Townes Van Zandt-Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971-1972 (Omnivore)
“What is jazz? Man, if you have to ask you’ll never know.” Louis Armstrong
In the early summer of 1969 I Greyhounded to Philadelphia to visit a musician friend, hear some music and see some foreign movies. The intended two week stay turned into nearly a year and a half. We knocked around the folk and jazz clubs, sometimes hitching rides to New York. My buddy was an aspiring singer-songwriter whose real talent later was revealed to be one of the finest finish carpenters in the Florida Keys. But at the time he worked with the Free Press. After awhile they grew tired of me hanging around so, between classes, I began doing whatever needed to be done. Everyone knew that if you were not an artist the next best place to be was the indie newspaper.
A couple of months later I was assigned to cover lesser knowns in the clubs, coffee houses and bars who were searching for a voice, an audience, a record deal. Coming after the folk and blues revival and Dylan we, the writers and audience, were searching for authenticity. Like today, many were sound-a-likes, some with an inflated sense of self-worth, others simply tried too hard. Heck, I was getting paid — not much, but still — to do something I had been doing just for the doing. The cache of hanging out, the bartenders knowing your name, getting freebies from label reps and meeting girls.
It was one of those weekends when we turnpiked to New York — four of us with different agendas — crashed on someone’s brother’s floor somewhere around Washington Square. I remember there was warm breeze, thinking of Henry James, the night I first heard Townes Van Zandt. To say that it was a revelatory moment is an understatement. Even then, as a teenager, I knew it was a defining moment, as did others in the audience. He had a quiet unassuming nature, bashful at times, a hint of insecurity leaking out between songs. But during the songs themselves with his closed eyes he sang of tender, undiscovered countries. Every now and then he would tell a bad joke, that would in later years become a staple, as if to offset some masculine embarrassment by peeling away the protective layers away from a gentle center.
I was far from alone. Everyone who met or knew him in those early years was drawn to him. I saw more than a few cocky DJs melt when interviewing him. Yet he seemed unaware of the effect he had on total strangers.
“Our Mother the Mountain” had been released earlier in the year and had just finished an untitled album. I was hearing all these great songs stone cold for the first time. But some others were not. I chatted with some folks who had seen him the year before at Gerde’s along with another relative unknown, Emma Harris was her name as best they could recall. Later that year, upon the release of the self-titled album he played Carnegie Hall. (The concert was finally released five years after his death, it’s title, “A Gentle Evening” was self evident.) We thought this was the breakthrough moment, November 1969.
I became aquatinted with Townes at that time and during the next few years, wrote some articles, helped pull together a couple of tours on the college coffee house circuit and generally acted like a publicist. Knowing what a special talent he was I wore out friends and girlfriends alike in playing his albums, trekking to his shows, even going so far as buying records from him (or Kevin Eggers) and giving them away. But that was at a time when Zeppelin, Cream and rock bands ruled. As he did not fit the emerging country rock genre his music slipped through the commercial cracks. He was as unclassifiable, like Dylan and Joni Mitchell. But unlike them he did not have a connected manager who understood what he had or a major A&R department behind him.
From 1969 to 1973, five great albums fell on deaf ears. Still relatively unknown outside a small circle of friends. The touring continued and with rise in popularity of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and fellow Texans Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver making waves, it was just a matter of good things coming to those who wait. Again, it was not to be. I remember distinctly the last time I saw him that decade was in crowded, noisy Lexington, Kentucky club, only about a dozen of us actually listening. I could tell he was frustrated and as soon as his last set was over, he put his guitar in its case and quickly exited without a word to anyone. The woman with him tried to calm his agitation to no avail.
When it was announced a couple of months ago that some lost tracks had been discovered from his richest creative period it was as if the wayback machine had landed on our front porch. Which is exactly what happened in yesterday’s mail when “Sunshine Boy,” a 2 CD collection, one of unreleased studio tracks and the other demos. (Full track listing below.)
Most of the studio recordings are versions of songs that ended up on other studio albums, but with mostly perfunctory backing, an electric guitar here, a slide guitar there, a fiddle over there, and horns to mix things up. More likely it was the result of Eggers’ extremely limited creativity in a desperate attempt to garner some generic commercial appeal. The early ones have Townes’ vocals mixed behind the instruments. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that beginning with “Pancho & Lefty” the rest of the tracks are superbly recorded and Townes’ young unaffected voice is in full bloom. Save for a misplaced piano here and there, Mr. Peabody worked his magic. It is a real thrill to hear the original studio recording of “Pancho” before the horns were added. I remember the day the promo copy of “Late, Great” arrived in the mail, I hurried to put it on the turntable and when the song came on with those godawful horns I about lost it. Even on the first listening it was apparent it was a great song done in by the producer. But I never heard Townes complain about any of his recordings — other than the first album that he often disowned. It was as though once the records came out he no longer owned them. Instead he owned the live versions, on the road, in living rooms, bars and clubs. The records were by someone else.
While the tracks speak for themselves, the album should not be your first Townes record, but it is far from being a completist record either. It’s an inbetweener. Not a missing link so much as it is hear more Townes in his prime.
Another highlight of the album are the excellent liner notes. If you are not familiar with his history, it is an excellent starting point. And if you are it fills in a hole or two even if it does get a couple of small details incorrect. Nothing to quibble about though, and it confirms what we all knew “Delta Momma Blues” was about.
Over the years I have been very protective of those memories, never saying too much about those early days, sorta like not talking about the first girl who broke your heart. If you have to ask what made Townes and his music so special, you’ll never know.
CD1 : Studio Sessions
T for Texas
Who Do You Love
Where I Lead Me
Blue Ridge Mountains
Pancho & Lefty
(Alternate 1972 mix without strings and horns)
To Live is to Fly
You Are Not Needed Now
Don’t Take it Too Bad
Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
White Freight Liner Blues
Heavenly Houseboat Blues
Diamond Heel Blues
To Live is to Fly
You Are Not Needed Now
Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold
When He Offers His Hand