Collected Reviews - To Live's to Fly - The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt by John Kruth

published by Da Capo Press (March 30, 2007)

as posted to about-townes and TheHighwayKind mail-lists.


  1. Review by Lacey Galbraith - Mar 5, 2007
  2. Townes Van Zandt: The Self-Destructive Hobo Saint - Sing Out magazine
  3. Van Zandt Biography Is Chaotic - By Scott Bauer (Apr 6, 2007)
  4. Review by Kevin Lynch ©The Capital Times Madison Wisc (Mar 22, 2007)

New Townes Bio
Posted by: "Aleksandar Lazarevic"   flying_shoe
Mon Mar 5, 2007 2:40 pm (PST)

For the Sake of the Song
A new biography captures the self-destructive genius of Townes Van Zandt

by Lacey Galbraith

To Live's to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van zandt
By John Kruth
(Da Capo Press, 320 pp., $26) Aspiring musicians, songwriters and anyone
involved with Nashville Star, please take heed of the following from Townes
Van Zandt, writer of such classics as "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed
You": "You have to get yourself a guitar or a piano; guitars are easier to
carry. And then you have to blow off everything else. You have to blow off
your family. You have to blow off comfort. You have to blow off money. You
have to blow off security. You have to blow off your ego. You have to blow
off everything except your guitar. You have to sleep with it. Learn how to
tune it. And no matter how hungry you get, stick with it. You'll be amazed
at how many people turn away."

Turn away they will-where's the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Townes Van
Zandt didn't swear off excess-stories of his alcoholic binges and
hell-raising have achieved apocryphal status-but he did respect his craft.
As singer Joe Ely says in the recently published To Live's to Fly: The
Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt by biographer John Kruth, "Townes
didn't seem to do anything for any reason except for the purpose of writing
another song. He came on this earth to play music."

Kruth is also the author of Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan
Roland Kirk, and in this biography of Van Zandt- who died New Year's Day
1997-he portrays a man whose creative talent and giant heart were both his
making and his undoing. In an interview with Kruth, Guy Clark describes Van
Zandt's songwriting as a continual question: "[H]ow close can you cut it to
your own bone? Did you break your own heart? Did you scare the shit out of
yourself? That's what matters. Townes went for the passion, not a bunch of
clever bullshit."

To Live's to Fly is an authorized biography, and Kruth had access to those
who knew Van Zandt best, including his children, ex-wives and his many
friends. In fact, it appears that Kruth may have sought out everyone Van
Zandt ever knew during his 52 years on this earth, an indication of the
profound effect Van Zandt had on others. Musician David Olney says, "No
matter how long you talked with him, he left you with the feeling it was
really real somehow and worth remembering in some detail. That was the most
unique thing about his personality. He gave so many people the feeling of
having been close to him."

Kruth writes with a well-versed casualness, as if he and the reader were on
familiar terms. On occasion, the distance closes further and Kruth becomes a
character himself-either an attempt to raise the situational drama, or, as
in the case of one interview with a curmudgeonly and tequila-drinking Guy
Clark, a lesson in journalistic perseverance. But when Kruth deconstructs
the songs recorded on Van Zandt's many albums, including several released
posthumously, it's with the ear of a critic and fellow musician; he's not
merely an adoring fan.

Perspective is critical, for Van Zandt lived the advice he gave, a lifestyle
easily romanticized. Born into a respected family with founding ties to
Texas, Van Zandt, according to Kruth, "blew off all the comforts and
opportunities of his upper-middle-class background, believing that real-life
experience was infinitely more valuable than a paycheck or emotional
stability. He was simply not the kind of writer to observe human nature
safely through a keyhole. Life, in all its messy drama, fueled his songs,
and he threw himself into the thick of it every chance he got." For Van
Zandt, this meant spending months on the road, consuming large amounts of
hard liquor and clinically dying twice, before making it to the hospital
after a heroin overdose. Reading To Live's to Fly is like experiencing a
30-year bender by proxy.

