Townes Van Zandt: 1944 to 1997
Editor’s note: A few months ago, I received an unsolicited and as-yet unpublished manuscript in the mail, via recommendation of a common acquaintance, from a Texas songwriter named Richard Dobson. Titled The Gulf Coast Boys, it’s a memoir of Dobson’s days in the 1970s as an aspiring musician among a circle of friends loosely centered around Townes Van Zandt, a romantic existence that he balanced against more workmanlike stretches as an offshore hand on shrimp boats and oil rigs. Told in an informal, sometimes stream-of-consciousness tone, it’s nevertheless a cohesive portrait of a Texas lifestyle, and an engaging story of a handful of special Texans.
The morning after Van Zandt passed away on New Year’s Night, I placed an overdue call to Dobson to thank him for the manuscript, and to ask if he could write something about Townes for us in time to get it in the magazine (we were due at the printer three days later). He kindly delivered the following passage, a snapshot of dealing with the death of an old friend.
January 2, 1997: Two AM as I struggled from a dream with the phone ringing in my head, and I let it go on ringing, thinking it’s probably a fax from Switzerland, when a voice came on the speaker in the other room. I knew the voice: Harold Eggers, Townes Van Zandt’s longtime road manager. Still struggling to stay awake, I heard Pat clanging down the circular stairs to pick up the receiver. “Oh no,” he said. I heard him hang up the phone, waiting as he walked to the door behind which we lay trembling. “Townes is dead,” he said. “He died last night in Nashville.”
We lay silent in the dark as Pat climbed back up the stairs; holding on to each other, alive and warm and breathing. Sometime before dawn we drifted off to sleep. When I got up around nine, Pat was already up with coffee. The phone started ringing soon after: calls from Houston, Austin, Nashville, Santa Fe, Buffalo, Wyoming, and Seattle.
Pat and Edith and I drove through the fog to a building supply store. I was happy we had work to do, thinking it was better to keep busy. The store didn’t have the plumbing connections we needed, so we drove to another place on the far side of the Island. Life going on as usual, I felt like we were handling things pretty well, considering.
Later I called Andy, my ex-wife. I thought she would want to know about Townes, as would Johnny Guess, an old running buddy of ours who lives with her. Andy knew Townes from when he and Harold used to stop by Galveston on their way through, 15 years ago and counting. I remember he scared the hell out of my kid once, blowing on a saxophone. Townes stories: There must be a million of them.
Andy took the news hard; then I came undone. I vowed not to be the messenger again. I had been thinking of calling Roxy and Judy Gordon up in Dallas. Roxy was looking for some property for Townes to buy out in Coleman County, to raise donkeys…another story. Somebody else could call them. Edith put her arms around me. “It’s okay,” she whispered. After awhile I felt okay again.
Later Rex came over, and Lee Ann, who lives across the highway. Rex was taking it hard. On the wall of his house there is a picture of him and Townes and Blaze Foley, an Austin songwriter. I reminded Rex that of the three, he is the only one still breathing. “Well, Townes is the one person I did kind of feel like I might outlive,” he said. Townes played his last U.S. gig at the Old Quarter, Rex’s club. I opened the show and thought Townes looked like a ghost. Then we both left for Europe, playing some of the same places.
Somehow we made it through the day. The phone rang off and on. Pat worked long after dark, keeping it all inside. We went to bed without showering; the water was shut off.
Friday morning, a patch of sunlight broke through the mist. Another day to get through, not so hard as the first. Edith and I drove to Wal-Mart to have some film developed, and to a downtown bank to cash in some Swiss Francs. The dollar is strong; bad news for us.
Bill Cade, his girlfriend Lauren, and Gary, who plays guitar with him, were down at the Old Quarter Friday [January 3]. Rex had Townes CDs on random selection between sets. We toasted to Townes. Later I did a short guest set and sang “Snowing on Raton”. Rex sang “Rex’s Blues”, a song Townes wrote for him.
Pat came back from Houston this morning [Saturday, January 4] and resumed work on the plumbing. Bill and Gary fixed a big breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and hash browns. Green Bay and the 49ers on the tube; I suppose this could be taken for a normal day. I never called Roxy; I figured it could wait.
Edith and I last talked with Townes a couple days after Christmas. He said his last European tour was a rough one, but he was happy to be going back into the studio again in Memphis. Edith talked awhile and handed the phone back to me. “She was whispering to me,” he said. We reached the end of our conversation. He seemed happy for me and Edith. “Take care of yourself,” I said. The words jumped out of my mouth — I knew better than to try and preach. There was a barely perceptible pause before the last words I heard him utter: “Yeah, well Adios.”
I turned to Edith after I hung up. “What did he say?” she asked.
“He said you were whispering to him.”
“Yes, he sounded so…I don’t know the word…zerbrechlich…”
“Yes, I think so.”
Bill and Lauren and Gary left awhile ago for Houston. I guess Green Bay won the game. Pat is still cutting and gluing pipe. We’ve got a votive candle going, one of those Mexican Novena candles. We didn’t light it for any reason in particular. This one is red and devoted to San Martin Cabillero and reads, in part, “Oh blessed saint, raise your voice in this dungeon where I am, and protect me from all the affliction of evil…”
I went to the bar and poured myself a shot of warm vodka; Popov, a sufficiently cheap variety. For Townes, of course. I know what he would have said: “Blow it off man, let’s have a drink.”