Townes Van Zandt: A Tribute
As of January 1st of this year it will be sixteen years since Townes passed over. I post this in rememerance of him.
There is a story that once during a concert of his Bob Dylan introduced a song by Townes Van Zandt as being written by “the greatest song writer in the world.” Given Dylans’ aversion to such hyperbolic outbursts it probably never happened, but there is a certain surreal pleasure in entertaining the idea that it might have. The irony of it is inescapable. The idea of the musician who has been saddled with that title for most of his working life bestowing it on another musician, especially one as shy and humble as Townes, seems both absurd and wryly amusing. But Dylan is too much of a gentleman to have actually done it. If the story is true, it certainly wasn’t one that Townes told about himself, such compliments made him cringe.
What we do know to be true is that Dylan was quite taken with Townes’ music and supposedly had all of his albums. The two met by accident in Austin in the mid 80s and Dylan arranged a second meeting where Townes played him several of his songs. There is even a mention of numerous invitations from Dylan to Townes to do a musical collaboration together, a first for Dylan. Townes declined, saying that he liked Dylan’s music but didn’t like his “celebrity.” An idea which makes one incredulous at the very least. I mean, who is more private than Dylan?? It is probably easier to get an interview with Elvis. But such seemingly perverse refusals of good fortune were common to Townes. Whether it was naïveté on his part, or a reluctance to expose others to the demons that haunted him, it is difficult to say. Reflecting on the realities of a musical pairing between the two, it is quite likely that the very temperate Dylan would have quickly lost his patience with the notoriously intemperate Townes. But maybe Townes could have had enough discipline to pull it off, a rather moot point by now. It is quite probable that we are the poorer that it never happened.
The first time I heard Townes I was driving, happily listening to the local public radio station, not prepared to be surprised. The month and year escape me. I hadn’t really been paying that much attention to what was playing on the radio when the first, plaintive chords of “Flying Shoes”came through the speakers, catching me off guard and arousing my curiosity,then Townes started the first verse, a vision of a rain darkened sky collapsing in on itself. His voice stunned me. It was a voice clothed in sorrow but leavened with just enough hope to keep it buoyant. He had the kind of voice that Marianne Faithful and Leonard Cohen have, a voice so tattooed with hard living and grit that it can break your heart simply by whispering “good morning”. I felt that wild joy that you feel when you hear music by someone who truly has The Gift. I feel that joy in his music to this day.
My joy lingered and then blossomed again when the DJ came on after the song and said that Towns Van Zandt would be performing locally the next night. As he gave the location and time I thought to my self “what a curious name, DEFINITELY off of my radar”. I went, of course. It turned out the concert was in the lower level of a restaurant, not an unusual venue for Townes. It was warm and intimate, perfect for his kind of performance. I think it even started on time, which both surprised and impressed me.
When I first saw Townes I was reminded of nothing so much as an Appalachian dirt farmer, tall, rail thin and rawboned with a face walking the line between handsome and worn out. Townes seemed a bit nervous onstage, as if he was confused, but that passed as he began to sing. Some songs he would introduce, some he would jump right into, and some he would tell stories about. As I would discover in time, Townes loved to tell stories, and they were sometimes not exactly rooted in fact. They were almost always humorous in some dry, ironic way, usually relating a tale of he and a compatriot involved in some infraction of the law and a motor vehicle and alcohol. They didn’t have the profundity to them that Springsteen’s’ onstage stories do, no major lesson learned or milestone reached. Most often they were self effacing and Townes usually ended up being the butt of the joke. Townes usually ended laughing the hardest at himself. For a song writer sometimes described as “bleak” he had a marvelous sense of humor, but then comedy is the sister of tragedy. Townes was a lyricist with that knack for being able to zero in on the small, intimate details of life, capturing them but not suffocating them.
It is doubtful that he ever wrote a song in his life with its commercial value in mind. If one can say that Elvis arrived “radio ready”, then Townes could be described as “radio elusive”. His music didn’t fit into any handy category. Music made as close to the bone as his usually doesn’t. That night he sang “Poncho and Lefty” and “Tecumseh Valley” and many other beautifully crafted songs in that vulnerable, reedy, thin voice of his. I got chills and was amazed and thankful in the way that one is thankful when they find a treasure. Townes was not a performer, he did not dazzle like that. He simply let his songs do that, and dazzle they did. He was charming in a way they used to describe as “courtly”. One never got the idea that his being onstage had anything to do with wanting adoration, simply communication. It is a miracle that someone as shy as he ever got on stage in the first place. If Townes was imbibing that night, I saw no sign of it. I clapped enthusiastically through out, yelled for the encore (don’t remember what it was) and went home, excited and smiling and converted. I knew I’d witnessed something special, and I was a happy witness.