Sharply intelligent, contradictory, and eerily spiritual, Van Zandt lived a
life that's romantic only from a distance. To idealize is to reduce Van
Zandt to his addiction, and he was more than an alcoholic. Going beyond the
colorful anecdote, Kruth shows that when someone's writing lyrics as poetic
and narrative as Van Zandt's, a complicated personality comes with the
territory. "Townes was morose in his lyrics, but he was not a morose person.
He had a great sense of humor," Van Zandt's former producer, Cowboy Jack
Clement, tells Kruth. Kruth paints Van Zandt's career as a Sisyphean
struggle to write and perform despite limited radio play and little
recognition from mainstream audiences. Yet the list of musicians citing the
talented Van Zandt as a major influence is long and telling: Rodney Crowell,
Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, the late Mickey Newbury,
Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, Margo and Michael Timmins of the Cowboy
Junkies, and that's just a start. "Townes was like some weird cosmic unit
for humanity. We don't know why he was here, other than to write songs,"
Jeanene Van Zandt says of her ex-husband. "He was vital to our existence."
________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________


Excerpt from Sing Out magazine Townes Van Zandt: The Self-Destructive Hobo Saint A TVZ article by John Kruth

Wherever the road led him on his brief fifty-two year tour of this sad and beautiful planet, Townes Van Zandt's reputation had a way of preceding him. He was a living legend albeit more often than not an unknown one. Van Zandt was a rambler, gambler, hell-bent drunk and arguably the greatest American songwriter of his day. The first time Emmylou Harris laid eyes on him in the late sixties, at Folk City in Greenwich Village, she swore Van Zandt was the re-incarnation of Hank Williams but with a twist. That twist to which Emmylou referred was Van Zandts incandescent lyrics, which he expressed with pristine imagery and harrowing honesty.

John Townes Van Zandt came kickin and screamin into this life on March 7, 1944 in Fort Worth Texas. A true Texan, Townes kin were both oil barons and cattle rustlers. He wasn't born to money as much as history. Van Zandt County in west Texas had been christened in honor of his father's illustrious ancestors (Isaac, who was sent by Sam Houston to Washington cut the deal to annex Texas and Keebler, a General who built banks and brought the railroad to Fort Worth).

Townes was named in honor of John Charles Townes, his great-grandfather on his mothers side, for whom Townes Hall, the main building at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, was memorialized.

Old snapshots of Townes as a child reveal a Cub Scout with a mischievous look, and dark sparkling eyes. "I had a nice childhood and all that. I dont remember it, but that's what I've been told," he once joked. Van Zandt's remark is not as flippant as it might seem. As a teenager his memory was irreparably fogged by a series of electro-shock treatments after being diagnosed as manic-depressive with schizophrenic tendencies.

But before the evils of modern psychiatry took its toll, something just as powerful had zapped him. On September 9th, 1956 Townes Van Zandt suddenly came down with a serious case of rockin pneumonia. Like the rest of his generation, he sat before his TV set mesmerized by the sight of Elvis Presley in a loud plaid jacket and shiny pompadour singing Dont Be Cruel on the Ed Sullivan Show.

That just flipped me out! Townes later exclaimed. He didnt quite seem real you know? Watching The King, Townes had a sudden revelation I realized you could make a living just playing the guitar. Elvis had all the money in the world and all the cars and girls he wanted.

Van Zandt soon became infatuated with a slew of rock and rollers from Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis to the Everly Brothers and the hard knocks country crooner Johnny Cash. That Christmas his father gave him a guitar under the condition that Townes would learn the old folk chestnut Fraulein.

He spent his youth moving around the country with his family as his dad went from job to job Texas, Illinois, Montana, Colorado until his last two years of high school when his parents sent him to the exclusive Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota, where Townes got what he later described as a real serious private prep school ivy-covered education. In actuality Van Zandt was a hell raising punk with a reputation for tossing cherry bombs down dormitory toilets, causing the pipes to burst and freeze over in the dead of a Minnesota winter.

Discovering the blues as a teenager most likely saved Townes from juvenile delinquency. He soon became obsessed with Texas blues masters Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin Hopkins. Although they both hailed from the Lone Star State, their music was as different as night and day. Lipscomb was known for clean picking and a humble, earthy delivery while Lightnins fiery style seemed inspired from a hotter, more supernatural place than the Piney Woods. Townes hunted down Hopkins obscure albums and played them repeatedly in hopes of learning some of Lightnins slippery licks. It wasnt just Hopkins guitar that spoke to Townes, but the raw poetry of his hard life as a sharecropper and a gambler that inspired him like the mystical scripture of a forgotten religion.

Townes influences were literary as well as musical. He voraciously read poetry by Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.

Townes was a genius, with an IQ way above 140, claimed Fran Lohr, his first wife. But like the parents of most geniuses, Townes folks hoped their son would settle down some day and have some sort of normal life, which in the Van Zandt family meant becoming a lawyer or politician and living in Texas. But thankfully it was never meant to be.

In 1962 Van Zandt enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder majoring in economics which seems particularly ironic, as throughout his life Townes had an apparent disdain of money, with which he freely gambled or gave to the homeless.

