Date: 31 Jan 1997 18:22:38 -0600 From: "Roy Kasten"
To: email@example.com Len, I thought you might like to add this to the Blue Sky Home page. It's from the Texas observer, I believe the Jan. 30 issue, though I'll have to check on the exact date. (Oh, and I'm quoted, briefly.) Roy To: Lou Dubose, The Texas Observer From: Naomi Shihab Nye We Needed Him In 1977 Townes Van Zandt asked me to hold his guitar for a minute while he took a break from singing at a northside San Antonio music bar. We didn't know one another -- I just happened to be sitting up close to the microphone, off to one side. The crowd milled and chattered between sets. He had just sung his unforgettably pure song, "If I needed you, would you come to me? / Would you come to me and ease my pain?" A few listeners, including myself, remained lost in the hypnotic state a strong set of Van Zandt songs could plunge one into -- deep longing, a velvety melodious melancholy. Well, he disappeared for a very long time. The talk grew louder. Beer traveled around in giant pitchers. I sat alone, firmly holding the guitar by its neck, wondering where he had hidden his guitar case. I asked a man to see if he might have fainted in the bathroom or something (profoundly thin, Van Zandt had muttered, "I never eat" when someone offered him food) but he wasn't there. Before that evening, I'd been listening nearly nonstop to the brilliant double album, "Townes Van Zandt/Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas," (Tomato Records, 1977) -- even taping it so I could listen to it in my car immediately after listening to it in my house. I stared at the pegs on the guitar, wondering if these were the same pegs you could hear him tuning on that album between songs. Finally he materialized from the shadows, retrieved his instrument and mumbled,"Thanksalot." "Where did you go ?" I asked, and he leaned forward conspiratorially, grinning. "Aw, sometimes a man's just got to get away." Now, twenty years later, he's really gone and gotten, farther than any of us would have wanted him to go so soon. Though dying was a recurrent image in his lyrics and one of his early songs was "Waiting 'Round to Die," his death of heart failure shortly after hip surgery at the age of 52 on New Year's Day 1997, came as a terrible shock. The Texas-born Van Zandt who sang wryly of the world's love for "mingling," whose legendary lines penetrated the minds of two generations of songwriters and listeners, and whose songs were, in that odd music business way, bigger "hits" for others (Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris) than for himself, has left us. But not. When a singer/songwriter dies, leaving the intimate gift of voice behind, there's a sense we'll be listening even harder now, for clues and for comfort. "There ain't no dark till something shines/I'm bound to leave this dark behind" (from "Rex's Blues") or "Everything is not enough/Nothing is too much to bear" (from "To Live's to Fly") or ""Being born is going blind and bowing down a thousand times" (which I once regrettably misquoted as "biting down a thousand times" in an epigraph to a poem) shimmer within our own days, glittering. With the songwriter's absence, the songs take on doubled lives. And keep widening. I have yet to meet a halfhearted Van Zandt fan. People who loved his soulful music and distinctive voice really loved them-- gung-ho, with gusto. His voice made other voices seem sallow in comparison. It penetrated the bones and stayed there. His good performances attained legendary status on the spot. They were generous. His heart was in his words. Even his infamous joke-telling between songs--he enthusiastically told some of the same jokes for decades--banded his fans together. I've heard people mutter one-half line of a Van Zandt joke and slap their hands together--password! But how easy is it to be an "icon" -- as San Antonio Express-News Arts Writer Jim Beal identified him in a prominent front section obituary? How easy to write one's classic songs at a very young age, then go on singing them year after year? To be sure, Van Zandt continued to write and publish new music --his CDs "At My Window" and "No Deeper Blue" were recent recordings, containing both new songs and new versions of the old. But my guess is this veteran troubador achieving wide cult status in Europe at the time of his death may have had to sing his "Pancho and Lefty" -- famously recorded by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson-- a few more times than he might have liked to. But we still loved it. His childhood in Fort Worth, which he called "nice" but claimed to have "forgotten," apparently had little in common with the roving, more raggedy life he favored later. Born to a prominent oil family, his ancestors were among the founding families of Texas. Van Zandt County, named for them, features statues of his great-great-grandparents at its courthouse. Rumors said the law school's main building at the University of Texas, Townes Hall, also linked to his clan. He attended the University of Colorado, where he once fell four stories from a building, "really paying attention," to "see what it felt like." He wasn't hurt. In For the Sake of the Song, his 1977 songbook, Van Zandt said he "began playing guitar at 15 and learned his second chord at 21." (Published by Wings Press, a