January 916, 1997
The Late, Great
Remembering Townes Van Zandt.
By Margit Detweiler
"The biggest surprise was that he was still going," said Sugar Hill's Rebekah Radisch. "I don't want to sound harsh, but he was always living on the edge."
Cleaning my house one rare weekend and scanning my CD collection for some loud sounds to vacuum by, I pulled out a favorite Townes Van Zandt album, Hi, Lo & In-Between. I quickly put it back. The Texas folk singer's elegant twang and bleak, lonesome view on life and love would just make me wanna drink more coffee, stare out the window and relish my melancholia.
Hardly vacuuming music.
Van Zandt told the Associated Press in an interview last year, "I have a lot of heavy duty songs. I've always thought if you took enough of them or any particular one seriously enough, you'd be in trouble."
Van Zandt, 52, died on the first day of this year of an apparent heart attack. He was home in Smyrna, TN, recovering from hip surgery. His daughter Katie Belle discovered him; she ran into the family room saying, "Daddy's having a fight with his heart."
Although he never achieved mainstream success over 15-plus albums, Townes Van Zandt was often viewed as a songwriter's songwriter. He'd fostered a folk-country movement that was more country than Country (he ain't no Reba or Billy Ray) and influenced artists like Lyle Lovett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle. He was covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to the Cowboy Junkies. He wrote the number one hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, "Pancho and Lefty," and the Emmylou Harris-Don Williams hit, "If I Needed You." Still, you had to hear the songwriter sing those songs himself to really feel them.
The Texas troubadour once called his music a combination of "blues and zippidy-doo-dah." His songs were bittersweet vignettes of losers, gamblers and ramblers; his music mixed the blues of Lightnin' Hopkins (with whom he studied guitar), folk poetry and Hank Williams-style country twang. Townes' unique voice was never powerful in the traditional sense; it was textured by hard living and it was intensely sad. But his exuberance was equal to his despair, as in the gospel rollick of "Two Hands": "I got two hands, I'm gonna clap my hands together. I got two legs, I'm gonna dance through heaven's door."
Even in the happiest of songs, there was a fatalistic tone. In "A Song For," he wrote, "There's nowhere left/ in this world where to go/ my arms, my legs they'rea-tremblin'/ thoughts both clouded and blue as the sky/ not even worth the rememberin'." He even titled an album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt.
No one I spoke to seemed terribly shocked that he'd died.
"The biggest surprise was that he was still going," said Rebekah Radisch, spokesperson for his record label, Sugar Hill. "I don't want to sound harsh, but he was always living on the edge."
When I interviewed him in March 1995, Townes talked about sleeping on the couch at his ex-wife's house.
"She wouldn't let me live at the rock and roll motel anymore. It was too crazy."
He was diagnosed as a manic depressive early in his life and spent time as a teenager institutionalized. Like his peer Janis Joplin, for whom he wrote the song "To Live is to Fly," his battle with alcoholism was legendary. In a 1995 Spin article on Steve Earle one of Van Zandt's closest friends (Earle named his son Townes) Earle recounts calling on Townes for assistance when Earle was trying to clean up a hardcore drug habit. A few weeks after Van Zandt helped Earle, Van Zandt was in the hospital having his own stomach pumped.
At his memorial service on Sunday, where artists like Earle, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell performed Townes' music, his friend, musician Guy Clark, joked before he sang, "I booked this gig 30 years ago."
For Sugar Hill, Townes' death was the latest in a rash of losses their artist Walter Hyatt died in the ValuJet plane crash and the Seldom Scene's John Duffy also passed away last year. Bluegrass father Bill Monroe died just as a Sugar Hill tribute to him was released. This month Sugar Hill has plans to reissue Townes' 1993 Rear View Mirror and in March a compilation of live performances called The Highway Kind.
"It's very, very sad to lose him," said Janet Bean of the band Freakwater, who opened for Van Zandt last year in Europe.
"He was always a graceful, elegant and charming person," said Bean. "He and my son Matthew, who came to Europe with us, really hit it off. They'd be getting up at the same time in the morning," adding with grim humor, "Townes, because he had to apply poison into his veins at a very early hour."
In the last few years Townes' live shows had become haphazard the worst episodes included Van Zandt passing out on stage, forgetting lyrics or breaking down in tears.
Nashville songwriter Gillian Welch, who also toured with Townes, said watching him play was like "watching someone on a tightrope."
"Sometimes he was right on the edge of consciousness and musical facility and you were never quite sure if he was going to pull through it or fall off," said Welch. "But I always thought it was a good show."
"He was one of the most musical guys I've ever heard," added Welch, who describes her own style as somewhere between Townes and the Carter Family. "To hear him play finger-style blues he was right up there with those Delta guys. But I was inspired from him mostly as a writer. One of my favorite lyrics of all time is from 'Pancho and Lefty': 'He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel.' It's that kind of easy twist on a lyric, and choice of words, that is so wonderful."
When I saw Townes play in '95 at the Tin Angel (he was touring out of his Chevy truck a present from his wife when she kicked him out), his voice seemed a creaky whisper. His show seemed all the more precious. The tall, gaunt Texan filled the hushed Old City room with his spare, poetic ballads. He told jokes. He talked to my then-boyfriend as they were waiting in line by the bathroom and told him, "You meet some of the nicest people in line for the john."
During an interview before the concert, Townes seemed happy, his life on an upswing.
"I've calmed down a lot," he said. "You can't go out and get drunk and gamble all afternoon and show up at a gig. It took me a long time to get over that reputation. It used to be just one giant party."
Writing songs was cathartic, Van Zandt said, but not in an easy, folk-dreamy way. He often described songs as violent forces, crashing into him without invitation.
"When a song comes by, it either comes from the ceiling, or from the floor, or from a window, inside of yourself. But when it comes by, pow!... Sometimes they come at me like a rage."
He also described songwriting as simple and often obvious.
"I've heard songs by little Indian kids dancing around in a circle that are as pretty as anything I ever wrote. Truck drivers, they must be hummin' something. It requires, most of the time, some craftsmanship when you fine tune 'em."
And he gave some good advice to aspiring musicians.
"Young people ask me sometimes, 'Well, Mr. Van Zandt, I would like to do what you do. How do I go about it?' Well, you have to get a guitar or a piano. Guitars are easier to carry. And then you have to blow everything else off. You have to blow off your family. You have to blow off comfort. You have to blow off money. You have to blow off security. You have to blow off your ego. You have to blow off everything except your guitar. Sleep with it, learn how to tune it and no matter how hungry you get, stick with it. You'll be amazed, Margit, at the amount of people that turns away."
Van Zandt told writer Peter Blackstock, "Humans can't live in the present like animals do. Humans are always thinking about the future or the past. So, it's a veil of tears, man. And I don't know anything that's going to benefit me more than love. I just need an overwhelming amount of love."
"And a nap. Mostly a nap."
As much as I'm sad to see him go, it's comforting to know Townes is finally at rest.