Townes was from Texas, a place where one can not even spit without hitting a song writer or a pretty girl. They grow song writers like they grow dust there. To be called a good song writer in Texas is an honor, to be called a great one is humbling and no small praise. The list of elite musicians that come from there is exhaustive, touching just about every genre of music but especially strong when it comes to what is know as “alternative” country, which simply means its music too gritty and real and raw to be “commercial” in Nashville. The pulsing nerve center of music in Texas is Austin. Townes was a frequent and welcome performer in the Austin club scene. Mention his name among the many stellar musicians there that knew him and the superlatives start flying. The compliments do not come as often about his personal behavior as they do about his music. They both made the man, and people tend to forgive a great deal in the face of great talent. It is to his credit that for a man so ravaged and wounded by his habits that he is still thought of so generously after his death. It seems that most people could still see Townes the man through Townes the libertine. He was faithful to his muse, no matter how cruel and wanton she proved to be. It is a cliché to say that one cannot play the blues without suffering. It is true that one must have gravis, a certain “density of the soul” to do so. The Spanish have a word for it, duende, which can be translated “the beauty of darkness, the places in the music the guitar does not go.” Townes had duende flooding through his veins; he lived it every day of his life.
Due to his itinerant lifestyle and his utter contempt for any attempt to make his music commercially viable, Townes’ recorded catalog is large, but uneven. There are over thirty LPs, with no definitive example rising above the rest. Many of the albums contain the same material due to countless reissues and a less than enthusiastic attitude by the record companies. He did not own the publishing rights to any of his music in the final years of his life, and there has been a protracted legal battle over much of his catalog between his third wife and his former manager since the time he died. In respect to his discography it is fair to say that Townes’ was almost criminally lazy in his indifference, making things quite difficult for both the new fan and the old devotee. At least the essential songs such as “Poncho and Lefty”, “Tecumseh Valley” and “If You Needed Me” can be found easily enough, though different versions may vary widely. His former manager, Kevin Eggers, had a fondness for taking Townes’ stripped downed and simple arrangements and over producing them with strings, keyboards and drums to the point it makes Mariah Carrey songs seem sparse in comparison. The result 99% of the time was to ruin the songs. With the legal wrangling over his catalog ongoing, it is doubtful we will see a definitive boxed set any time soon. The best thing to do is probably for one to root around on YouTube, listening until they find a version they like.
If there was ever a musician that fit the mold of Robert Johnsons’ blues man making a demonic bargain at a crossroads at midnight for his talent and then looking over his shoulder, terrified, as he fled for the rest of his life from some hell hound only he could see, it was Townes. He was a wanderer. His was not the wandering of the penitent, seeking forgiveness. His was the wandering of the refugee, seeking home and shelter but never really finding it. That he wandered is not remarkable. What is remarkable is that he harnessed his talent and vision and courage to chronicle his journey in his music, providing us with a diary of his loneliness so that we need not live it as well. Indeed, one often gets the feeling in his music that he has stared down some particularly dark part of himself at much hurt to him in order to name it and warn us of it.
When a person of great artistic talent, whose gift has impacted large numbers of people, passes away, there seems to be a temptation to either canonize or assassinate their character. The true human being, with all the triumphs and disappointments that being human includes, seems to disappear. Townes was definitely life sized and often in the grip of various intoxicants. It is no secret that he was manic depressive and that he frequently, as the medical community likes to put it, “self-medicated” and brought all the realities of that into the lives of the people he interacted with, particularly his family. This may be part of why he wandered so much, either because he wanted to spare those he loved the increasingly destructive ravages of what coping with his depression and addiction cost him both mentally and physically, or because he rapidly exhausted the good will of those he stayed with due to his depression. It was most likely a combination of both.
In the end, all we have is the music. And with Townes, that is enough. He reminds me of Abraham Lincoln, who also was monstrously depressed and who also did a great work in spite of it. Both men wanted to be happy. Both men had to settle for being great. There is a poem that always reminds me of Townes when ever I read it. Here it is.
Why do I love those three sad notes
in the minor key of music?
And why am I compelled by
those rude and twisted trees that
stand guard, stark,
on the ridge
against the winter sky?
I do not know why I
strive to find
the Friend among the dusty bones
with which I gamble,
throwing cast after cast.
as I wait
for the dark angels
with whom I share my life.