few first editions of this classic item are still available from Bryce Milligan for $15 plus $2 postage, 627 E. Guenther, San Antonio, Texas 78210). Because of his reticence regarding autobiography, it seemed particularly haunting when a foray into the Internet produced not only a startling abundance of Van Zandt data from around the world, but family photos of himself in Smyrna, Tennessee, with his wife Jeanene and their beautiful children, details of his dying day, and his own young photo which his mother kept in her drawer until her death in 1993. (It scares me to speak in codes, but our in-house technological wizard, age 10, called all this up by punching in"http://www.orst.edu/Dept/entomology/coopl/tvzindex.html -- good luck.) The day after Van Zandt's death, St. Louis music critic Roy Kasten wrote, 'His songs are about our homelessness and about always being home; it's not really a contradiction. Townes was a poet because he believed in the abracadabra of words, that their magic was as primary to being human as love and death and kindness and cruelty. . . Townes' music is a tonic. . . Townes was a relentless traveler, somehow too gentle and philosophical a man for the life he chose. But he believed in his vocation, took it seriously. Music wasn't really entertainment for him; it was trying to find that one note, that "one bit of light" that would change an audience. . . Townes played out the widest scale of existence, from birth to death, both uncommon kindness and unbearable loneliness, in a language carefully whittled, yet always of an intense, first-hand quality, as if just pouring from him." Kasten described Van Zandt's voice as "unbridled and smoked-out," among other things. Hearing that voice made one feel marked, enlarged. Maybe that's what legends do. They strike a true note, like a tuning pitch, pervading the air. It's said by many that Townes Van Zandt influenced almost every current beloved Texas singer. The number of musicians who spoke or sang at his first memorial service in Nashville suggest that. Country music writer Wiley Alexander calls him "a great talent, spectacular as a writer and singer. . .hard to replace." Others said he helped give Austin its reputation as a solid music center when he lived there. Some said his influence in Nashville was just as great. Did this mean he made as much money as everyone else? Nope. Were his early, infinitely listenable albums always easy to obtain? Nope. That's the way it is with legends. (Even in San Antonio, only alternative station KSYM can be thanked for playing him.) Nanci Griffith paid homage to Van Zandt in a packed Seattle stadium last fall. I wondered how many packed stadiums he played, or even if he liked them. Van Zandt's own frequent venues here and abroad included packed, dimly lit pubs and cafes. Austin attorney Amon Burton says, " I've never listened to any songwriter who made me feel so vulnerable. I always walked away from The Cactus after hearing Townes Van Zandt with a deep sense of how fragile we all are." I can't recall ever hearing Van Zandt act arrogant -- his understated humility, his true brew of melancholy humor, accompanied him from the Kerrville Folk Festival to Toronto to Norway. When asked by Detroit interviewer Matt Watroba how he came to write "Pancho and Lefty," he said he wrote it sitting in a chair and "if you'd been sitting in that chair, you'd a written that song. " Well - maybe. Everyone knew he drank a lot and drinking could complicate his appearances. It hurts to consider how it may have complicated the rest of his life. Though admirers often feel fierce protective urges toward their admired ones, who can say exactly what elements enhance or threaten a creative person's sensibility and where the delicate line is drawn? It is good to know he died at home, surrounded by his family. The Good Vibrations Record Store in San Antonio sponsored a Jan. 11 memorial gathering to remember Townes Van Zandt. We lit candles under a stunning new mural of his head painted just days before in 6 hours by a talented artist named Carlos who happened by. He managed well to catch the glint in Van Zandt's eye. Musicians Melissa Javors, Dow Patterson, and Bruce Gladwin, among others, sang Van Zandt songs. A few people sang their own, saying they could never do a Townes' song justice. A saxophonist named Michael O'Dowd said, "Townes was the truth and sometimes the truth is not pretty." C.J. Berkman told about Townes taking guitar lessons in Houston way-back-when from Lightnin' Hopkins. He said Townes never even got a driver's license. Master of ceremonies Joe X. Horn of the Third Coast Music Network made gracious toasts to Townes and his life, as little cups of Thunderbird wine were passed around. Stories abounded from musicians about behind-the-scenes drinking antics and gambling, but I found my mind drifting off -- drinking stories aren't very interesting in retrospect. I'm not sure they're terribly interesting even if you're there. Anyway, they aren't what was indelible about Townes Van Zandt. What satisfied, twenty years after first hearing him live, were tapes of his recent performance at San Antonio's Cibolo Creek Country Club, when the resonant voice of the man whom Dublin critic Nick Kelly called, "the Lone Star State's lonest star," filled the room. A giant hush. We will miss him very much.