his train wreck of a life, he created a body of work that makes you sit up and pay attention like you’re never going to hear anyone like this again. Not in spite of, but because of, his inability to hide all the mess. He was one of a kind.