Hittin' the Note/May 1977

Title: Townes Van Zandt - messages from the outside
by William Hedgepeth

Editor's Note: William Hedgepeth, a former senior editor of Look and other now-defunct national magazines, lives and writes in Atlanta. His epic and long-awaited work, The Hog Book, will be released by Doubleday this coming February.

Copyright 1977 William Hedgepeth - all rights reserved


W hat can you leave behind
when you're flyin' lightnin'
fast and all alone?
Only a trace, my friend:
Spirit of motion born
And direction grown ...
("Highway Kind")

In the lengthening shadows of a late Atlanta afternoon he sat slumped in a lawn chair looking like a lean and vaguely displaced cowboy. "In those days," he recalled, "I got to the point where I was lockin' myself in my apartment for a week at a time, takin' my phone off the hook, bein' drunk all the time, drinkin' Bali Hai wine, playin' the guitar, listenin' to Lightnin Hopkins and Hank Williams and early Bob Dylan - Lightnin Hopkins, mostly. Then I'd come out at the end of a week of this and throw a giant party.

I lived on the fourth story of this apartment building, and at one point during one of these parties I went out and sat on the edge of the balcony and started leanin' backwards. I decided I was gonna lean over and just see what it felt like all the way up to where you lost control and you were falling. I realized that to do it I'd have to fall. But I said, 'Hell, I'm gonna do it anyway,' So I started leanin' back really slow and really payin' attention, and I fell. Fell over backwards and landed four stories down. Flat on my back. I remember the impact and exactly what it felt like and all the people screamin'. I had a bottle of wine and I stood up. hadn't spilled any wine. Felt no ill effects whatsoever. Meanwhile, all the people had jammed onto the elevator, an' when the doors opened I was standin' there and they knocked me over coming out -- an' it hurt more bein' knocked over than fallin' four stories."

Townes Van Zandt had been recollecting the chaotic days at the University of Colorado in the early 60s during which time he made his first official foray beyond the generally recognized boundaries of "sanity." He was telling me this by way of explaining the events and discombobulations of mind that led up to his stint in a Texas mental institution and then later to his career as a rootless troubadour, full-time spiritual anarchist, and -- incidentally -- composer of some of the most profoundly involving, intensely poetic songs you could ever hope to wrap your mind around. The sun was going down, and in the dimness Townes' dark eyes and darker hair began receding into deeper hues while his wolf gaunt features grew steadily more spectral. A kind of quiet wildness flickered behind the superstructure of his face.

This was nearly five years, just about the time of the release of his sixth album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt -- copies of which are now about as rare as eyebrows on eggs. The other five are pretty hard to find too. In fact, Townes himself had been pretty hard to find - and still is.

I first heard of him in 1971 through Mickey Newbury, who was living at the time in a mildly palatial houseboat outside Nashville. "I'll tell ya', man," Mickey said in response to something, "the person who's influenced me more'n just about anybody else is somebody I'm sure you've never heard of. Guy name of Townes Van Zandt. Incredible poet."

Townes, continued Mickey, "is somebody who looks a little like Hank Williams, even writes like Hank Williams probably would have written. But I tell ya', I think Townes is better. I consider him in the same category as Dylan and McCartney." Van Zandt's writing affected Mickey's own work so strongly that, as he said, its influence had been passed along through him to songwriters like Kristofferson and others. And yet outside the music business Townes Van Zandt remained a virtual unknown, or, at best, an enigma. "Now my songs are a lot less involved than Townes'," Mickey observed. "His are really involved, but at the same time, they're deceptively simple. That's what makes 'em good." And here he paused to ponder. "You see, somehow or other they work and they evoke an emotion, but you can't put your finger on it."

The result of this conversation, and of hearing one of Townes' albums, was an extended search for the elusive critter himself -- which took several months. In the meantime I picked up and pieced together assorted slivers of information from scattered Van Zandt zealots here and there.

Townes, I learned, came from a well-pedigreed Texas family -- his forebearers having been among the drafters of the Texas Constitution. There is a Van Zandt County, and the law school building at the U. of Texas is named Townes Hall. His great-grandfather was one of the founders of Fort Worth.

