Unsung Figures No.2: Townes Van Zandt

“Living on the road my friends,
Is gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath’s as hard as kerosene…” – Pancho & Lefty

I’ve listened to more songs in my life that I could even begin to try and think about. 1000’s upon 1000’s, I don’t know. It’s not worth the effort of speculating. However, I probably could have a fair go at writing a list of those that have burrowed their way under my skin and taken root in a small part of my soul, that seem to change the energy in my body when I hear them. And quite a few of the songs on that list would be written by one man, a singer that first came in to my life about 10 years ago.

I first heard of Townes Van Zandt courtesy of a live recording of Gillian Welch. She and her partner Dave Rawlings played two of his songs in that set in fact, ‘White Freightliner Blues‘ and the song quoted above, ‘Pancho & Lefty’. I’d never encountered a name like that before so it immediately stuck in my head, and whilst the first song was an enjoyable enough country-blues thing it was that second song that grabbed me. I ended up playing the Welch version over and over, climbing inside the song to try and work out who these figures were, what the rest of the story was. The lyrics gave you just enough to paint a picture but you had to work at it a little, fill in the gaps yourself, allow it to reveal what’s in the gaps over a period of time. I’ve heard it a thousand times now and I still find new things in it all the time, potential nuances in the story that weren’t there before, a detail my imagination suddenly locates that deepens the story. Now in my world the only other person who writes songs that’ll keep you going for a lifetime like that is Bob Dylan and he’s supposed to be a bonafide genius or something. Here’s a man who wrote a whole bunch of songs like that and hardly anybody’s heard of him.

gilstrap-vanzandt-splsh

Townes van Zandt was born on March 7th, 1944 to a rich Texas Oil family who also had strong political connections in the state. It was a privileged upbringing and a lifestyle he would later wholly reject. Although a highly intelligent young man, he was also a wayward spirit and during his university years would start to suffer from the depression and alcohol abuse which would blight his entire adult life. After his parents admitted him to a psychiatric ward in 1962 he received electro-shock therapy which erased much of his long-term memory. Despite this he carried on studying, although he never graduated, and later on even tried to join the US Air Force who rejected him for being “an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life”. Having begun to play the guitar and sing songs at about the age of 12, and by now having become pretty good at writing them too he decided to abandon everything and commit to a musical life. As he would later note “I got to a point where I thought to myself I can do this, really do this, but it means blowin’ everything off – money, family, security, happiness – blow it all off, just grab a guitar and go”. So he started wandering and never really stopped.

“Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most remember some
But don’t turn none away…” – To Live Is To Fly

Between 1968 and 1973 he would record a string of albums on the Poppy label. Although these records would never sell much they were packed with darkness and beauty, sadness and poetry. Songs like ‘Waitin’ Round To Die‘ and ‘Tecumseh Valley’ told tales of lives gone badly wrong and would take you right down before others like ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad‘ and ‘I’ll Be Here In The Morning‘ would lift you up and yet seemed to ache in a different way, one that hinted that all joy is fleeting so grab it whilst you can. The poetry in all of them crackles with a profound understanding of what it is to be human. In ‘To Live Is To Fly’ he sings “Everything is not enough and nothin’ is too much to bear”, words that pretty neatly sum up the dichotomy in so many of his lyrics. Like life, his songs recognise that we all manage a balancing act between pain and pleasure, love and hate, wealth and poverty (and not merely the financial kind either) and ultimately life and mortality. We’re all waitin’ round to die. We all kind of know that too, but few people have ever expressed it in a song in the way Townes Van Zandt did, with the incisiveness of a lazer-sharp mind that’s been there, seen it, walked and talked it.

Townes with Guy Clark
Townes with Steve Earle

The man lived a tragic life, and it showed in his art. Never famous and seemingly never inclined towards showbiz he spent most of his life playing small bars and clubs and quite often any old dive that would have him. He regularly played to less than 50 people and at one point was known to be selling his own records from his truck. The 1970’s would see him living mostly in tin-roofed shack with no electricity or telephone, which he would occasionally leave to go off on badly organised tours or just to wander, often staying on friends couches. Two such friends were the married singers Guy and Susanna Clark who were often subjected to unexpected visits that might last a day or a week. The Clarks were pretty much the closest thing Townes had to best friends and they would sometimes tour together. Clark would later say that some nights his friend was just perfect, singing “songs that took your breath away”. Yet the ravages of both alcohol and heroin would later leave him often unable to even remember the lyrics of his songs when on stage.

“Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is takin’ me
Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why…” – Waitin’ Round To Die

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6JG-yE8UTw

When Van Zandt died on New Years Day 1997 he was no more famous then than he had ever been. Songwriters knew who he was, as did a small, devoted fanbase – Bob Dylan himself is apparently a big fan (the one time they met Dylan apparently insisted Van Zandt played a few of his songs for him). However, save a cover of Pancho & Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard which was a big on the country charts in 1983 none of his songs were ever hits. He did gain a little more recognition when his cover of The Rolling Stones song ‘Dead Flowers’ appeared over the closing credits to the Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski but to this day most people, even many committed music lovers, aren’t particularly aware of his ouvre, which is a tragedy and part of the reason I tend to be pretty evangelical in tone when I’m telling people about him. I have days when I can’t get his songs out of my head and don’t want to hear anything but his voice and guitar giving me something I can’t get elsewhere. Yep, it’s a unique and heady medicine. If you don’t already know it you should use the songs here as a starting point and go discover. Then tell your friends and hope they do the same…

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8 thoughts on “Unsung Figures No.2: Townes Van Zandt

    1. Yeah, I think they introduced a few people to his music thankfully, great band also. Glad you like the article! 🙂

  1. A marvel of a retrospective, Paul! I count myself fortunate enough to have seen him live, and even if by then his voice was affected by the incessant playing in smoke-filled room, and hard livin’ in general, it seemed to come from another world. And those words…

    Time was like water, and I was the sea, wouldn’t have noticed its passing, except for the turning of night into day, and the turning of day into cursing. — The Rake

    1. Thanks Oliver, so glad you enjoyed it! I must say I’m very jealous that you got to see him live, even if it was towards the end! Lucky man.

  2. Nice article. A superb songwriter. “Marie” may be the saddest song I’ve ever heard in my life. Hate to nitpick but in the photo that’s Steve Earle & not Guy Clark with Townes.

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