There is a photo of Townes that I love. There he is, in all his fucked up glory, his young yet craggy face, his hangman smile and his coldly blank eyes in an image that failed to capture the best of him. Cowboy hat set slightly askew, mouth pursed and emotionless, skin as pallid as a wax work figurine, round glasses slightly magnifying the creepy intensity in his eyes, half of his face, just like half of his life was, obscured in shadow, leaving only the impression and outline of the man.
Townes was a drinker, a hound, and a party animal…yet he was never at the party that everyone else around him was. There is a story of Townes playing Russian roulette with Steve Earle, the young brash Steve sensibly copping out while Townes put bullets in his revolver, put the gun against his own dumb head, and pulled the trigger three times. Point made. Steve, I presumed shut up and stopped posturing. Later on Earle declared that he would stand on Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and tell anyone that would listen that Townes was the better songwriter. He later retracted the statement, the moral of the story being you could never trust Earle to follow through on anything: poseur, posturer and fickle one time pretty hair flick-erer. Townes, being allergic to fame and fortune apparently turned down requests by Dylan to write together. You could never quite trust Townes either. He was a rake, and owned up to the brutality that was magnified by the errors of feral youth, “I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds” he sings in The Rake. There is a certain bliss in self critical examination when embellished in swirling guitar and the wail of a man who knows and lives regret.
Townes’s music suffered from horrendous over-production. What was sold as ‘lush strings’ became hokey embellishment that muddied the pristine and pure beauty of the song, and drowned out Van Zandt’s stunning picking and lonesome hound dog wail. There were fake drums, mechanical and non organic sounds, alongside the least sympathetic production and recordings in history. To hear Townes how he should be heard, listen to “Live At The Old Quarter”, the only Van Zandt album that was not ruined by the music-men. The recordings of him playing live vary. Sometimes he was simply too fucked up to perform, sometimes he was pure spun-out on gut rot wine and despair gold.
Townes was not country, Townes was not folk: Townes was death sung sweetly and pursued full tilt ‘for a while’. Townes was the man who drank so much during Sonic Youth sessions in early 1996, towards the end of his life, that he fell over drunk and broke his hip. He never quite recovered. The man eventually caught up with death on new year’s day 1997. I wonder if he found what he was looking for once he got there.
Townes, according to music folk law, was a man on a mission to absorb the best and worst of life, to become the dark side he chased, and to bring back music from the front lines of misery. Townes is a delight, he does not shy away from the sides of life that most of us have no desire to experience in person. Those of us who have touched that hallowed and damned ground find solace in his reports. He is a kindred spirit, a fellow wandering soul.
When I first saw his photo, on the front of Our Mother The Mountain, I had a visceral reaction to his disturbing visage and asked my friend how many bodies this man had buried under the patio. I was only partially joking. Townes terrified me, repulsed me, I had to be persuaded to give the record a spin, and despite how horribly, inexpertly and disasterously Townes’ lilly had been gilded, I quickly recognized an intrepid reporter from ‘The Hole’ he sang about. As he opened his mouth and started sweetly singing and sadly yet perfectly picking that guitar, I knew my love for him would never scab over and heal.
Some music is made for pine trees, rocky mountain passes, lake side houses with barbecue afternoons, barn shin digs, driving down through the ragged places where the poor people scratch an existence. There is some music made for a glass of whiskey and at least two packs of marlboro. There is music for that eternal sunday morning as it comes down (and so do you) from two nights on the town trying to make it all feel as if all the weekday struggle is worthwhile, and blow the cobwebs outta yer wig. There is music to laugh to, and music to cry to.
Music of longing, music of loss. Townes sometimes sounds to me like a drive through La Pine, laughing at the antique stores and ridiculous invasion of the rich into a sparse and harsh environment of burrs and chipmunks and wild fires that rage seemingly every summer nowadays, sometimes he sounds like a lover long gone trying to be sweet whilst putting on his ‘flying shoes’ and headed for that ‘man that sells cocaine’…or at least a bottle of Thunderbird and a few days of miserable partying.
Townes sounds like towns that I have known: I will forever think of him on the 101, or driving across country headed for Minnesota. Talking of Minnesota, Townes knew a thing or two about miners; in Tecumseh Valley, the miner’s daughter, Caroline was sent away from winter because there was no work, no money and no coal to keep warm, and in trying to save her, her father damned her to an early death, murdered at Gypsy Sally’s bar, after poverty forced her to become a lady of the night. There is nothing but sadness in the words and in his cracking voice and plaintively picked guitar for Caroline and her miner father. “The name she gave was Caroline, the daughter of a miner, and her ways were free, and it seemed to me, the sunlight walked beside her.” As far as an epitaph goes, an obituary in song for a woman killed because the ‘coal was low and soon the snow would turn the skies to winter’, there could be no more affectionate and kind words. In Caroline, Townes found a muse.
Townes was a man, who when talking about the misfortune of those other than himself; the homeless of this country, the disadvantaged, the disabled, the addicted, the lost and the forlorn, the veterans and the gamblers showed huge sensitivity and grace. When talking of himself in song he was harshly funny, tough and cruel. Townes was so generous of spirit, except when it included Townes.