Townes himself was more of less destined for a law career up until his latter years in college, at which time his education and the entire course of his life were sidetracked by psychosis. Diagnosed as 'schizophrenic-reactionary manic-depressive,' he was hospitalized and put through a program of insulin shock therapy -- which had the incidental effect of blotting out most of his childhood memory. In essence, it severed his rootholds and left him devoid of any lingering attachment to any particular environment.

The upshot was that he had long since become a complete creature of the road whose ultimate aim was merely to keep on going and keep on reflecting the shape of his life in the songs he felt internally obliged to write simply in order to maintain some kind of mental equilibrium, writing at night in motel rooms or any other available way-stations, utterly detached from anything enduring. Anything that could not be carried in a suitcase he would give away, including, eventually, even the suitcase. And club owners and others who knew him commonly told stories about his walking down the sidewalk at night after a gig giving his earnings away to tramps and panhandlers.

His songs are of parting rites, of greetings and goodbyes, of unappeasable aggrievements, love dissolved in despair, of spiritual leave-takings and the precariousness of human joy. But in none of his compositions is there the remotest flavor of self-consciousness or the sensation that he's trying to convince you of anything - or, indeed, that he's concerned about "impressing" you at all.

Townes set out on the road a dozen years ago as a solitary performer singing songs, for the most part, about aloneness . . . and how to come to terms with it. "Yeah, well, I feel aloneness all the time," he explained after I finally succeeded in tracking him down. "Loneliness I hardly ever feel during the day. At night sometimes after a gig I feel it a bunch. But loneliness, anyway is a state of feeling, whereas aloneness is a state of being -- like the difference between bein' broke and bein' poor."

Townes calls himself a "folksinger," which isn't really accurate in terms of his music, and which no one who knows him seems to agree with anyway. Instead, they call him things like "genius" and "poet" and "romantic" and "mystic" and so on. "In his own way, a very sophisticated way," contends a producer in Nashville, "he's a cowboy, a very gentle cowboy who views things from that perspective, from that influence of rural America. It's a need he has - a real sense of privacy that's very deep. People sense that. They can tell he's part of a dying breed."

As for his personal goals: "Oh," he shrugged "I'd like to be the biggest ever, you know. No . . . I just want to keep on writin' good songs. And, too, I'd like to alter the course of the Universe, make it a happier place. No death. No disease. No depression. Nobody getting older, but once they start getting too much older they die. I'm not sure how exactly to do this. I haven't made my move yet."

All of this, as I say, was from my initial encounters with Townes several years ago. Since then, I have seen him whenever he has wandered through Atlanta and have managed to hear from him somewhat more often, usually in the form of hoplessly drunken calls in the thin of the night -- including the time he telephoned from someplace over a year ago claiming to be beset with serious craziness and asking to be locked up in my basement. In between these sporadic contacts he would disappear again onto the road or into the Colorado mountains, or somewhere, and no one would ever know if he were alive, dead or what.

"Hello amigo!" Townes springs up from the candlelit table where he's been waiting to perform and thrusts out his hand with a big smile. He's changed a little. He has a gold front tooth now that sparkles in the light whenever he opens his mouth, (the result, it turns out, of having been set upon by some guitar-thieving muggers in a parking lot after a gig).

In addition to the tooth (which he's distinctly proud of), he also has now a relatively permanent girlfriend named Cindy, who drove down here with him from Nashville in a ransacked Plymouth along with their friend Geraldine, a large, kindly dog in a vaguely German Sheperd shaped body.

They've come here to Aunt Charley's, a bar and performing place in Atlanta, where Townes is the headlined act for the next few days. The only advertising has been by word of mouth, but the listening room is already jammed with all those who comprise Van Zandt's cult-like following -- who tend to look upon him as something quasi-religious -- plus clusterings of curious new souls who are finally getting the message, or who hope to.

