Dead, Not Buried Townes Van Zandt left behind great songs for people to fight over BY ROBERT WILONSKY firstname.lastname@example.org Peter Figen Everyone says they're fighting for the sake of Van Zandt's songs. Are they really? Tom Erickson If Townes Van Zandt were alive today, even he might not know what belongs to him anymore. From the Week of Thursday, November 13, 2003 Full Frontal Star Bright Plus: Gimme Some Skin; Dude, You Owe Us, Like, $304 Stage Hungarian Rhapsody The Danube flows in unexpected directions at Kitchen Dog TheaterThe only man who knows the answers to the story below is dead--has been for six years, though even before that, he may not have been able to provide any cogent response to the questions raised and accusations made by those who now fight over the corpse. He was a drunk, a drug addict, a manic depressive who, during his final years, took to the concert stage looking as though he might drop dead at any second. What was it he sang? "I guess I keep on gamblin', lots of booze and lots of ramblin', it's easier than just a-waitin' 'round to die." All of us know we're going to kick, but there are some among us who merely live to die. Townes Van Zandt, perhaps the greatest singer-songwriter ever born in Texas, was one of those people. Some thought it romantic, even mythic; others, just pathetic. Most will tell you it was a complete fuckin' waste.
Townes Van Zandt, who came from wealthy Texas stock and a family for whom Van Zandt County is named, died of a heart attack on New Year's Day 1997 at his home just outside Nashville. He was 52 years old. He left behind a small (about 100 songs) but estimable catalog of some of the finest song-poems written during the past four decades, among them "For the Sake of the Song," "To Live is to Fly," "If I Needed You," "Tecumseh Valley" and "Pancho & Lefty." Musicians adored him, covered his songs, sang his praises, compared him to Bob Dylan; Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith are among dozens who claim him as influence, as mentor, as muse.
Van Zandt also left behind one hell of a mess. A battle over his music has raged for years in public and in private, one that has taken its toll on all involved, including an ex-wife, three children and the man who says he spent a small fortune producing Van Zandt when no one else would. This fight, over what some say are mere pennies and others claim are millions, has ruined many friendships, forced several lawsuits and grows more acrimonious each year. To wade into this story is to get drenched in muck. Every few months, it flares up as more Townes Van Zandt CDs appear on the market--some legit, some of dubious origin. It is over these dozens of albums--and who owns them, and who collects the money made from their sales--that the squabble has, over the years, escalated into a nasty little war.
On one side of this fight is Van Zandt's third wife, Jeanene, the court-appointed executrix of his estate and mother of two of his young children, William and Katie Bell. On the other is Kevin Eggers, who signed Van Zandt to a contract in 1971 but recorded him long before that--as early as 1968, when the two were introduced in Nashville by "Cowboy" Jack Clement, a legendary producer at Sun Records and writer of songs for, among others, Johnny Cash. Eggers owns Tomato Records, which claims to have in its catalog most of Van Zandt's studio albums, among them such essential works as High, Low and in Between, The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt and several live ones. Eggers says he alone owns the master tapes for Van Zandt's works and will never turn them over to Jeanene.
In between and on the sidelines are many, many others: John Townes Van Zandt II, Townes' son from his first marriage; Harold Eggers, Kevin's brother and, for more than 20 years, Townes' baby sitter; Freddy Fletcher, Willie Nelson's son-in-law and owner of a label responsible for a star-studded Van Zandt tribute album; and other attorneys and former managers and hangers-on who all add to the noise and confusion surrounding this sad story.
In short, Jeanene, who was married to Townes from 1983 until 1994, claims Eggers owes her a small fortune in unpaid royalties--just how much, she says, she isn't quite sure because there has never been a full and proper accounting of albums sold and licensed. In e-mails and interviews, she lays out her case against Eggers, claiming he has been "ripping off" Van Zandt for years by licensing his songs to domestic and foreign labels, including EMI and Rhino and U.K.-based Charly Records, as well as selling them himself. She says with few exceptions, none of those labels has paid the estate for use of the material--no publishing royalties, half of which go to the songwriter; no mechanical royalties, received for each recording sold; no nothing.
Because of the glut of Van Zandt recordings, and because this trail leads back to the late 1960s, it is awfully hard to figure out who owns what and who owes what. Eggers says it's simple: He owns everything, some of which he got as the result of a handshake deal in 1968. Others don't think it's that easy, including executives at Hollywood-based Bug Music, a publishing administrator that, for a small commission, works for songwriters to make sure they're getting paid properly every time their songs appear, well, anywhere. Bug has been trying to get to the bottom of this ownership issue since the late 1980s; so far, no such luck.
