Pancho and Lefty (and Monte)

This song will always be associated in my mind with Monte, a longtime friend who played harmonica with me whenever I came through Vancouver. He wasn’t usually a singer, but on this one he sang Lefty’s part and his rough, dry voice perfectly fitted the character.

I’ve written a bit about Monte and his affection for Townes Van Zandt’s work in a previous post, but there are so many stories… we met during my first couple of weeks in Vancouver, staying with my friend Maggie, and for some reason we hit it off. He was a tough, gentle man and a tasteful, rowdy musician. In the early 1980s he was drinking at least a fifth of Jameson’s a day, always had at least five lady friends rotating through the week, managed a halfway house for juvenile delinquents, and never seemed to slow down. I remember once arriving in town, calling him, and getting the response: “I’m sorry, Lije, I’ve just finished a 36-hour shift and I’ve got to get some sleep. I’ll meet you at Joe’s in two hours.”

Joe’s was the coffeehouse where everyone I knew in Vancouver used to meet over the course of the day to chat and shoot pool. It was famous for serving cappuccinos with an inch and a half of foam above the edge of the cup and never a single drip down the side — later on, Monte worked there and made the cappuccinos, and later still he helped organize a strike and was fired on national television.

Another story: Monte had booked us to play at a Portuguese restaurant called Santo’s, but when I hit town and called him he sounded kind of concerned:

“So, Lije, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

“OK, Monte… what’s the bad news?”

“So I was over at Santo’s last week, and Santo’s brother got in an argument with his wife and slapped her, so I had to ask him to step outside and… I broke his arm, so the gig’s been cancelled.”

“OK, Monte… so what’s the good news?”

“I was in there again last night and won two hundred dollars off Santo playing poker dice, so I can pay you anyway.”

I loved Monte, and loved playing with him, and for a few years made sure to spend at least a week or two in Vancouver. Then Maggie died and I cut down on hitchhiking and touring around the US, and what with one thing and another there was a gap of almost twenty years.

When I got back out there, though, it was like old times. The first visit of the new millennium I was supposed to get in around 10pm and Monte arranged to meet at a bar called Bukowski’s. The bus was more than three hours late, I arrived after last call, and Monte was sitting with two double shots of Jameson, one for each of us, to welcome me back. Then we went over to the Wise Club, where he was tending bar, and he opened it just for us and we spent hours catching up.

For the next few years I got to Vancouver pretty regularly and Monte usually set up a gig, typically including a phenomenal guitarist named Paul Pigat who could play anything, and often Paul Rigby on mandolin, and maybe a bass player or a drummer — I didn’t deserve those guys, but they turned up for Monte and it was great.

Monte died a couple of years ago, after a long, hard battle with heart trouble, liver trouble, cancer — his body held up longer than any of us expected, but it could only take so much. He was himself to the end, though: I made it out for a final visit and found him sitting in an armchair in a friend’s living room. (The friend, Jason, had invited him to crash in the guest room after the last hospital stay and was seeing him through to the end.) He was on a lot of morphine, which made him groggy, and was smoking cocaine-laced cigarettes to stay alert, and I sat there while he slowly got one to his lips, reached for his lighter, tried to get it to light… dropped the cigarette, painfully bent down, picked it up, tried again and dropped the lighter, slowly bent over again and felt for it under his chair, found it, tried again, dropped the cigarette… and like that, for maybe five minutes, until he dropped the lighter yet again and I reached down to hand it to him, and he fixed me with an icy glare and said, “Lije, you’re just going to have to learn to control yourself.”

I still hear his voice singing Lefty’s part.