Townes Van Zandt At The Ash Grove 1996
Back in the summer of 1996, I had the good fortune of booking Townes Van Zandt for one of his last performances in the United States. Earlier in the year, Ed Pearl, the founder of the Ash Grove, the legendary roots music venue in Los Angeles, had asked me to join a team of “entertainment managers” coming up with the musical programs for a relaunched Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier.
The original Ash Grove, over the course of fifteen years from 1958 to 1973, became a landmark countercultural space presenting music as a voice of the lived experience of communities ignored and censored by mainstream media. At the Ash Grove, listeners heard blues, folk, country, and bluegrass performers who seldom performed outside the South. And in the music of Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Flatt and Scruggs, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, and Muddy Waters, younger musicians such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Jerry Garcia, Bonnie Riatt, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ry Cooder, and Taj Mahal, found blueprints to voice feelings and beliefs of their own lives. Unfortunately after a series of fires, likely started by anti-Castro Cubans upset with the music and political events at the club, the Ash Grove closed its doors.
In reopening the Ash Grove, Ed Pearl’s mission was to extend the vision of the old Ash Grove to contemporary times while still giving voice to the histories, culture, and music beyond the eyes and ears of mainstream USA. In that regard, Townes Van Zandt certainly fit the bill. Although a couple of his tunes, “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You,” had achieved big-time commercial success in cover versions by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Van Zandt’s dark ballad blend of county, folk, and blues, was not a body of work built for mass appeal.
The art of Townes Van Zandt came from an open, gentle heart searching out life’s most tender and bitter truths in quiet lyrical poetry and lonesome blues. Though Townes balanced his performances with a quirky Texas sense of humor and tunes of uplift, his songs also intimately reflected his struggles with bipolar depression, alcohol, and drugs. Through visionary rhyme and a spare hypnotic delivery, he confronted a darkness too grim and scary for wide commercial success. In 1996, Townes Van Zandt remained a relatively obscure cult figure revered by a small audience of passionately devoted fans and a few acclaimed singer-songwriter performers such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
In Texas, however, his songs carried special weight. In Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston, Van Zandt’s songs influenced and set standards for a host Texas songwriters including Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Nanci Griffith, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. In Texas song lore, Townes Van Zandt remains the unquestioned Poet Laureate.
Although transplanted in Northern California, I grew up in the panhandle of Texas in Amarillo and Lubbock and felt a special kinship with Texas songwriters. And at the Ash Grove, one of my first booking goals was to bring west the best of the Lone Star State’s writer-singers, beginning with Townes Van Zandt.
The new Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier opened in July of 1996 with a stirring string of shows featuring Spider John Koerner, John Hammond, Long John Hunter, Rosie Flores, Peter Case, Dave Alvin, Katy Moffat, and Tom Russell. But for me, the most eagerly, and anxiously, anticipated event was the August 16th double bill, opening with Butch Hancock and closing with Townes Van Zandt.
While the show loomed as a sell-out, the Ash Grove’s limited promotion budget made attendance largely dependent on word of mouth. The biggest worry, however, was the mental and physical health of Van Zandt. Long past his prime, Townes in 1996 was physically and emotionally frail. His pristine fingerpicking was now reduced to simple, rhythmic strumming and his singing more solemn recitation. While his performances could still be brilliant, on any given night they could also stumble into disaster.
With that worry in mind, I anxiously awaited the arrival of Townes for an afternoon soundcheck. About 4 PM, I received a phone call from the manager of the hotel where Butch and Townes had rooms reserved.
“Would you happen to know a Mr. Townes Van Zandt?”
“Yes, we have him booked for a show tonight.”
“Well, a car, evidently belonging to him, is blocking the drive to our guest parking area. The car is running and the keys to the car are locked inside the car. Can you please try to locate him or others in his party to move the vehicle?”
“I’ll be right over.”
The hotel being only a few blocks from the Santa Monica Pier, I raced over by foot to track down the missing musicians. When I arrived minutes later, I was told the matter had been resolved by Mr. Van Zandt’s manager who had found another set of keys and moved the car.
Upon returning to the Ash Grove, I was greeted by Townes, Butch, and road manager Harold Eggers, who had arrived for the soundcheck. After a brief run through of the night’s schedule, Eggers, self-described as “Townes’s caretaker,” pulled me aside for private conversation. He explained that Townes was not well, but rest assured, he would give a solid performance. He also asked if I could spend some time with Townes engaging him in conversation and making sure he did not get his hands on anything to drink. A few minutes later, in a darkened and quiet Ash Grove, Townes and I sat down at a table to talk.
Thin, unsteady on his feet, his hands and body trembling, the Townes before me was clearly a fragile man. I could not see how he could possibly go on stage and artfully share his soul a few short hours later. Nonetheless, as we talked, Townes seemed fully present and focused in the moment.
It helped, I think, that I was from Texas. That gave us an immediate starting point for conversation that led into humorous and bittersweet memories of the Panhandle, Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin. Things turned more serious, however, as Townes probed to know more about my family, wife, and daughters. As I shared, he gradually reached out his hands to hold mine and began talking of his own family and children. These reflections, both beautiful and sad, brought us both to tears. Following a brief soundcheck and meal, Townes returned to his hotel to rest up before the show.