"The catalog was a mess when we signed him," says Bug's Nashville-based vice president, Dave Durocher. "Then he died, and it got even more messy. It's been an ongoing process to get the licenses issued properly. Eggers isn't paying any mechanical royalties because he claims he owns the masters. He doesn't do the right thing with the publisher. Jeanene has been going after him for Tomato royalties for years. If it wasn't so messy, it'd be easier to talk about. Even after 15 years, it's not resolved."
Jeanene, who spent the '80s and '90s trying to dry out and clean up Townes, says she merely wants what is coming to her and her children--especially William, whose lower torso was crushed a few years ago by a truck that backed over him. Living in Nashville, she says she has spent every day of the past several years chasing down what she believes belongs to her and the children, not a man she insists swindled her late ex-husband out of his money and legacy.
"What I have is this little handful of recordings," she says. "I don't give a crap about the money. I want all his masters back. I don't care. We wanna get Townes back home to the people who love him and his career. We want to get Kevin null and void. I usually get up in the morning, get to the computer till I get tired and go to bed. Nobody pays me or anything. I do this for nothing. I do this for the family. I do this for Townes."
And she has been doing it for years, well before Van Zandt died; letters from their Nashville-based attorney, Sawnie "Trip" Aldredge, to Eggers date back to October 1990. Their theme is always the same: Tell us how many albums you've sold. Tell us how much money you've made. Then give us the money and the master recordings you owe. Or else.
"There's a lot of animosity between Kevin and Jeanene, and it's not fair," Aldredge says. "I don't think it's fair on his part because it's not about Jeanene. She's the executrix of the estate, the mother of two of Townes' children. That's a mother's job, to get the money for the kids."
Aldredge began working with the Van Zandts in 1989, when Townes was negotiating with Eggers to record a fresh anthology of his old songs--some duets with famous fans and songs with updated arrangements using modern technology. It was to serve as a reminder, of sorts. The songs were ultimately recorded, but only a few have been released as the album Texas Rain: The Texas Hill Country Recordings, featuring duets with Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm and others. Tomato issued the disc to critical acclaim in 2001--against Jeanene's wishes.
Aldredge says before Van Zandt would agree to making the collection, he wanted to clear things up with Eggers, who had first signed Van Zandt to his Poppy label, then its successor, Tomato. They came up with what is ominously referred to as the "get-even agreement."
Jeanene's and Eggers' accounts of this arrangement differ substantially. Jeanene says Eggers agreed to account for domestic and international sales. That, she insists, was the only way Van Zandt agreed to work with his old friend again. Eggers' take is just the opposite. He insists he agreed to wash his hands of the $400,000 he spent recording and distributing and promoting Van Zandt during their years together. Like all things in Townes Town, every explanation has a counterpart that is its exact, maddening opposite.
Only last week, Aldredge received a call from Nashville attorney Jay Bowen, who represents Eggers. Aldredge believed Bowen was calling to straighten out this sordid mess. "Maybe somebody, somewhere, is trying to make sense out of this all," Aldredge said not long after he got the call, which he had not returned before we spoke.
He will discover, if he hasn't already, Bowen has been retained by Eggers not to straighten out issues of copyrights and royalties, but to straighten out Jeanene.
"He's put them on fuckin' notice to stop the slander, and also to challenge all their shit," Eggers says from New York City, where he has long lived in the Chelsea Hotel. "That's what he's doin'."
Eggers certainly doesn't act like a man trying to hide money, from Jeanene or anyone else. In recent years, Tomato has filed federal lawsuits in California district court to get the money and music he says others have swindled from him.
In 2001, Tomato Music Works sued Fuel 2000 Records, a subsidiary of music giant Universal, to stop the release of its double-disc Anthology: 1968-1979, which consists of 40 Van Zandt songs. Tomato insisted Universal had no rights to the recordings because they were already in the hands of another company that had reissue rights. Tomato claimed it had already struck a deal with a different North American distributor. Fuel 2000 countersued that year, stating in court documents that "this action presents an all-too-typical case of unscrupulous business tactics." Eggers denied that, and in the end, the case was settled, and Universal pulled Anthology from its catalog, though it's still available from Charly, as are dozens of other Van Zandt albums. That's why Eggers says he's getting ready to sue Charly in federal court; he insists Charly was supposed to release only three albums, not more.