As a college freshman in the early sixties, Van Zandt began to display some rather strange behavior. He often locked himself in his apartment for days at a time. Taking the phone off the hook; hed down a bottle of Bali Hai wine and play his guitar for hours and hours. Repeatedly spinning records by Lightnin' Hopkins, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, Van Zandt would study his heroes every nuance. After a week in isolation hed be ready for some action again and would throw a big party. At one particularly wild shindig Townes sat teetering on the edge of his fourth floor balcony, leaning over backwards, just see what it felt like all the way up to when you lost control and were falling, he later recalled.

I realized that to do it, I'd have to fall. But I said I'm going to do it anyway. So I started leaning back really slow, and really paying attention. I 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 screaming. I had a bottle of wine, and I stood up. Hadn't spilled any wine. Felt no ill effects whatsoever. Meanwhile all the people jammed onto the elevator, and when the doors opened, they knocked me over coming out. And it hurt more being knocked over than falling four stories.

Any party animal with half a brain could see that Townes had taken things a bit too far. Fearing he might not be so lucky next time, a friend secretly called his parents, and informed them of their sons excessive behavior.

By the spring of his sophomore year the Van Zandts flew to Boulder from Houston to retrieve their wild child. Townes soon wound up with a case of the sanitarium blues, committed to the University of Texas Medical Branch Hospital in Galveston where he received three months of insulin shock therapy. Fran considered this treatment an extreme measure for what she maintained were the pranks of a normal college student.

Downplaying the story, Townes later told journalist Robert Greenfield he had staged a student breakdown in order to dodge the Vietnamese draft.

Back in Texas in the spring of 65, Townes enrolled at the University of Houston in pre-law, pledging at a frat that he would later satirize unmercifully in a hilarious talking blues number called Fraternity Blues. But he didnt last long with the preppy crowd. It seems that much to the chagrin of his frat brothers Van Zandt failed to bubble with enthusiasm.

Townes found himself torn between an over-whelming sense of obligation to finish law school and lead a normal life with Fran and his romantic dream of becoming a folk troubadour. He began playing local bars and coffeehouses like the Old Quarter and Sand Mountain Caf. Rex (AKA Wrecks) Bell, Van Zandts friend of 30 years and an original co-owner of the Old Quarter, first met Townes on-stage one night at the Sand Mountain. Bell remembers Van Zandt artfully dodging the club's no alcohol policy by tying a jug of wine to a rope and dangling it out of a nearby window.

Townes admitted his early songs were basically humorous ditties designed to keep the drunks at the bar happy. Numbers like Talking Thunderbird Blues and the a-fore mentioned Fraternity Blues are tightly knit narratives reflecting his life as a floundering student and an aspiring derelict. His lively guitar picking and tongue and cheek delivery was clearly inspired by the talking blues of Ramblin Jack Elliot and early Bob Dylan.

I started writing funny songs, not dirty songs, but funny barroom types just to get the audience, he once recalled. I was playing beer joints and used to play folk songs and it got a bit rowdy. They wanted some funny songs and I hadnt got any, so I wrote some. Then I wrote serious songs. It used to be a problem that they were too serious for a lot of people.

Van Zandts songs soon began to mirror the down and out drifters he befriended. Waitin Around to Die, a stark Appalachian style ballad sprang from the lonely drone of an A minor chord and the experience of spending an afternoon drinking with an old man at the Jester Lounge. A few weeks later Townes wrote the lovely, lilting For the Sake of the Song by candle light in his lonely room above the Sand Mountain Cafe, where proprietor Ma Carrick let musicians stay for five dollars a week.

But it was Bob Dylans defiant anthem of the new generation, The Times They Are A-Changin that inspired Townes to take his job as a songwriter more seriously. That did it to me, he exclaimed. I realized, man, you can write songs that really do make a difference. Suddenly Townes devoted himself to the idealistic mission of saving the world with a song. Id like to alter the course of the Universe, make it a happier place, he once mused. No death. No disease. No depression. Nobody getting older All the babies would get older, but once they start getting too much older they die. Im not sure how exactly to do this. I havent made my move yet.

In the meantime Van Zandt slept on floors and couches, and even ate dog food when things got tough (although his third wife Jeanene refutes this tale as a hoax perpetuated by a journalist after Townes shared a Gaines Burger with his dog Geraldine in an attempt to fluster him).

Townes soon found himself opening shows for musical legends like Doc Watson and Lightnin Hopkins. While his peers sang old English folk ballads and wrote glorified visions of the driftin way of life, Townes dove in headfirst, experiencing that life first hand. He thrived living on the edge and miraculously survived longer than most people expected to sing about it.

