Townes, punk, and the art of loss
Margaret Brown’s first film, Be Here To Love Me (Palm), is a flowing, lyrical, often revealing and complexly saddening exploration of the life of Townes Van Zandt, a strong cinematic experience that’s bound to last, and welcome as such in its new release in extended DVD form.
Van Zandt’s music will be more familiar to readers of this magazine than it is for most people, but his life will be less so, and that, more than his art, is the film’s subject. Townes’ songs, in audio and some film performances, are placed in the story at points right in mood, rhythm and sound to intensify stages in the chronology of the decades-long death spiral portrayed, not to be examined.
We’re shown the surprisingly straight-laced, upper-crusty milieu in which Townes was raised, the nature of his virtually lifelong substance abuse and mental instability, and the life-turning shock treatments in his teens that left permanent gaps in his memory. Perhaps because of the filmmaker’s marked visual talent, what the film shows is more telling and indelible than what it’s organized to say — namely, that Townes sacrificed everything else in life for the sake of the songs.
What we see, rather, is a man with a native gift, but no more able to fully dedicate himself to song-making, let alone a musical career, than to his half-committed family life or his friendships or personal recovery. Thankfully, Be Here never romanticizes or sentimentalizes the man’s obviously real, continuing pain (we feel for him as he was), nor flinches from showing the pain and disappointment he caused virtually anyone close to him, very much including his three children and the many he otherwise charmed.
The film does gloss over the effect of “just waiting around to die” on Townes’ songs and song production. Be Here offers the expected and understandable buttressing comments from Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and others about how good he could be, but it doesn’t deal with how few truly shaped and finished recordings resulted from over three decades of sporadic work at it, or the fact that there are finally less than a dozen songs on which his reputation is based. DVD bonuses include additional Townes performances and comments by the Cowboy Junkies, Devendra Banhart, and Mudhoney’s Steve Turner.
One oft-quoted Townes comment — that all songs are either the blues or just zip-a-dee-doo-dah — is funny enough, but more than a little over-binary, in fact. It’s charmingly disproved on the new tenth-anniversary reunion DVD of some fellow Texas-based artists, Asylum Street Spankers: Re-Assembly (Spanks A-Lot). Their genre-bending, party-time acoustic peregrinations put zip in their blues and find pointedness in the doo-dah, whether the latter might generally be termed jazz, jug, country or rag. Such splendid Spanker stalwarts as Guy Forsythe, Christina Marrs and Wammo are all together again here for two sets that ran over three hours when taped in the summer of 2004 in Austin. This would be worth catching if just for one original that nails what certain sensitive singer-songwriters might say to get laid, revealed in its title: “Whatever”.
One predecessor of the Spankers’ vaudeville group spirit was the 1950s California Town Hall Party; the latest in Bear Family’s DVD releases from that long-running TV show features one of their instrumentalist greats, Joe Maphis At Town Hall Party. Some of Joe’s quality honky-tonk vocal pairings with wife Rose Lee Maphis are on here, but the emphasis is on his extraordinary electric guitar picking and some banjo to boot, plus blazing duets with Merle Travis, Larry Collins and Fiddlin’ Kate.
A frequent visitor to that Town Hall Party set was young rockabilly and proto-teen idol Ricky Nelson, who gets a terrific and long-overdue early TV performance DVD compilation on Ricky Nelson Sings (EMI/Capitol). Nelson might once have been dismissed by musical hipsters as too much an ersatz Ozzie and Harriet television creation to pass muster as cool for cats, but his reclamation as an individual song stylist of skill and originality, and as a power-pop and country-rock precursor, not just some rock-diluting wimp, is long since accomplished. Check out “It’s Late” and “Hello, Mary Lou”, or, especially, “Believe What You Say” and even Hank’s “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”, with blazing guitar solos by the young James Burton. Bonus points for the DVD makers that all twenty numbers are complete. (Kristofferson shows up to testify on this one too, way less predictably than on the Townes DVD — and with the charming news that, yeah, he’d kind of wanted to be Ricky Nelson!)
Transcending nostalgia is the new 2-disc DVD of The Concert For Bangladesh: George Harrison And Friends (Apple/Rhino). The original release is embellished with outtakes and interesting 35-years-after mini-documentaries on the making of that unprecedented show, film and album. The August 1971 New York concert, shot on 16mm film in the first place and blown up to 35mm or 70mm in theaters, has never looked better, retrofitted back to its working full TV-screen frame size.
The new material re-establishes the context — a desperate humanitarian need, never before addressed by an impromptu major rock event, and an unprecedented all-star rock orchestra that included Harrison in his first appearance ever as a leader or soloist, with Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Badfinger and Billy Preston, all in top form, plus, Eric Clapton (in somewhat less than top form) and, in one of his very rare appearances halfway through an eight-year touring hiatus, Bob Dylan — for the first time in years doing a set that included pre-rock political material.
The show holds up, a certain spiritual tinge prevailing; nobody is appearing to promote themselves, or to show how swell they are for being there. They’re just getting on with it, for real, and performing at their best. The DVD material is the same on the “regular” and “deluxe” editions of the set, the latter adding more lavish print material, posters and such. It’s pleasing to report that proceeds from both still go to The George Harrison Fund for UNICEF, after all these years.
Some related latter-day spirit can be caught on Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Music Of Bob Dylan (Image), an uncontroversially righteous set of in-studio video recordings of songs from Dylan’s controversial “Explicitly Born Again Years” as rendered by the singular likes of the Fairfield Four, the Mighty Clouds Of Joy, Shirley Caesar and Aaron Neville, grabbed during the making of the similarly-titled salute CD. Bob himself appears doing his incendiary live Toronto performance of “When He Returns” — but not on that sweet duet with Mavis Staples heard on the CD.
A darker sort of passion can be found on three brand new DVDs tracking great moments and performers from early punk, all just out:
Velvet Redux Live MCMXCIII (Rhino) captures one of the Velvet Underground 1993 reunion shows in Paris, with the edgy, seminal art band sounding much like themselves — mainly. Lou Reed’s voice had lost what musicality it once had, and, naturally, Reed and John Cale handle what had been Nico vocals. But they’re playing sharply, and there’s little of this outfit to see from 1969 — and this reunion never made it back to America, either.
New York Dolls: All Dolled Up (Music Video Distributors) features early black-and-white video recordings of the mother of all New York bands, as shot by Bob Gruen and wife Nadya Beck. They captured the ambiance, the scene, and the shows just fine; there’s a great perverse sense of nostalgia in seeing this stuff and that Downtown Manhattan today.
The Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder: Punk And New Wave (Shout! Factory) revisits the original really-late-night talk guy. Snyder could seem semi-clueless, but he comes off surprisingly well in this 2-DVD set of 1977-’81 shows featuring performances by the Ramones, Elvis Costello, Iggy, and the Plasmastics, plus extended interviews with Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Costello, and John Lydon. Snyder never attempts to “get down with the kids,” treats the acts with respect, and achieves generally still-arresting results. He “gets” Iggy, and plays Philly homeboy with Smith.