His songs stand alone, and now, 16 years after his death, listening to Townes is like throwing music culture back into a crucible where outlaw country singers actually practiced what they preached. When our man sings about being ‘junkpiled’ and how ‘you don’t need an engine to go downhill’, when he pokes fun at himself for puking (or bubbling as he so sweetly puts it) all over his date, and his friend’s dates too, when he sings about how ‘if you have no connections’ to the ‘man who sells cocaine’, then you are ‘no damn good’ to him, it is no Steve Earle act. Townes lived it, dreamed it, and died it. Townes was the real deal, and it really killed him, and to be frank I cannot worship dead things any longer, no matter how much I adore them.
Townes is fading into the rear view mirror for those of us who didn’t know him. Yet because we listened to him, and his open and brutal honesty, we perhaps wrongly consider him a friend, a solace, a comfort on those long and lonely runs that exist only in liquor stores and pills, cheap (and expensive) thrills, and ultimate disaster as that car we call a body ends up on the junk yard, wrecked and battered. Townes is dead, but these songs are pure life, energy in it’s most vital and electric of creative forms, and that cannot die, but merely be transformed into our tears.
When I listen to Two Girls, a song written for one of his women that lived, and another that was murdered as she hitchhiked to meet him at a recording session, both Townes and his women, and both me and my loves spring to life, distilled into a sparkling memory of flying down some highway or other, the pine trees and the rain, the lakes and the plans that never came true, and those who are long gone, and then….there it is! Life! Townes is a man with a Lazurus touch, bringing forth those dead flowers he sang about in a cover that was better than the Stones original, and who makes them shine and bloom brightly once again.
Townes write a lot of songs as a lover, not just as someone who others might see as a loser who never scored a major record contract, yet was admired by everyone from Dylan to Willie Nelson. He was always the guy who promised he would always ‘be there in the morning’, whilst qualifying it quietly as at least just ‘for a while’ before he will put on those ‘flying shoes’ and haul ass for the mountain pass. He sings Loretta‘s praises as a woman who doesn’t mind his ‘Lefty’ ways, and is sad only for a while when he goes, and generous when he returns. He never claimed to be the settled and domesticated sort, yet his song for his daughter, Katie-Bell, is one of the single most beautiful and loving songs ever written for a child by a parent. He wishes nothing but beauty and love for her, everything he struggled to provide in his chaotic life. Townes is stories of a dozen sad souls, not least of all his own, which were born out of a life lived in a drunken haze, as well as of a life well lived and thoroughly worn out.
Marie is the most depressing song ever written, a ditty in a minor key that details the life of a homeless man, and the woman he loved. She dies in the cold, his baby ‘safe inside her’. I cannot listen to it. There is too much truth in his words. This is not music to listen to for a good time, this is music that gives you that eternal ‘grok’, that click of humanity lived and shared and loved and struggled through. Townes Van Zandt is the antidote for every Abba and cute pop song bubbly pap that ever spilled out into the airwaves. Townes is real. It is just that real is sometimes too hard to take. Townes lived it real, he didn’t just play it real. To be frank, he can be a depressing motherfucker with a lot of compassion for humanity, but also a whole lotta love for the bottle.
Leonard Cohen has nothing on Townes. Leonard’s sadness was always turned in on himself and his struggles with depression, in his last album Cohen declares his ‘demons were middle class and tame’. Townes demons are anything but that. Townes’s demons are wild and crazy, drunken and blacked out. His demons are poor and destitute, they are on the road forever, they are young girls being killed by johns when their father sent them away supposedly for their own safety, they are Marie, pregnant and dead for lack of a coat, they are Peter La Farge’s Ira Hayes, a Native American veteran who gave it everything and was treated like a ‘dog’ being ‘thrown a bone’, and who dies alone in a ditch through lack of care and compassion.
Townes wrote You Are Not Needed Now for Janis Joplin after she died, wishing her peace at least. He wrote Snowing on Raton for the girlfriend who was murdered hitchhiking to see him as he recorded. One of the most powerful live performances of all time, in my opinion, remains Townes and Blaze Foley, singing the song together. They both look barely alive, pale and deathly, yet the performance is so intensely personal it feels like an imposition to be watching it. This is a one friend helping another to honor someone they loved who has gone and doing so with such kindness and heartfelt honesty and pain that the song takes on a spiritual power that forever remains. I suppose one man’s grief is another man’s joy, just as Guy Clarke once said. He was a close friend of Townes, and as such I guess not a stranger to either concept.
Townes was not a fighter, he was a lover who was always on the road, always leaving, always lefty not pancho, always looking behind him longing for that system with the high treble and the good bass and the girl laying on the pillow, her golden hair and gentle love never being enough to keep him in one place. He was always championing and cataloging life’s strugglers, drunks, underbelly, and those who others look at as feral losers, but who Townes called brother and sister. Marie, Caroline and a cast of lost women, murdered on mountain tops, never making it to meetings, murdered under stairs, despite the ‘sunshine’ ‘walk (ing) beside them’. Townes writes of a life of extremes, but at least a life that meant something and was never small, mealy mouthed or mundane.
Townes was a comedian when talking about his own down hill slide and his various vices and failures. He was deathly serious when warning others about the holes people can slide into and never fill with booze and drugs, even if you do get used to living alongside death and the demons of a life frittered away in blackouts at the altar of Thunderbird. Townes wrote the most beautiful, warm and heartfelt songs of love for his fellow man.
Rest easy Townes, you are not needed now. You did your work, you said your piece. I guess I’ll ‘see you by and by…..’..about that patio though….I mean…I was a little hasty…right? Has anyone seen Pancho around recently?