Frank Beard, drummer for those bad boys of the Texas boogie electric, ZZ Top, recalled flopping by a hippie crash pad in Houston one night back in 1973 only to find Townes lying face down on a mattress with no sheets on it. Van Zandt had downed a pint of Southern Comfort and was out cold just hours before his gig. Although Beard prodded him a couple times with the toe of his cowboy boot, he still couldnt rouse more than a groan out of Townes.

Right then I knew I had to go see him that night cause I knew he was gonna be good, Frank reckoned.

I thought his songs were great! He was a cool guy and a definite nudge in the right direction. I figured Jesus Christ, if he can do that, so can I, and I started writing, Van Zandts old pal Guy Clark recollected.

Clark credited Townes for single-handedly transforming Houston from a town filled with folk musicians doing traditional songs and Kingston Trio hits into a town of original songwriters.

But Townes was always quick to credit a greater power as the source of his songwriting abilities. He truly believed that his songs came from out of the sky and would suddenly shoot through him like a lightning bolt. Van Zandt merely wrote them down as they occurred.

It just goes from the top of my head out my right arm, Townes once explained, attempting to describe his supernatural inspiration. He often felt slammed upon, hit between the eyeballs, out of the blue by the muse. Some of my songs, I just felt like I had nothing to do with. It was like, god, my arms tired, what did I write?

Lauded as the James Joyce of Texas songwriters and the Van Gogh of lyrics by Billboard Magazine, Townes Van Zandt lived the life of a wandering bard, scribbling down lyrics on placemats and napkins in coffee shops and old truck stops. He wrote sitting by the side of the road, in train stations, airports and taxicabs - some of the loneliest places on earth. There was a certain kind of purity to his lyrics, an underlying formality that few of his peers possessed. His song writing often evoked old English ballads and employed double prepositions like for to go, giving an Elizabethan touch to tunes like If I Needed You.

With his knowledge of poetry and ability to employ poetical devices, folksinger Eric Andersen likened Townes to writers like Charles Dickens and Delmore Schwartz than most contemporary songwriters.

Guy also believed his friends lyrics transcended the function of songwriting and achieved the stature of literature. For Townes the songs had to work on paper as well, Clarks wife Susanna claimed.

Townes writing style was really clean, widdled down to the bone. Every word had a purpose there were never any throwaway lines. He had a knack for finding simple melodies, Jerry Jeff Walker pointed out.

Some of them are easier to understand on paper than they are listening to them, Guy added. But they work both ways. Nothing was thrown away in his writing just to get a rhyme. It was pretty stream of consciousness. It was coming from a place thats really hard to get to.

Dreams have always been a reliable resource for writers, musicians and painters. But its rare when the gift is carried across the threshold fully intact from the dream world into our waking reality. All too often upon awakening we are left with fragments and meaningless images that, although glowing with inspiration from another dimension, are for the most part useless on the earth plane.

Van Zandt claimed to have written his hit song If I Needed You while sound asleep, waking up just long enough to scribble it down and then pass out again. The story goes that after coming down with the flu while staying at Guy and Susannas humble Nashville abode, Townes was elected, after drawing the short straw, to amble down to the corner drugstore for a pint of codeine cough syrup. The trio soon polished off the sticky narcotic cocktail and retired for the night.

Stretching out on his mattress in the closet-sized guestroom Townes immediately zonked out. Stumbling down the sidewalk of his subconscious, Van Zandt had a remarkable dream that night, in blazing Technicolor as he later recalled it. He was a folksinger on stage, singing a strange and beautiful new song. The dream was so vivid that he sat right up in bed and wrote the lyrics down just as they had come to him only moments before. The melody rang in his head so clearly he knew hed have no trouble remembering it the following morning. So he pulled the blankets over his head and fell back to sleep.

The next morning Susanna and Guy sat around the kitchen table in a fog, sipping coffee. Eventually Townes sauntered in, disheveled, with his guitar. Hey yall, listen to this, he said as the song just rolled off his tongue and fingers as if hed been playing it for years. Of course they loved it. When did you write that? they asked. Last night, Townes replied. The bemused couple looked at him doubtfully and explained it wasnt possible as hed gone to bed before them and in their tiny house they surely wouldve heard him working away in the middle of the night.

Country rocker Steve Earle believed the melody and endearing lyrics were a rare, once in a lifetime gift, given to a very few. Five years later, in 1982, Emmylou Harris and Don Williams lilting cover of If I Needed You shot to number three on the country charts.