In the same court is pending another suit Tomato has brought against EMI, which, since 1996, has been selling High, Low and in Between and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt as a single CD. (In the liner notes, Eggers is inaccurately referred to as a "British impresario...whose Poppy and Tomato labels, both subsumed under United Artists, were short-lived ventures.") Tomato is claiming $1 million in damages, and Eggers says the case is close to being settled. An attorney for EMI says the company hasn't even been served and will not comment on the case. "I don't know what that bullshit is," Eggers says, when told of EMI's response.
"You know what the bug up Jeanene's ass is?" Eggers says of this long-standing dispute. "She thinks she's Townes Van Zandt in a dress. She wants to be Townes Van Zandt. She hated the guy's guts when he died, and she basically wants to be him now. What can I say?...You're getting me to tell ya stuff I shouldn't even say. I don't like to engage in this crap."
Eggers knows what others say about him, and it doesn't seem to bother him, because he insists he's done right by Van Zandt, giving him plenty of money over the years--including, he says, a check for $400,000 that Townes drank, gambled and gave away over the course of a single weekend.
Eggers claims he could have bought everything from Van Zandt for $200, when he needed a heroin fix and had no money, but that he didn't because he didn't think it right. But Kevin's brother Harold did make a deal with Van Zandt for all of his live recordings, of which there are hundreds, because Harold recorded Van Zandt every single night. Harold has released many of them overseas--some decent, most capturing a man who was dead but didn't yet admit it. (A Universal subsidiary is releasing one, the made-in-1995 Live at McCabe's, November 18.) Jeanene would also like to see those recordings taken off the market, as they serve only to dilute the legacy.
Kevin Eggers says he lost a fortune recording and promoting Van Zandt over the years, and says album sales will bear this out. Figures provided by Soundscan, which tallies album sales for the music-biz trade magazine Billboard, reveal that Van Zandt sells only a handful of discs each week. Last week, Tomato's 2002 best-of moved a mere 57 copies; Texas Rain, only 39. Most of the others are in single digits, some of them a big zero.
"They say I'm a villain, yeah," Eggers says. "But you know what? I'm the only one who bellied up to the bar. Fuckin' made the records, supported him for many years, was his friend. He died a friend of mine. He apologized to me for what he did to me. People like to get their names in print and shoot their mouths off, and I can't stop 'em. I can't stop the [journalists] who want to read into things about what's going on...It's a joke. Townes kept his legacy going, as far as just fucking things up."
There is one album everyone will admit has been a disaster: Poet, a 2001 tribute album put together by Freddy Fletcher that features Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and other singer-songwriter notables. Fletcher admits that even though the album has moved about 53,000 copies, the family has not received a single penny in royalties. He blames this on the now-defunct Cleveland-based label FreeFalls Entertainment, which released the disc. Fletcher says sales of Poet were used to pay off a debt with a distributor, and that Fletcher is working with Bug Music to take care of the money it owes to the Van Zandt estate.
"It's an unfortunate situation because our whole purpose in doing the record was for J.T. and Will and Katie Bell to be able to put money in their pockets," Fletcher says. "I contacted Bug to say we're getting a total release from FreeFalls and do something else and sign all the proceeds to the Van Zandts, which is appropriate. They rightfully deserve the money on the 50,000 records. That's theirs, no matter what happened."
In a story rife with ironies, it is perhaps most appropriate that the person who seems to care the least about all this fighting is the man in his late 20s named after Townes Van Zandt, a man who looks so much like his father: J.T. Van Zandt. He has pursued his own career as a musician and long ago tried to put this fighting behind him, lest it take him down the same ruinous path plowed by the old man he barely knew during his childhood. When he speaks of this situation, his quotes sound like his father's song lyrics--like everyday words turned into elegant, angry poems about the mean things people do to each other in the pursuit of money and in the name of love.
Make no mistake: He wants whatever money's coming to him and Will and Katie Bell. But more than that, he wants the fight to go away--and with it, those who brought it about in the first place.
"I live day to day without giving any thought to what might be owed to me," he says from his home in Austin. "The biggest thing that helps me to that place is Townes' music, in place of a dead father. I can't imagine there's anything more valuable out there than that. I feel the power of truth when I walk in there and am around these people. They shiver and scoot around like vermin or snakes, and I have the power to look in their eyes. I would be lying to say I don't give a damn about it, but you can live and make your brain focus on just that or you can enjoy a sunny day."
dallasobserver.com | originally published: November 13, 2003
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