By all accounts Townes Van Zandt was a difficult person when he was drinking, which was much of the damn time. The trouble with living a solitary life cut off from the rest of society, no friends close by, no roots or links is that the people you read and you listen to become your friends by default, they just don’t know it. Patti Smith once said that “those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand,” and there is absolute truth in those words. Empathy leads to sympathy, and empathy is often learnt not instinctive.
Watching the tableau in Heartworn Highways, of Townes Van Zandt singing Waiting Around To Die, with his friends Seymour Washington, and Suzanne Clark it is impossible to not be touched by the empathic interchange between the three of them. Townes is singing about a man waiting around to die, about his mother being beaten until she cried and then leaving him behind with his father, about falling into a bad crowd, robbing and being hunted down by the law, going to jail and coming about with a new friend – codeine and waiting around to die a bit longer.
As he sings Suzanne tips her head and starts adding a harmony, and Mr Washington begins to cry. Something in this song touches him so deeply he weeps open, heartfelt tears of sadness. Whether these tears are for himself, for Townes, for people he has known, or for the sheer sadness and power of the song, is something that we will never know. As he cries, Suzanne reaches for the older man’s hand and leans into him whispering something clearly kind and gentle and comforting, and the two of them sit, older man and young woman, rocking along with the music comforting each other in the purest most beautiful display of humanity and love and care and kindness.
This is the power of Townes Van Zandt’s music. This is the power of human beings who love each other, who feel for each other’s pain and suffering and extend that hand of comfort to ease each other’s pain. This is the beauty of being human. Van Zandt’s songs are full of pain and suffering. He wrote about this country’s homeless, about being there in the morning, about not being able to stay but being around again. He writes about missing – missing people, missing systems, missing places. He sings with longing and clarity, with beauty and empathy.
Townes was a man who suffered greatly. After suffering with a few mental health issues, and perhaps not quite fitting in as he should have, he was sent for electric shock therapy. This ‘therapy’ destroyed his childhood memories and hurt him on a soul deep level. Townes was never the same. Townes understood suffering despite his somewhat privileged childhood, and he poured that suffering onto the page and the guitar.
Townes could really play, Townes could really sing, Townes sure as heck could write a song, but Townes’ real talent was that Townes could feel. That pained and emotive yelp conveyed so much feeling, so much rawness, so much extending of understanding and solidarity. “It’s bad news from Houston, half of my friends are dying” he yowls, his voice hiccupping in that beautiful mountain music off-beat high lonesome sound. Townes sings about going out on the highway with a big jug of wine in White Freight Liner Blues. Townes might not say he loves you, but you know he does. You feel him grab your heartstrings and play them so gently that you could cry.
We are all just waiting around to die, it is what we do while we wait that matters. Do we extend love? Do we reflect hatred? “Nothing is too much to bear…all you keep is the getting there” he sings in To Live is To Fly. It is all any of us down here on the bottom ever get to keep. I don’t get the photographs, I don’t get to haunt the places that I’ve loved in. As Townes intones wisely “we all got holes to fill” I start nodding my head, just like Suzanne. Ain’t that right! We all have empty spaces, and whilst Van Zandt doesn’t pretend he can fill them, he tell you that he knows, he sees and he cares.
Marie might be the most brutal song ever written, it follows the story of a homeless man and his girlfriend Marie told from a first person standpoint. They are homeless, and it ends with a pregnant Marie dying of cold with his baby inside of her, him laying them out where someone would find them, and hopping a train down south. Marie couldn’t hop no train, he tells us, and we are left bereft. I always want to yell at him to stop stop stop, I can’t listen, I can’t look. “This isn’t fun, Townes!” I yell at the stereo. Townes knows. Wasn’t much fun for Marie either.
I try to not look at my neighbors on the street. Some of them are so mentally ill that they are dangerous, they are desperately in need of help, of assistance, not enabling. They are suffering greatly. They live and die out there in their own filth, and such a situation has no place in a supposedly civilized world.
Music has the ability to move, it has fired up crowds for social change, it has led cultural revolutions. Hendrix brought down mountains with the edge of his hand. Townes didn’t have such lofty aspirations. Townes held out his hand to offer comfort and fraternity…and a few good drinking songs.
The problem with Townes was that the production of his music was often appalling. It was over involved, too flowery, too intrusive, it drowned out Townes. Townes is best listened to just him and his guitar. By far the best recording is Live At The Old Quarter in Houston, Texas. It is him and an audience, and he is just perfect all evening. The perfect mix of funny and moving.
This is the heart of the matter: Life in all its’ sadness and pain; in all its’ funny and its’ wild and drunk on bum wine. It is imperfect flawed Townes Van Zandt picking some perfect guitar. By the time he sings one of my favorite songs, 9 Pound Hammer, I don’t know whether I want to playfully slap him on the shoulder or turn my head to cry. I guess he had that effect on people. If you think you don’t like Townes Van Zandt, try Live At The Old Quarter, it is how he should have been presented to the world. After all how could he roll, when those wheels won’t go.
A small public safety warning…if you think Leonard Cohen makes you feel like your dog just died, Townes Van Zandt makes it feel like your girlfriend just ran away too, after your house burnt down and you lost everything you loved. Townes taps into our sadness, and affirms that life is cruel and down and dirty and unfair. Life is drunk. The people you love cry all over you and you can’t help them. The most you can do is tell them you understand. In my deepest darkest moments of despair it is Townes I turn to. Townes let you feel that sadness up loud, all the way to breaking point, and once you have control of that dial of feeling, that intensity of emotion, you have a chance of gaining control. His songs are studded with pearls. Townes knew the game was only to lose, and while we are waiting around to die, all we have is each other and our ability to love and live and empathize.
I would go a little further than Patti. Those of us who have been destroyed and rebuilt ourselves from the ashes of our destruction, understand what it is to not know how to continue, and so whilst we can’t offer practical help, shout out loud that we see you, we understand, and that understanding that flows between us is power and comfort.