Townes was a completely ornery guy, Joe Ely said with a chuckle. He didn't seem to do anything for any reason except for the purpose of writing another song. He came on this earth to play music, and it didn't matter what shape he was in, he always damn well fulfilled his goal. And he affected a lot of people by doing it.

No matter what condition he was in, Townes had the songs and was guaranteed to move his audience. From Austin to Amsterdam small crowds sat entranced, hanging on every word while he sang, deep in concentration with his eyes shut tight.

He had a very devoted following all over the world. Those songs meant a lot to people, Eric Andersen said. Townes was arguably the most important southern song-poet since Hank Williams. He had a lot of sympathy for the human condition. He wasnt interested in tryin to get rich or make money. He just wanted to play.

Townes had a huge effect on me! Jimmie Dale Gilmore exclaimed. There was such a high level of quality in his lyrics. He effected us all - Guy and Rodney (Crowell). He set the standards. He was relentlessly great. I cannot understand people why don't appreciate him! He also happened to be one of my favorite singers. He touched me at my most tender point. I put him on a par with Hank Williams.

Anybody who cant recognize the genius of Townes Van Zandt, I dont want to spend more than five minutes talking to them, legendary songwriter Mickey Newbury put it bluntly. How could it get much better than No Place to Fall or Our Mother the Mountain? Hes the real deal. Townes songs contained some of the most beautiful imagery Ive ever heard in my life!

The flip side of all that beautiful imagery would often rear its ugly head in the form of bouts of debilitating depression that rivaled scenes from the Coen Brothers movies, whose harrowing (but oddly humorous) visions included Fargo and Barton Fink. Van Zandt would suddenly feel overcome by a total loss of meaning and motivation.

Townes carries the terror and the sorrow of a sensitive man who has looked into the abyss and seen the abyss. Lola Scobey once observed. Donna (Van Zandt) Spence believed her little brothers problems stemmed from his extreme sensitivity, You and I would hear about a starving person and go about our lives, but it would just break his heart, she said.

Eric Andersen claimed that Townes battle with addiction (tobacco, alcohol, cough syrup, heroin, gambling, you name it...) went far beyond rowdy parties. Eric believed it was inherent to Van Zandts persona. If you take a look at most creative people, whether theyre writers, painters or musicians, any incandescent talent or anybody who really feels deeply or sees far, within three feet of them youll find a bottle or a vial. From Proust to Baudelaire to Rimbaud to Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Take a look at Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Mozart, Andersen said. None of these people could take it straight. They all did drugs just to attain equilibrium, just to feel normal. In Townes case, it was about maintenance. He wasnt getting high. He didnt enjoy it.

Townes has really inspired me to become a better songwriter. He really had his antennas up! Chris Robinson (former singer of the Black Crowes) exclaimed. Theres an intimacy with his songs, like hes standin up there naked with just his guitar, doin it like he said, for the sake of the song. Townes really knew how break it down to its most honest and human level. His sad songs are the most beautiful ones. In writing those songs Van Zandt helped many people deal with their problems and sorrow, Chris said earnestly. Theyre just part of life, whether you choose to deal with it or not and writing those kind of songs is a great way to deal with it. You have to have them.

In 1990 the laconic rockers the Cowboy Junkies launched an extensive four-month tour of North America taking Townes along on their bus as the opening act. Wed been touched by his music long before we ever met him, Michael Timmons confessed. He was a huge inspiration to us as a songwriter. Theres so much poetry in his lyrics yet at the same time theyre really down-home. Hes got a beautiful use of words and at the same time he really cuts to the bone. Thats what Ive always loved about Townes work. The weird thing is, I have so many favorites, theres at least twenty or thirty brilliant songs. Flying Shoes, If I Needed You, Tecumseh Valley are all real classic. As a person he was a real complex guy. He carried a lot of demons around with him. At the same time he was a really, really gentle soul, a gentle character on many levels. He was a very unique spirit. I talked with Jimmie Dale Gilmour about him and we both agreed the only reason Townes stayed alive as long as he did was that he had more songs to write. That was the only thing that kept him on this earth. He had this spirit that really shouldnt have been here. He was much too sensitive for this world. The (universal) power kept him grounded here so these songs could be channeled through him and given to us. When those songs were done it was time for him to go.

Townes songs have a subtle way of sucking you in. You suddenly realize you find you cant read the Sunday paper and listen to Tecumseh Valley at the same time. You can barely even sip your coffee. Townes demands your complete attention, and a live performance was like doubling the dosage. On stage Van Zandt had the magnetism of Bela Lugosis Dracula, beckoning his hapless victims to come. Listen to his classic album Live At The Old Quarter not to Townes but to his audience. He put a pack of wild hell-raisers under a spell and kept them there until the last note rang from his guitar. At the end of his first song, a gentle reading of Pancho and Lefty, Van Zandt commented, Ive never heard it so quiet in here, sounding astonished.

