I think I discovered “Pancho and Lefty” when I was twelve or thirteen. It was the Willie and Merle version, the pop transformation of the lilting, crooked ramble that Townes Van Zandt pulled from nowhere.
I’m certain that my dad was listening to it. He was barely out of diapers when it was originally written, but was some kind of teenager when it dominated the airwaves in the early 1980s. I don’t know how he heard it, if he ever had some kind of strange personal moment with it, but as soon as I could I stole whatever mix CD he was listening to and hoarded it in my room.
I listened to it when no one was around. There was a strange double embarrassment of listening to some “old” country music that my dad listened to, betraying my own then-current tastes of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Outkast. There was also the emotional factor: listening to the words, I would well up with this sublime something that couldn’t quite land anywhere sensible. And so I listened to it over and over again for a long time.
I had forgotten about it until this past weekend. I heard it mentioned, looked it up, and fell down the hole again. There’s not many songs that do this to me–that pick me up, carry me away, fail to let me go: Neil Young’s “Thrasher“; Daughter’s “Candles“; John K. Samson’s “Letter In Icelandic From the Ninette San.”
I can say that all of these songs are haunting in the proper sense of that term. They refuse to leave. They mill about. They pass through and yet remain. That’s something unique to music for me. No film, no tv show, no game manages to linger with me like a haunting song will. A song can infect you with melancholy, using its earworm nature to keep you spinning in its grasp.
Haunting games? Haunting films? Some refuse to leave me, but they don’t weigh on me like a song does.