A long essay about Townes - by Roy Kasten
As posted to the about-townes mail list
about-townes: A long essay about Townes
25 Jul 1997 18:59:33 -0500
I haven't contributed much to this list as of late, but here's a long essay
about Townes (including reviews of the two Sugar Hill releases) which will
appear in a future (near, I hope) edition of The St. Louis Riverfront Times.
Subscribers to Postcard2 will recognize much of it, but hopefully won't mind
deleting my prose once again.
Please direct any comments or criticisms to me, off-list.
A year ago I saw Townes Van Zandt at the Old Town School of Folk Music in
Chicago, one of the strangest nights of my life. His performance was an
auto-auto-da-fe, a physical collapse that left his audience unsettled and a
little fearful. His hands looked weathered as the bluesmen he emulated, and
his body was like a thin shadow cast on a wall. He'd been drinking, of
course. His strums staggered, he rubbed his chin and touched his mouth, lost
in something far off. The night before, tangled in his guitar cord, he had
fallen, a weird premonition of the falls that would eventually lead to the
blood clot that killed him last January. When he tried to sing a Lightning
Hopkins tune, he winced and half-whispered, "I'm bleeding from the inside."
He said he couldn't play anymore, but agreed to try "Pancho and Lefty."
With the first lines of his best known song, "Livin' on the road, my friend,
was gonna keep you free and clean / now you wear your skin like iron / and
your breath's as hard as kerosene," Van Zandt's voice turned calm and
confident. With the next lines, "you weren't your mama's only boy, but her
favorite one it seems," his voice rose with a pentecostal fervor, and though
he'd sung "Pancho and Lefty" a thousand times, that night he gave it the
passion and purity of a man's final testament. His voice was always
vulnerable, unbridled, smoked-out, but it could do that rare thing: transfix
an audience and communicate the spirit of his whole restless life.
When the night was over, I went upstairs where Townes and a few fans sat in a
circle smoking and drinking, trading songs. After a while Guy Clark (who had
also been on the bill) scotched Townes' request to gamble one last time and
headed out. I got up to go too. I shook Townes' long, hard hand, and he
looked me in the eyes. "Things are gonna get a whole lot worse," he said.
"But you're gonna be o.k., you got good eyes." He held my hand too long and
in my discomfort I thought, "Townes, I gotta get back to planet Earth now."
Now I think about those words, shamelessly dramatic and far too intimate to be
given to a stranger, and imagine he meant not just that the future was black,
but that this hard present will suffice, must suffice, and that by the simple
light of our own eyes, it can become well and sane and beautiful.
That is the dark, marvelous realism of Van Zandt's songs, how unimaginable and
how true and how they always touch the heart with an arrow's accuracy. And
they yield meanings over time.
Ride the blue wind high and free
she'll lead you down through misery
leave you low, come time to go
alone and low as low can be
His songs are about our homelessness and about always being home; it's not
really a contradiction. Townes believed in the abracadabra of words, that
their magic was as primary to being human as love and death and kindness and
He suffered from, at the very least, a relentless manic depression and an
addiction to alcohol, his preferred medication. A relentless traveler, Van
Zandt was somehow too gentle and philosophical a man for the life he chose.
But he believed in his vocation: music wasn't an entertainment; it was trying
to find that one note, that "one bit of light" that would change an audience.
His songs play along the widest scale of experience, 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. As
a singer he was technically very weak, and yet he was his own best
He wrote few hit songs, but he offered some of the finest human documents
we'll ever have: "To Live is to Fly," "White Freightliner Blues," "If I Needed
You," and "Pancho and Lefty" have become virtual standards in bluegrass and
folk circles. But his records, originally released on Tomato and now mostly
distributed through Ryko, are becoming rather hard to find. Happily then come
two recent releases on Sugar Hill, *Rear View Mirror* and *The Highway Kind.*
The first catches the troubadour live, his true element, and at a vocal and
instrumental peak. Recorded in 1979 at the Blue Onion in Norman, Oklahoma
(the liner notes, oddly enough, neglect these details), Van Zandt is joined by
Danny Rowland on guitar and Owen Cody on fiddle; they draw out melodies and
colors ideally. Soundboard buzz creeps in occasionally, and the hushed warmth
of *Live at the Old Quarter* (another 1979 [1973 actually - LC] recording, his best) isn't quite
here. Nonetheless this CD contains definitive versions of "Pancho and Lefty,"
"Dollar Bill Blues," "Lungs," "Flying Shoes," and "Waiting Round to Die." It
will amaze those new to Van Zandt and satisfy his devotees as well.
*The Highway Kind*, on the other hand, is a rough etching of Townes at the
end. It mixes unreleased studio recordings from 1995 (covers of "Lost
Highway" and "Wreck on the Highway") and solo versions of three songs from *No
Deeper Blue,* plus obscure originals ("My Proud Mountains" and "Rake") and
songs by friends (Guy Clarks's "Dublin Blues"). It is a harsh, black record,
a death letter from an artist in his twilight, his voice nearly destroyed by
hard living but still capable, on good nights, of cutting power. To hear the
spare "Lover's Lullabye" (mislabled as "A Song For") is to taste ecstasy; to
hear the stumbling "Darcy Farrow" is simply unnecessary. Those new to his
work should first look into *Rear View Mirror,* then to his many studio
recordings, and when satisfied with Townes in his prime, perhaps then, only
then, should they turn to these late, trembling recordings.
Van Zandt died too young but I wonder, given the intensity of his spirit, if
it could have been otherwise. One of the first songs he ever wrote is
"Waitin' Round to Die." It's cruel and honest and hard to listen to. Like
death--and just as compelling. But Van Zandt's music never dwelled too long
in the dark, and always turned back towards an illuminating praise of his, and
Mother thinks the road is long and lonely
Little brother thinks the road is straight and fine
Little darlin' thinks the road is soft and lovely
I'm thankful that old road's a friend of mine