Doc Watson, Mickey Newbury, Buffy St. Marie and others have all had hits with songs by Townes, and Emmylou Harris is currently adding multitudes of fresh converts to the TVZ mystique with "Pancho and Lefty," the most written about song on her latest album (Playboy's review also dealt mostly with this song and concluded by saying, "We wish there were more songs like 'Pancho and Lefty' on this album, in the world, wherever") in any event, the present effect of all this is a general and long overdue upsurge of fascination in someone who, up till now, has been as mysterious and elusive as a UFO.

Before long, all those gathered here have quieted, and there, in the center of the small stage, looms Townes, who has already launched off into some dark tales on the guitar. He sways and plays and sways, and now his eyes close as he commences to sing. And almost immediately this audience, like almost all the others through the years, becomes a transfixed collection of absolutely motionless forms, as fine-shaped phrases resonate through the air and beckon to things beneath the surface.

Townes' lyrics come across like messages from the outside, dealing not with causes but with solitary passions and undefinable desires. Though they're melodic and woven with warm visions, his songs don't really comfort the mind or offer any affirmations of anything -- other than the assurance that here is someone else who is every bit as alone at the core as you yourself have always felt but can't ever quite find the words for. Townes is not so much a performer as a "presence," and his presence clearly has an impact. The people here tonight look as if they're watching a ghost and hanging on his every word.

He is working alone again now after having traveled for a while with two musician friends, calling themselves "Townes Van Zandt and the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys." Now, at 33, he's trying to detoxify himself from highway life and has more or less "settled" with Cindy and Geraldine in an isolated woods cabin south of Nashville. Cindy is a roadwise Texan with long strawberry blonde hair, and apart from other services, her most vital function is to make sure Townes takes his daily Lithium dose and vitamin tablets. And for his part, Townes seems genuinely determined this time not to stumble off again for another plunge into the outer galaxies of lunacy.

Back in Austin, Texas, nearly a year ago, Townes slipped off the edge in deluxe style after a monumental binge with one the Hemmer Ridge boys. The two reached the point of alcoholic derangement where they were coating themselves with garbage, then going to the front doors of clubs, where they knew the managers, and threatening to come inside unless they were given an immediate $3 for a pint of vodka.

This epic concluded one morning with Townes being discovered unconscious in a Dempsey Dumpster. "The next thing I knew," he says, "I was lying on a stretcher in a hospital with a bottle of, like, pure Valium running into my arm."

After being restored to some degree of psychological functionality, Townes and Cindy abandoned the trailer they'd been sharing in the slums of Austin and eventually made their way to the outskirts of Nashville. Here, he's been a virtual model of stability: chopping firewood, writing some, playing a few gigs, assembling a new album, and generally surviving away in the woods with as little commotion as possible and no notable outbreaks of beserkness, except one.

His single lapse occurred last October at the Country Music Association convention in Nashville, when, after a night of non-stop drinking, he came onstage with Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and others for a mass sing-in, and wound up trying to stand on his head over and over again, crashing into the drums, lights, mike stands, etc.

"I woke up with a hangover and went into hiding from all my friends for a week or two. Guy practically disowned me. I think he's come to the conclusion that I'm from the wrong side of the tracks."

It is morning now, and Townes, Cindy and Geraldine have appeared at my studio from somewhere bearing vodka and Coco-Cola. Before we spring into the refreshments, Townes has to call his psychiatrist back in Austin to get a prescription refill for the Lithium he as to take to mute the edges of chronic manic-depression:

"Yeah, right . . . No, no, I'm not doing that anymore . . . No, it's cool. I'm on top of it . . . I haven't done that either. Never again, I promise . . . Great, just send it in the usual way . . . Thanks. I'll be out to see you then . . . So long."

Now he sits back, opens a Coke, uncaps the first bottle of the cheapest vodka known to man, and commences to reflect. What follows here is the gist of a long day's musings:

"You know, I'm gettin' sick of the music business. I'm ready to get in on the money business. I've about come to the conclusion," he declares with a little snort of a laugh, "that there's no sellout too small. I've been on the road so long I'm tired of it. I'm indifferent to it. I'd rather sit home and drink and pick up royalty checks. As it is now, if anything went wrong with our car, we've got so little money we'd be stuck. Every little thing makes for a real critical situation."