By 8:30 about 300 people had made their way into the Ash Grove and taken seats for the Saturday evening show. About a half hour later, Butch Hancock launched an opening and warmly received set showcasing his dry flatland vocals and witty wordplay in memorable tunes such as “West Texas Waltz,” “If You Were a Bluebird,” and “Boxcars.”
In the break following Hancock’s set, the tension in the house began to rise. Townes did not often play LA and his most recent studio album, No Deeper Blue (Sugar Hill), released in 1994, contained his first new collection of songs in seven years. Indicative of his deteriorating health, on No Deeper Blue, Townes overdubbed his vocals and played guitar on only one song. It seemed clear the Ash Grove show would be a rare if not final appearance of Townes in California. One could only hope that Townes would be up for two sets and a full house.
Eggers was right, however, Townes would rally. Following a brief introduction and a hearty greeting of hoots and hollers, Townes stepped on stage loose and confident. A few icebreaker dumb jokes and he kicked into a spellbinding set of harrowing and melancholy tunes that stilled the room.
Although Townes laced his sets with uptempo blues and finely crafted love ballads, the bulk of his material carried a weight of sorrow. Sometimes that sorrow came bittersweet and somehow inspiring. Other times, more like a prayerful cry against life’s indifference. And in moments of the most crushing despair, it descended to a resigned acceptance of hopelessness. The causal fans who came mainly to hear “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You” were soon squirming in their seats or headed out the door.
In any Townes set list, the consistency of the material is mind boggling. This night was no exception as masterworks like “To Live Is To Fly,” “No Place To Fall,” “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “White Freight Liner Blues,” “Highway Kind,” “ Nothin,” “Lungs,” and “Tower Song,” followed one another with devastating affect.
But this was also an evening to introduce songs from the more recent No Deeper Blue. Recorded in Limerick, Ireland with a solid group of studio players, No Deeper Blue shows that Townes still had it as a songwriter, but the album’s production tends to overwhelm the mood and meaning of the minor key ballads. On stage solo, however, Townes invested these tunes with their full emotional depth and somber beauty. Three of these songs, “The Hole,” “Marie,” and “A Song For,” are enduring late life gems to be put on a shelf beside his greatest work.
“The Hole” is a spooky tale of Townes confronting his depression in the form of a green eyed demon with a smile “just like the grave.” In a lighter twist, he manages an escape and advises “Don’t go sneakin’ ‘round no holes/There just might be something down there/Wants to gobble up your soul.”
“Marie,” reflecting his life long concern for the downtrodden, delivers a stark, journalistic narrative telling the story of a homeless couple sleeping in missions and under bridges while seeking work and unemployment checks until the pregnant Marie “just rolled over and went to heaven/My little boy safe inside.”
The evening’s most direct revelation of Townes’s state of mind came in “A Song For.” Unfolding lines both desperate and beautiful, Townes transfixed his audience with what seemed a final farewell that concludes:
No words of comfort
No words of advice
Nothin’ to offer a stranger
Gone the love, gone the spite
It just don’t matter no longer
My sky’s getting far
The ground’s getting close
My self going crazy
The way that it does
I’ll lie on my pillow
And sleep if I must
Too late to wish I’d been stronger
This kind of honesty, translated through an extraordinary command of poetic language, is what made Townes Van Zandt great. He was never afraid to speak his truth no matter how uncomfortable it made us.
Knowing the heaviness of his material, Townes balanced the mood of his performances with tunes showing other sides of his nature, on this night: “Katie Belle Blue,” a love song to his daughter, “My Proud Mountains,” longing for Colorado and “Brand New Companion,” a languid Lightnin’ Hopkins influenced blues.
Still, it is the performance of “A Song For” that has stuck with me through the years. In the lyrics Townes let us know quite clearly his time was almost done. Four and half months later on New Year’s Day 1997, Townes Van Zandt, at the age of 52, died of a heart attack following hip surgery.
On Sunday March 2, the Ash Grove presented a six and a half hour musical tribute to Townes featuring Peter Case, Steve Young, Bob Neuwirth, Victoria Williams, Kimmie Rhodes, David Olney, Jimmy LaFave, Dan Bern, Greg Liesz, Butch Hancock, and Townes’s 27 year old son John Townes Van Zandt sharing songs and stories in warm remembrance.
Thankfully on this mournful occasion these reminiscences also included recollections of Townes’s peerless humor. One choice sample, Kimmie Rhodes recalling the Townes wisdom—“You can throw a hillbilly in jail, but you can’t keep his face from breaking out.” In another moving and light-hearted moment, young JT Van Zandt sang “The Shrimp Song,” a goofy ditty that his dad sang for him in his childhood, about a shrimp being lured by a newspaper ad to split from home on a free trip to New Orleans in a fisherman’s net.
Still even as stories, song selections, and jokes rendered a three-dimensional Townes Van Zandt, there was no escaping the sense of loss. For me, it hit hardest during a mid-show break. On an empty stage free of performers, Townes’s guitar sat wreathed in flowers. A screen slowly unfurled from the stage rafters and a video of “A Song For” began to roll. The room hushed in reverent silence.