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Always for the sake of the song
In Van Zandt’s
world, music was
of a higher force
By Peter Blackstock
Townes Van Zandt, as shown on his fall 1996 European release, "Townes Van Zandt Abnormal."
Townes Van Zandt         The first time I saw Townes Van Zandt was a typically sweltering summer evening in Austin, Texas, in 1985, sharing the stage with fellow Texan songwriter Butch Hancock at the storied Cactus Cafe on the University of Texas campus. It was a slow night; the place was only about half full, and though the show was enjoyable enough, neither one of these legendary songwriters seemed in the mind of personal epiphanies. For whatever reason, the thing I remember most was them doing a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets.”
* From "No Deeper Blue" Townes Van Zandt sings "Blaze's Blue"
* From "No Deeper Blue" Townes Van Zandt sings "Lover's Lullaby"
* From "Road Songs" Townes Van Zandt sings Bruce Springsteen's "Racing In The Streets"
* Singer Townes Van Zandt dead at 52
        Then again, as great a songwriter as Van Zandt was — no doubt one of the classics of the late 20th century, in my mind — a vivid memory of him performing someone else’s song fits just fine with Townes’ own philosophies on music.
        The last time I interviewed Van Zandt, in September 1995, we spoke about all the versions of his own songs that had been recorded by other people — a short list of whom would include Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Cowboy Junkies, Hoyt Axton, Doc Watson, the Walkabouts, and a surprising number of duets, including Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, Nanci Griffith & Arlo Guthrie, Jay Farrar & Kelly Willis, even Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Mudhoney.
        “It’s always gratifying, no matter who it is, if you’re a songwriter,” Van Zandt said. “And it can be little kids, dancing around in a circle, singing. But with me it’s kind of dancing around a circle singing ANYTHING. I mean, that’s as good as ‘Pancho & Lefty.’ ”
This perspective of music as a higher force has always defined Van Zandt to me.

        It was this perspective of music as a higher force that has always defined Van Zandt to me. Even with songs he wrote, he often deferred credit to a greater power. In a February 1992 interview, I mentioned that another songwriter had once said she considered songwriting more a process of discovery than invention. “Well, I wouldn’t say more discovery or invention,” Van Zandt replied, “I would say more like slammed upon. Hit between the eyeballs, out of the blue. ... Booker White called them sky songs; there’s no telling where Willie Dixon got ‘em. Lightnin’ Hopkins used to make them up as he went along. Some of my songs, I just felt like I had nothing to do with.
        It was like, god, my arm’s tired, what did I write? ... I wrote ‘If I Needed You’ in my sleep, stone dream in my sleep. Woke up just long enough to write it down. ‘Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold’ was just driven into the top of my head and came out my arm.”
        Those two songs are among his best: Steve Earle has told of quieting a heckling Van Zandt at a Houston club in 1972 by playing a dead-on version of the long and winding “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold” while “If I Needed You” was a country hit for Emmylou Harris and Don Williams in 1982 (introducing Van Zandt’s music to a mainstream audience, including me as a 16-year-old). But his best-known song remains “Pancho & Lefty.” A No. 1 hit for Nelson and Haggard in 1983, it was also performed on a prime-time network TV special a couple years ago by Nelson and Bob Dylan.
        In our 1995 interview, Van Zandt recalled seeing that special. “I’d just the night before come off the road... I was kinda layin’ there and goin’ to sleep, and my son Will comes screamin’ around the corner, yelling, ‘DAD! GET UP! GET UP! DAD! GET UP!’ And my first thought was, ‘We’re on fire! The house is on fire!’ And I’m gettin’ outta bed and I’m thinkin’, should I put on my boots in case I have to kick something in? And Will keeps sayin’, ‘Dad! Come here!’ And it’s like, no time for boots. So I go around the corner, and there on the TV is Bob and Willie singin’ ‘Pancho & Lefty.’ Far out!
        “So I watched it, and I went back to sleep.”
I saw Van Zandt perform probably a half-dozen times, but my favorite memory of seeing him was in 1993, during a trip to Nashville.

        I saw Van Zandt perform probably a half-dozen times, but my favorite memory of seeing him was in November 1993, during a trip to Nashville to visit my brother, who was teaching at Vanderbilt University at the time. I remember wondering, if there were any musician in Nashville I’d love to just run into by chance during my few days in town, who would it be? Townes Van Zandt, I fairly quickly decided. One day at lunch with my brother at a restaurant near the Vanderbilt campus, I turned around and there was Townes, his wife Jeanene and his little girl Katie Belle sitting at a table. A higher force must have had something to do with that, too.
        But what I’ll never, ever shake from my mind rests on the now-fading final page of a transcript from our 1992 interview. It’s the kind of soul-searching insight that just doesn’t happen in such artist-to-journalist conversations, which so often are simply a matter of promoting the latest album or tour or other such career opportunity. In fact, my question was very much along those all-too-obvious lines. Given that Garth Brooks had just recently given country music a more mainstream appeal than it had ever experienced before, I asked Townes if he thought he might stand to benefit from this newfound popularity. His response:
        “No, I don’t think, as a matter of fact, that I’m going to benefit from anything on this earth. It’s more like that. I mean, if you have love on the earth, that seems to be number one. There’s food, water, air, and love, right? And love is just basically heartbreak.
        “Humans can’t live in the present like animals do; they just live in the present. But humans are always thinking about the future or the past. So, it’s a veil of tears, man. And I don’t know anything that’s going to benefit me except more love. I just need an overwhelming amount of love.
        “And a nap. Mostly a nap.”
        Sleep well, Townes.
Peter Blackstock is co-editor of the alternative-country bimonthly No Depression, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and archivist for the South By Southwest Music Festival.
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