Townes Van Zandt – A gentleman and a shaman
If you can see through the hangover haze and black-eyed pea tradition that ties one First Day to another, January 1st can serve as a dog-eared page for the book of days that follow. But on New Year’s Day 1997, I saw the cycle of mortal life more poetically than I ever had before.
The day began with a call from my uncle, delivering the news that my cousin, Sara Evelyn, had been born earlier that morning. It ended with an anonymous voice at a party that evening: “I heard Townes Van Zandt died today.” The news wasn’t confirmed for me until the following day, when I heard a touching retrospective of his life and art on NPR. I was on my way to pay my first visit to Sara Evelyn at the time.
I didn’t know Townes Van Zandt, but like so many people who let his records get inside their heads, I felt like I had. The stories he told and the characters who inhabited them lingered well beyond their time in digital and analog space. At the time of Townes’ passing, I was working in an upstairs office room at Easley Studio in Memphis. When he recorded there — on the last three days of 1996, the final days of his life — I was on holiday vacation.
When my friend Stuart Sikes, an engineer at Easley, first told me of Townes’ sessions there, I was reminded of Jimmie Rodgers or even Bernard Herrmann: men who pursued their muse to the very end, who offered their art even as they took their dying breath.
As I researched this story, I stumbled upon dozens of names of people who knew and loved Townes in his last days. I wish I could have spoken with all of them, but time, space and other circumstances wouldn’t allow it. Of the people I did speak with, some were present at the Easley sessions, some weren’t. But all of them were touched by Townes’ magic in the last days of his life, and to this day still. The story is theirs to tell.
JEANENE VAN ZANDT met Townes the day after John Lennon died. She lived with him in common-law and legal marriage for over 15 years. The two divorced shortly before Townes’ passing, “to protect the family assets,” Jeanene says. She is currently at work on several Townes-related projects: a film script based on the song “Pancho & Lefty”, a book of lyrics, and an album that will include two previously unreleased Townes compositions, “Squash” and “Sanitarium Blues”. (The latter has already seen the light of day in the form of a cover version by Seattle band the Walkabouts with guest vocalist Gary Heffern, released overseas in 1997 on Virgin Records as a bonus track on an import CD-single for the Walkabouts song “Lift Your Burdens Up”.)
MICHAEL CATALANO is a guitarist and songwriter. He lives in Nashville and is the director of that city’s Independent Film Festival. He met Townes in Atlanta in the ’70s and toured with him on several occasions. He was scheduled to play guitar at the Easley sessions on “Dying Crapshooter Blues”, a Blind Willie McTell song Townes wanted to cover.
HAROLD EGGERS was Townes’ most loyal friend. More than a nanny to Townes’ impetuous inner child, he was his business partner and confidant, his doctor and counselor. And though their relationship was characterized by constant turmoil, there isn’t a man who did more for Townes. Eggers is currently at work on a book about Townes with Larry Monroe, a longtime disc jockey at KUT-FM in Austin, Texas (the 1997 documentary disc Last Rights on Gregor Records features segments of on-air interviews Monroe conducted with Townes).
ROBERT GORDON lives in Memphis. He is an author (It Came From Memphis) and documentarian (All Day & All Night) who met Townes while emceeing a package tour in Europe that also featured Lorette Velvette, Alluring Strange and Alex Chilton. Gordon recalls the two weeks he spent on the tour bus with Townes as “an intense way to meet an intense person.” The two became fast friends during that span and visited each other occasionally in the years that followed. The last of these visits came on New Year’s Eve 1996, when Gordon stopped by Easley Studio on Townes’ final day of recording.
STUART SIKES has worked at Easley Studio for three years. He served as assistant engineer on the Townes sessions. He had previously recorded the members of Two Dollar Guitar (Townes’ backing band for the Easley dates), but those sessions were his first introduction to Townes.
RAY FARRELL has worked in the A&R department of Geffen Records for nine years. He helped organize the Easley sessions and served as the label’s point-man for the project. Though he wasn’t present at the sessions, he did accompany Townes on an initial trip to Memphis a few months prior, where they met with the members of Two Dollar Guitar and planned a date for recording.
Two Dollar Guitar members Steve Shelley (best-known as the drummer for Sonic Youth) and Tim Foljahn were both asked to provide their recollections of the Easley sessions, but they politely declined. Their contributions are missed.
The account that follows was created from interviews that were conducted individually with each of the six people listed above during November 1998.
FARRELL: We wanted to do these sessions with Townes for a specific reason. Sonic Youth had an imprint at Geffen Records under the name of Ecstatic Peace. They could sign and record any band that they wanted to for release through Geffen using all the promotional tools that we would be able to supply. They did a couple of rock bands that didn’t really seem to go anywhere.
Sonic Youth were frustrated. They thought, “Well look, we’re just like everybody else if all we’re going to do is look for rock bands. Maybe we should try and do records with people whose records we really love. Maybe we can put a different spin on it.”
One of the natural attractions they had was to Townes Van Zandt. They wanted to do something a little bit darker, a kind of sparse and stripped down, emotional record. But we didn’t know how it would work out because, one, no one knew what kind of health Townes was in, and, two, we weren’t sure if Steve’s idea of using Two Dollar Guitar was really going to click with Townes.
We’d done a little bit of research as to the recording process Townes had gone through on the previous few records. We’d found that the last record [No Deeper Blue, released on Sugar Hill in 1995] was done in Ireland. It was very pre-fab. Everything was done before Townes got in there, and he simply had to come in and sing the songs and that was it.