Townes had dozens of stories about how his famous outlaw ballad Pancho and Lefty came about. In one version Van Zandt couldnt find a motel within thirty miles of Dallas because the Guru Maharaji and Billy Graham, along with thousands of their faithful flock were both in town at the same time and there was no room at the inn for the weary Texas troubadour.

Although it was years before he saw any royalty checks Townes reaped the benefits of writing the song when he got nabbed, speeding through the small town of Berkshire while driving from Houston up to Austin. A pair of state highway patrolmen pulled his old hippie-hauler over to the side of the road to give it the once over. Van Zandt couldnt remember if he had anything questionable in the car but as a rule of thumb he always considered himself felonious when moving. They soon discovered Townes inspection sticker had expired and his drivers license, although miraculously up to date, had the wrong address. Van Zandt suddenly found himself in the back seat of their patrol car playing twenty questions, when he noticed his captors were different as night and day. One was a blue-eyed Aryan with a short blonde crew cut while the other was Mexican. Townes suddenly felt like a guest star on an episode of Chips.

What is it that you do for a living? the cops began to grill him. Im a traveling folksinger and songwriter, Townes replied, knowing it was tantamount to a plea of guilty. Then taking his best shot Van Zandt inquired if they were familiar with a song called Pancho & Lefty? I wrote that song and gave it to Willie. he said proudly. They looked at him incredulously. But their doubt soon melted away as Townes began to sing the first verse, Livin on the road my friend was gonna keep you free and clean.

The two cops began to grin and then turned around for another conference in the front seat. Meanwhile Townes waited quietly, tryin to be as nice as possible, not sayin a word and tryin not to even smell bad. A moment later the Aryan announced that the speeding charge had been dropped, but reminded Townes to file for the address change as soon as he got back to Austin. Were gonna have to get you for an inspection sticker, cause weve already written it down, the cop apologized. But that will only be about five bucks.

Grateful, Townes thanked the officers for letting him off. Van Zandt knew well the old code of the road, that once a cop lets you go, you say thanks and keep your mouth shut and split before you stir up any more trouble. But he just couldnt leave well enough alone. Townes had to know why they dropped the charges. It turned out that their radio code names were Pancho and Lefty.

Well, that sure is nice, Townes said, grinning as he walked away. But just before he reached his old heap curiosity got the best of him again. Knowing he was playing with fire, Townes turned around and asked Which one of yall is Pancho? The Mexican pointed to the Aryan and said, He is!

Van Zandt knew it is whats left unsaid that often haunts us most. He never divulges whether Pancho and Lefty were friends or a pair of desperados bound together by some ill-fated scheme. Their relationship is purposely vague. Some speculate that Lefty turned Pancho in, but we never find out anything more other than what he tells us. Pancho bites the dust in the cold, quiet desert while Lefty lives out the rest of his life in a cheap Cleveland hotel after doing whatever it was he had to do. The tale clearly implies a betrayal. The song forever remains an enigma, which is essential to its enduring beauty.

You won't find a song thats better written, that says more or impresses songwriters more, Steve Earle claimed.

Richard Thompson, the great guitarist and author of a catalog of brilliant songs that includes the outlaw opus Vincent Black Lightning openly admitted his affection for Pancho and Lefty. Sharing Van Zandts opinion that songs are otherworldly gifts, Thompson claimed Townes got some of the best songs of the century.

According to Townes Pancho and Lefty just floated in through a window one day after he made himself sit at a table until he wrote a new song. Van Zandt believed anybody couldve done it. They just had to be sitting in the right chair.

Whenever an aspiring songwriter questioned him about his artistic process Townes jokingly suggested they get themselves a guitar as its much easier to carry around than a piano. Then came the rap that had most neophytes quickly searching for the exit sign. You have to blow off everything else, he explained. You have to blow off your family. You have to blow off comfort. You have to blow off money. You have to blow off security. You have to blow off your ego. You have to blow off everything except your guitar. You have to sleep with it. Learn how to tune it. And no matter how hungry you get, stick with it.

The level of Townes commitment to his art frightened most people. Townes was a brave soul, Guy Clark said with a sigh. Very few people are willing to go that deep and take a hard look at the darkness. Nobody cut it that close to the bone. He went for the passion, not a bunch of clever bullshit.