Townes downs a mouthful of vodka and sighs, "I'm ready to go to the farm for a while. For a check-up. Actually, I think I'd like to spend 364 days in the funny farm and just come out one day a year. I think that'd be more practical".

"People would rather see a dog act than me," he observes. "I would too. The kinda songs I play -- poem songs . . . story songs -- are not what you'd call a particularly accepted mode of art these days. Then, too those people in Nashville consider me a weird recluse who they've heard of but who never comes to land. I'll come into town, like, five minutes and give 'em a tape and disappear. But still, most of those Nashville folks won't do a waltz. Won't do a ballad. Won't do things in a minor key. Nashville's just not geared for minor keys."

Townes says that probably the main thing that sustains his spirit is the cult that has developed over the years. "It's been a whole lot of moral support sometimes. People come up and lay that stuff about 'addicted fan.' Then you know you're two against the joint as opposed to one." He pauses. "It seems to me that if any people took all those songs seriously they'd be real . . . out there. My favorite fans are the ones who say some album or other saved 'em from suicide. That means it must have meant a lot to 'em in times of craziness. That's kinda nice. If I were, like, Elvis Presley I'd buy 'em all Cadillacs."

"Instead," Cindy sneers, "we're us and we're broke," Townes proclaims, "We're on the borderline, maybe. Most people would consider us broke. But what do we need money for?" he asks, "We've got each other." With this he makes an amorous lunge toward Cindy, which she dodges.

"Ah well, I think things might be OK. With the cabin an' all I feel more settled. Leads me to believe I could be rooted somewhere an' make it in this business, be 'successful' with the public.

"Of course, if there wasn't any public I'd be all right, 'cause I could eat deer and rabbit. But there is. You know. I've always thought the public was pursuing me," he confides "I especially feel it when I'm drivin' in a car".

"I realize we're going to have to step up production, so to speak. I'm supposed to record some more songs when I get back to Nashville. An' also do a gig for Sam the pizza man. I play the pizza place a lot.

"But I'm ready for the Big Money now. Let the roll start. Most of the music people know Townes Van Zandt scuttlebutt - the hip ones know. And if Emmylou's album keeps goin' well, I'll be in a position to go into town with a couple of songs an' things'll start happening. Also, the album is supposed to come out sometime in May. I think it's called Townes Van Zandt Live at the Old Quarter. That's a place in Houston.

"Anyway, if all that starts to happen and if all that works out and if things go as planned . . . well," he shrugs, "I figure this is a far better spot than tryin' to work my way up in the manual labor business."

The gig at Aunt Charley's is completed and Cindy has taken protective custody of the paycheck. Townes takes a final gulp of vodka, a swig of Coke, puts on his new white cowboy hat and meanders toward the car in a benign haze. Once inside, he gives a florid wave of his hat and waves Geraldine's paw, and they're off in a cloud of burnt oil.

They'll head from here to Texas to settle a legal dispute over a horse Cindy sold someone. Then it's back to Tennessee to work, to write and to watch for favorable omens in the sky -- or wherever else the signs of public success and acceptance may possibly appear to someone who is so fundamentally outside society, rootless, creative, anarchic, and hence altogether dangerous.

While Townes' eventual triumph may not appear to be probable, it is at least conceivable, and that's a shade more reassuring than nothing at all. But whatever happens, he remains alive as few others can be said to be alive, and remains capable of evoking sensations and awareness in people that they might not have felt before. And as long as that's true, Townes Van Zandt may not ever actually become part of the superstar set, but at the least he'll never lack for a place to stay.


Livin' on the road, my friend
was gonna keep you free and clean,
But now you wear your skin like iron
and your breath's as hard as kerosene.
You weren't your mama's only son
but her favorite one it seems.
She began to cry when you said good-bye
and sank into your dreams ...
("Pancho and Lefty")


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