Paying tribute to the master singer-songwriter on the anniversary of his passing
Townes Van Zandt was the real deal.
I don’t know if there’s anybody in the field of country music – real country music not cowboy hat crap – who doesn’t honor Van Zandt’s legacy these days. And I think it’s true of hardcore country music fans, too. If they didn’t know about him when he was alive – and let’s face most didn’t or maybe weren’t born or sentient yet – they certainly do now.
January 1st marks the 26th anniversary of his death. He died young(ish) at 52 and that kind of premature death can be can trigger the respect that comes when you think of what we (fans) all lost because of it. It doesn’t hurt when someone like Steve Earle uses a phrase like “the Van Gogh of lyrics” when singing your praise. And, of course, Earle named his late son, singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle after him.
Me, I was lucky enough to see (and review) Van Zandt once, in 1985 at a small (100-capacity) sit-down club just outside of Boston in Brookline, Massachusetts, called the Tam O’Shanter aka The Tam. The cozy, split-level club was open to all comers, but specialized in roots music. I’m sure I saw more than half a dozen gigs there – Hubert Sumlin and J.B. Hutto come to mind. The Tam opened in the mid- ‘60s and closed in the late- ‘90s, its spot taken over by Panera Bread (which vacated in two years.)
But back to Van Zandt. I’m a man who loves a good, gripping sad song and if that was your comfort zone, too, Van Zandt was your guy. It was a poetic, pained path that he traveled, him keeping company with the likes of Leonard Cohen (alive then) and Nick Drake (still dead).
When I saw him, the lanky singer-guitarist, who mostly sang with his eyes shut, was accompanied by acoustic guitarist Mickey White, who’d been with him a decade, and ex-Bostonian Danny Silverman on flute, lyricon and saxophone. Van Zandt sat on a stool far back on the stage or from the audience, he said, “to dodge the beer bottles.” None were tossed but anyone hoping (for some reason) that they’d come to the club that night for a peaceful, easy feeling would have felt discomfited. Not that anything was raucous and upsetting, mind you. Just unsettling in another way.
VIDEO: Townes Van Zandt Solo Sessions Jan. 17, 1995
There was a sense of fragility in Van Zandt’s strumming. The stark, minor key melodies and mid-tempo rhythms set up a story that often conveyed loss or despair. It was a downward spiral way before a Nine Inch Nails album by the name. At the time, I called the genre “chamber country-blues” and I’ll stick by that now.
In Be Here to Love Me, a 2004 documentary, Emmylou Harris talks about the time she walked into Gerde’s Folk City in New York in the late ‘60s and saw Van Zandt on stage: “I thought he was the ghost of Hank Williams, with a twist.” She praised the “high lonesome sound in his voice.”
Who else loved the Texas-born/Nashville transplant? Among the many, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Haggard and Nelson scored a No. 1 country hit with Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” also done by Guy Clark and Earle. It’s as fine a gunslinging story-song as you’re likely to find.
Other songs were covered by the likes of John Prince, Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Andrew Bird and Cowboy Junkies.
In concert, when all was about lost (in song), Van Zandt could dip into his kit bag of deadpan wit ‘n’ wordplay. “Time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana,” he told us, after a particularly dour stretch. After the first set of two was completed, Van Zandt told a friend, “We’ll break open the razor blades next set.” He probably both meant it and didn’t.
A couple of lyric samples from the set I heard that night: “She’ll lead you down through misery/She’ll leave you low, low, low as can be” (in “Rex’s Blues”) and “I ain’t much of a lover, that’s true/I’m here and I gone and I’m forever blue” (in “No Place to Fall”). He had no problem with self-flagellation. In “Just Looking for You,” he confessed, “I tried to tell you that I tried, but it just ain’t true / … still looking for you.”
Consider the ballad “Waitin’ Around to Die,” which Van Zandt called the first serious song he ever wrote. It’s on his debut album, released in 1968, For the Sake of the Song. It’s sung in the first person, and it is about a hard-drinking gambler who travels to Tennessee because “it’s easier than just waitin’ around to die.” That man is in the throes of addiction. You don’t have to be the deepest thinker in the world to see a connection to the singer-songwriter’s life. I guess that song could come from the “You write what you know” school of songwriting. Van Zandt, too, had spoken about not expecting to live long.
AUDIO: Townes Van Zandt “Pancho & Lefty”
I spoke with Van Zandt briefly and couldn’t help but ask if, in real life, he was as sad and forlorn as he seemed in song.
“I’m somewhere down there,” he said, after a pause. “The blues are always with you. But I don’t go around and mope. These days I have a real beautiful family.” He was speaking of his third wife, Jeanene Munsell and a son by her, William Vincent Van Zandt, and John Townes Van Zandt II, a son from his first wife, Fran Peterson.
“If I’m happy, I’m either in a sailboat or playing with my kids,” he said. “If I’m sad, I’m sitting on a couch with a pint of Jim Beam.”
He said those latter times are when he wrote songs. He was somewhat optimistic about his future. Recently freed from a web of music-related lawsuits – he hadn’t put out an album in seven years – Van Zandt was planning to soon record with Nashville producer Jack Clement, who produced Van Zandt’s debut album. He did so, though Clement wasn’t very hands-on and guitarist Jim Rooney did most of it. The album, At My Window, came out in 1987. The New York Times’ Robert Palmer reviewed it, stating, “Nobody writes songs about love affairs gone wrong with as much tenderness and insight.” He recorded and released two more albums.
He died on New Year’s Day 1997 from cardiac arrhythmia brought on by years of heroin and alcohol abuse.