His sad songs gave that wonderful capacity to make a depressed person feel better, singer/songwriter Paul K said. Townes Van Zandt is a hero to me because he is no longer here, because his forthrightness hurts my shoulders, and because his lyrics make me cry. Townes gave us more classic songs than Robert Johnson and Jerry Garcia put together.

Perhaps the greatest praise for Townes came from Steve Earle, who as a young kid was in so awe of Van Zandt he carried his guitar case just to be in the mans presence. Townes Van Zandt's the best songwriter in the world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that! Earle declared. Townes appreciated his friends sentiment but after seeing Bob's bodyguards he assured Steve he didn't think it would be such a good idea.

It makes me nervous, Van Zandt once quipped. Ive met Bob Dylans bodyguards and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylans coffee table, hes sadly mistaken.

Accolades aside, Townes knew very well where he stood in the big picture. Im in competition with Mozart, Beethoven, Lightnin Hopkins, The Rolling Stones, and the Lord. I cant just make up some silly song and put it out there, he once said.

That was another mystery to Townes, Jimmie Dale marveled. He had this tremendous output even when he was completely dead drunk around the clock. I don't know how he did it! How could he write those songs when he was so drunk all the time?

Townes had a reputation for being wild and he was, but I always had the impression he knew exactly what he was doing and how far it was goin even when he was too drunk. He was always on the edge of control, but hed lose it a few times. It was just his sense of humor, which was a real Texas sense of humor, Guy Clark pointed out.

Me, Richard Dobson and Skinny Dennis were a bunch of bachelor songwriters livin in Nashville with this juggler and a trapeze artist. Whenever Townes showed up the whole scene would revolve around him. He had an unspoken magnetism. Whenever he walked into a room the water would start runnin in a different direction! Rodney Crowell said with a laugh. Like Miles Davis, Townes could be awfully intimidating. I mean look how smart he was and how connected he was to his art. With that comes a swagger. The image of Townes from the early seventies that still sticks with me today is that of a swaggerin dude. Townes was a freewheelin ramblin gamblin troubadour, the wandering minstrel, and the high stakes dude. But when it came to gambling, I think it was about the act. It wasnt about winning.

Like his hero Hank Williams, Townes predicted he would only achieve fame after death. Proving himself a master of divinity, Van Zandt died on New Year's Day, 1997, the same day as Hank, 44 years later. Most of his friends were surprised that Van Zandt even made it as far as he did.

Both men live in their music, as if singing and writing and being human were the same thing and as natural as breathing, wrote Townes friend journalist Robert Palmer. Palmer felt Van Zandts songs, like those of Hank Williams were the direct, untrammeled expression of a man's soul.

I think that Townes Van Zandt will one day be recognized as one of the great American poets of the 20th century, Jimmie Dale Gilmour proclaimed. It's a shame that he died too young to see that.

In October 1977 journalist Jerry Leichtling of the Village Voice compared Townes to author James Agee whose poetic text complimented Walker Evans stark photographs of depression era farm families in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Leichtling described Van Zandt as a self-destructive hobo saint - Woody Guthrie on a grim drunk with Hank Williams. He is truly one of a kind, possibly the best writer in his genre. Though he'll probably never be famous, praise him.

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Van Zandt Biography Is Chaotic

By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

Townes Van Zandt lived a chaotic life. Too bad the first official biography
of his life follows the same pattern.

"To Live's to Fly" tries hard, but ultimately comes up short in doing
anything deeper than just retelling the exploits of Van Zandt's iconic life
full of gambling, wine, women and song.

Underappreciated in his lifetime by the casual music fan, but revered by
musicians as one of the best of his kind, Van Zandt wrote classics made
famous by others including "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed You." His
songs have been covered by a wide array of artists including Willie Nelson,
Bright Eyes and Norah Jones, but his own career was derailed by bad business
decisions and self-destructive behavior driven by his raging alcoholism.

Born to a wealthy Texas oil family, Van Zandt spurned his legacy to cut his
chops in the honky-tonks and coffee shops of Texas as a folk singer in the
late 1960s. He hit his creative peak in the early and mid-1970s, at the same
time the folk music boom was dying, which also hurt his chances for popular

While author John Kruth relishes retelling all the drunken stories of Van
Zandt's life, his narrative lacks cohesion and organization. Stories ‹ and
particularly quotes ‹ go on too long and often without the proper context.
Key people in Van Zandt's life are either not interviewed, or not pressed on
issues that they should be pursued in more depth.

Kruth's lack of insight or explanation of Van Zandt's time in mental
institutions and how that affected his life and the self-destructive
decisions he made is woefully inadequate.

