Bound to Leave This Dark Behind
There I was again on my hands and knees, the young record nut squirreling through cardboard boxes full of dusty vinyl at some suburban garage sale. I’d found a little goldmine with some Dylan I didn’t have, the first Ian & Sylvia album and some great obscure folk; Koerner, Ray & Glover and the like. And then Townes. I’d found a shard of the holy grail, although I didn’t know it at the time: For The Sake Of The Song, the first one, Poppy Records, 1968.
I’d heard about the man, I’d heard Emmy and Willie sing his songs, but I had yet to hear him sing his own. And neither of the two I knew — “If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty” — were there to open the door. It took me a while to get used to the voice. It was all corners and questions, leather and smoke, welcome but not warm. The words drew me in, though; the simple mountain melodies enchanted.
Iggy once said that hearing Lou Reed “sing” let him know he could do it too. I think I came to the same realization when I heard “Tecumseh Valley”. If you felt it that hard, you couldn’t stop it from coming out, pitch and preciousness be damned.
Once I knew the voice, I wore it like a hat, pulled it over me like a blanket, a coat from the cold.
Over the years, I came across all the Tomato stuff in cut-out bins and grabbed the Sugar Hill ones and the rest of it (including the great German live album of ’91, Rain On A Conga Drum) as it came out. Each one became as close a friend as the first, each rich in epiphanies and transcendence.
By the time Steve Earle offered his famous quote on the At My Window sticker in 1987, all I could think was that he’d better make room for me on that coffee table.
I had the good luck to see Townes live a number of times in the ’80s and ’90s, and had the honor of meeting him twice. The first show, a split bill with Guy Clark, was nine years ago at the Iron Horse in Massachusetts; the last was two winters ago at the Bottom Line in New York. A good one to start, and a good one to finish. There were a few stinkers in-between, including a legendarily bad night at Austin’s La Zona Rosa. Guy finally had to help him offstage, rescue him from the drink and the demons swirling around his head.
Townes and Guy signed my guitar that night, but I felt pretty bad asking them to do it; like interrupting a car crash to ask directions to the 7-11. I cried that night, “Araby” tears for my own rude vanity, and real tears for Townes’ sad condition. The next day on the radio they said Guy took Townes directly from the gig to the hospital.
When I met Townes again at the Bottom Line, a few years later, he was in good shape and good spirits. He apologized for his behavior at La Zona Rosa and we shared a laugh over it. He told some stories, you know, Townes stories, but this time they were just for me, not the paying crowd. The warmth I had missed in his voice that first time poured out of his skinny frame like sunlight. When the real folks started coming into the dressing room — Gary Louris, deejay Vin Scelsa, the club’s Allan Pepper — Townes asked me to stay. He told them my name and said, “Michael’s a songwriter.” I didn’t cry that night, but I do remember feeling so tall that I thought I could make the trip home to Albany with one giant step.
I wish I could take that giant step to his family now, to hold their hands through a dark patch the way Townes’ songs often did for me. Many hands are holding them in their hearts right now; I think they know that. In a daily world that often seems to mean so little, Townes meant so much.
Mickey Newbury wrote it for all of us on the back of that garage sale gem; the one I found on bended knee.
“Townes Van Zandt. The man. He’ll be remembered…
“Townes Van Zandt. The man. Always searching out some new truth (or an old truth that had been swept under a rug in an old house and forgotten). Because the tools of a writer are truths. And truth is knowledge. And knowledge is love. And a writer like Townes writes songs not only of love between man and woman, but between man and man. And man and God.
“Townes Van Zandt. The man. My friend.”