The Texas songwriting legend’s eponymous third album stands as the first to accurately depict and fully deliver on the promise of the man’s songcraft
There was never any possibility that Townes Van Zandt would ever lead a peaceful and benevolent life with a happy, bucolic end. Born into a wealthy Texas family, the son of a corporate lawyer, Townes always seemed destined for the beautiful struggle, the glorious clarity of a life outlined by pain rendered through art.
Any chance of a banal but stable future withered with his committal to a mental health facility for depression treatment in his brief college years. The resulting rounds of insulin shock therapy severely impaired the young man’s memory, and fresh attempts to pursue legal and military careers met their end when he resumed his increasingly-excessive drinking, lost in a black fog of severe and bottomless depression. It was here, at his lowest, that music sought him out and chose him for its weary turbulence, as music has for so many broken, beautiful young people of the world.
Townes’ image remains imprinted on pop culture through a series of documentary-rooted snapshots. The weary crooner Townes, singing of codeine addiction and inevitable death while a bystander weeps at his words. Incorrigible and difficult Townes, wandering the vacant lot behind his tumbledown shack in Austin, dog close by. As he cycled through periods of poverty and rehabilitation, his longtime manager would refer to Townes as ‘his first child’. The shattered and difficult soul of the country singer from Texas would become mythology, all the way through a tragically aborted attempt to record with Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley in 1996. None of his multiple marriages and partnerships could repair what the hospital had irrevocably destroyed. All that Townes could offer the world were his songs, and the world hardly listened or cared until after his untimely death, in rural poverty, at the age of fifty-two.
It’s interesting then to consider his third, self-titled album, released in 1969. The album was in every way a rebuttal to the attempted shine and polish of earlier, lesser releases, right down to re-recording several tracks in Townes’ preferred sparser finger-picked style. Stripped down to the very bone, ‘Waitin’ Around To Die’ remains a haunting document of a soul perhaps already half-gone, only waiting for his body to come around to the idea that any meaningful life had since fled. It’s no wonder the Nashville establishment of the time didn’t know what to do with him. There would never be a “Wichita Lineman” or “Rhinestone Cowboy” from a soul as ghostly and disembodied as Townes.
Townes Van Zandt stands as the first album to accurately depict and fully deliver on the promise of the man’s songcraft. “(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria” is an ode to imagined feminine perfection and compassion. The closing, majestic “None But The Rain” outlines in harrowing detail the downfall of a once-promising relationship. Traces of Dylan and other better-known poets surface here and there, but the album remains singularly Townes’ property alone, his bleak subject matter and defeated warble remaining one of the purest expressions of human despair in a notoriously despairing genre. For The Sake Of The Song even suggests that maybe artistic expression undertaken for its own sake, not as a balm or as mere entertainment, is something pure enough to be almost sacrosanct.
Townes was all but fated to die in near-obscurity, but as the old cliche goes, music this good finds always an audience eventually. Van Zandt has been lionized, puzzled over and covered into absurd infinity, his words faring much bigger hits and winners of acclaim in others’ hands than ever in his own. When stark mining ballad “Lungs” turned up in an episode of the original season of HBO’s prestige mystery series True Detective in 2014, it seemed a perfect full circle, this introspective and tattered soul’s music finding a home on a program full of such battered and equally philosophical characters. Perhaps the greatest legacy of Townes Van Zandt and the man himself is that it truly is the most dispossessed of people walking the earth that shine their lost, radiant light the brightest.
AUDIO: Townes Van Zandt Townes Van Zandt (full album stream)