The result is sometimes wildly entertaining and other times frustrating and
downright confusing.

Again, not at all unlike Van Zandt himself.

Kruth is at his best in retelling the story of Van Zandt's final days and
hours, which is full of the details that other parts of the book lack. Van
Zandt died at home in bed with a flask in his hand at the young age of 52 in
1997. Ten years later, his legend continues to grow; his music remains
popular, even though his recording catalog is in disarray.

Van Zandt is certainly deserving of a full-length biography. And while
Kruth's work is commendable for its effort, it leaves the reader left
wondering whether there's a better book out there yet to be written.
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Madison, March 22, 2007

By Kevin Lynch
©The Capital Times

…But there's an even more compelling reason to check out Kruth's

He's managed to write the first-ever biography of Townes Van Zandt.
Kruth spent five years tracking the ghost of an American songwriting
legend who, in ways, was always a spook to himself.

Van Zandt haunted America's back roads long enough to become one of
the great cult figures in popular music history. The front porch-
sittin', guitar-pickin' Texan, who died at 43 in 1997, never really
had any hit albums. His voice started out shiny but turned gun metal
gray over the years. But his lyrics -- terse, risky, tender and
painful -- frankly sometimes made Dylan sound gas-baggy by

Van Zandt played guitar with the naked passion of a down-home blues
musician. The cryptic parable "Pancho and Lefty" was a No. 1 for
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and "If I Needed You" topped the
charts for Don Williams. Norah Jones recently covered Van
Zandt's "Will You Be Here to Love Me?"

Kruth will read from and discuss "To Live's To Fly: The Ballad of
the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt" (DaCapo) at 2 p.m. Saturday at
Borders East, 2173 Zeigler Road (next to Shopko).

The book reads like a relentless quest to uncover a lost American

Kruth is a sort of Renaissance cowboy who rides the rodeo to hell
and back with a lasso. But he still had to disarm a load of
suspicious Southerners to get Van Zandt's story.

Singer-songwriter Guy Clark warned: "If you burn me on this, I'll
slit your throat and drink your blood like wine."

Kruth wisely heeds that warning and the other heart-worn friends and
lovers who helped him gather up Van Zandt's bits and pieces. Turns
out he was a demon-infested heartbreaker who seemed to start digging
his own grave the first day he got a record deal.

Van Zandt was a drinker and a gambler. He staggered between Byronic
intensity and shambling carelessness. He once chugged a bottle of
Robitussin cough syrup at a drugstore counter just for the quick

You sense he was trying to coat his heart with a something cheap and
sweet, to cover a chronic sourness in his soul. Because of his sad,
cantankerous introspection, Van Zandt was easy pickings for others,
both malicious and well intentioned.

With clear-eyed musical and psychological insight, Kruth
convincingly details his subject's creeping pathos. Producers who
loved him to death larded his studio recordings with strings, woozy
background vocals and baroque tinkles, which obscured his cut-to-the-
bone sentiments.

The many who wanted a piece of his action ensured his relative
obscurity. And Van Zandt disgraced his vision, with his boozing and
what-the-hell business dealing. He probably knew that, which made
his music, and this story, the powerful stuff of "crushed dreams."

Kruth's compassion deftly braces the story.

And he reclaims Van Zandt for the world. Having traveled in many
countries, Kruth believes that artists like Van Zandt redeem America
even as our leaders malinger in the moral gutter.

"I hate this war and this president," Kruth says with blunt, eve-of-
destruction exasperation. "But people all over the world love
American music. They love Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins."

Will we love Van Zandt after reading this book and hearing him again?

Love's a funny thing in America. While he lived, Van Zandt was the
sort of aw-shucks contender that America romanticizes in its
peculiar way. Love 'em, use 'em and leave 'em. Especially guys like
him -- who care too much about their songs to play the game.

Steve Earle famously declared: "Townes Van Zandt is the best
songwriter in the world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table
in my cowboy boots and say that."

Kruth almost says as much. He puts the man in his place, a lofty,
lonely perch in the American pantheon.

But there's something else that hangs around like a damn vulture as
you read Van Zandt's story. Don't get me wrong. You get the feeling
that Kruth did his job in spades.

Still the man's unofficial theme song was "Waitin' Round to Die." He
gave money away to poor people like a neurotic Robin Hood. The book
leaves you hungry for more understanding of an ordinary tormented
guy American like Van Zandt. Something that goes beyond the old
misunderstood Vincent Van Gogh artist cliches that Van Zandt himself
joked around with. He knew there was more to the story.

As Joe Ely commented, "He'd start crying in the middle of a show."

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