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TOWNES VAN ZANDT: man, myth and memories

TOWNES VAN ZANDT: man, myth and memories

by Norman Warwick

Last week,  Paste on-line magazine announced that  from now on they will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. These articles will appear every Saturday and in prime spot in their first in the series was Townes Van Zandt’s Live At The Old Quarter Houston Texas, which writer Matt Melis described as ´an indelible live album full of songs of gratefulness and resignation, a preservation of the songwriter just as we should remember him´.

Those of us who ever met Townes will each have their own idea of how we should remember him, and those who have only ever listened to his songs will have created ´memories´ of their own.

I have a vivid personal memory of an occasion when I was working as a freelance journalist alongside the independent and excellent Stampede Promotions, a small two man operation that pledged the best-but-overlooked American singer-writers to the UK on small tours of some perhaps unlikely places.

It was at The Band On The Wall in Manchester that the two partners of the promotion company and a member of Townes management team played pass the bottle behind our backs as Townes was fairly desperately searching his dressing room for what he promised would be his last bottle of the day. There was only an hour to go to stage-time and we knew he could finish it before then, but were also pretty damned sure it would not enhance his performance !

This was the first I had seen of an example of the myriad stories of Townes´ dysfunctional behaviour.

I had met him for the first time only three days previously and he had for all that time been courtesy personified. He had been a kind and generous interviewee to me, then a very nervous interviewer.

A few years later I wrote a song about Townes and his music and took it out into schools in my role as a peripatetic teacher. I can remember listening to pupils discussing whether anyone has the right to write somebody else´s life story. Some of the children, circa fourteen or so, thought I had no right to reveal anything of Townes´ drinking and drugging, especially after his death and without the permission of his family. Others defended me, saying I was passing on a lesson to all aspirant writers about preserving genius. Friends should never tell. Friends should always tell. Every reading of a Townes Van Zandt lyric generated a polarised debate

 I also employed the song when facilitating adult creative writing courses, in my role as one half of Just Poets with Pam McKee.

I can remember listening to one of my adult writing group dissect the lyrics to Pancho And Lefty to determine what the relationship might have been between these two eponymous characters.

We listened to Rex´s Blues. Although my members had never heard of Townes and leaned more to the poetry of Frost or Simon Armitage, this was the song that converted someof them into Townes fans.

When I left England eight years ago and came here to live on Lanzarote the members of  Touchstones Creative Writing waved goodbye to me as I was holding their leaving card and present: a copy of A Deeper Blue:The Life And Music Of Townes Van Zandt by Robert Earl Hardy.

Goodreads said of the book, in a four star review that this is the first serious biography of a man widely considered one of Texas’ – and America’s – greatest songwriters. Like Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt was the embodiment of that mythic American figure, the troubled troubadour. A Deeper Blue traces Van Zandt’s background as the scion of a prominent Texas family; his troubled early years and his transformation from promising pre-law student to wandering folk singer; his life on the road and the demons that pursued him and were pursued by him; the women who loved and inspired him; and the brilliance and enduring beauty of his songs, which are explored in depth.

The author draws on eight years’ extensive research and interviews with Townes’ family and closest friends and colleagues. He looks beyond the legend and paints a portrait of a complex man who embraced the darkness of demons and myth as well as the light of deep compassion and humanity, all “for the sake of the song”.

This was around ten years after Pam McKee McKee and I had collaborated on a novel that bounced around demi-mythologies, rumours,, hearsay, fact, fiction and downright lies. The text took Townes Van Zandt, Rex Bob Lowenstein and artists like Guy and Susanna Clark, and a young girl singer who sang Townes song on the radio. In the narrative I was being berated by songwriters I loved, many of whom I had interviewed. It seemed they thought I was taking the name of Townes Van Zandt in vain.

My book became  a murky tale of echo and shadow, and the here and now and of the gone but never to be forgotten.

I have only this year read another biography, To Live Is To Fly. The Ballad Of The Late, great Townes Van Zandt.

Actually published in 2008, this was described in a sigh.  At last, the authorized biography of Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997), who wrote such unforgettable songs as “Pancho & Lefty” and “If I Needed You.” Born to a wealthy oil family in Ft. Worth, Texas, hounded by alcoholism and depression, Van Zandt pursued a nomadic existence following his muse, whatever the cost to himself, friends, and relatives. Based on exclusive interviews with those close to Van Zandt, including his best friend Guy Clark and colleagues like Steve Earle and John Prine, To Live’s to Fly captures all the humour, hijinks, poetry, and heartbreak of this revered, genuinely outlaw country artist.

In speaking about this book to my son in a zoom from Lanzarote to South Korea where he lives, playing banjo in his music room, including some Townes songs. I said the author had not exclusively the voices of reliable narrators.

I also said that the impression it left me with was an image of Townes as a facilitator of song. I´m not sure Townes was ever writing a song for an album or a film, but was writing the song purely for the sake of the song. He wanted to bring songs into existence that might  be discovered by those who needed them, and by those who would care for them,

In return Andrew, my son, told me he had just read a piece by Bob Dylan talking about Townes in his book The Philosophy Of Modern Music. The article he read was published by Texas Monthly On Line at a site of which I hadn´t previously been aware. (I have, though, subscribed at 15 dollars a year for monthly postings, and would strongly recommend readers of Sidetracks and Detours to follow suit).

Bob Dylan includes several Texans in his new book about 66 twentieth-century songs, mostly American pop songs that he likes.

He clearly appreciates Townes Van Zandt, observing that “One way to measure a songwriter is to look at the singers who sing their songs.” He notes that Van Zandt has been covered by the best, including Neil Young and Garth Brooks, among others. Another measure, Dylan adds, is whether a person’s songs are still performed. “Townes’s are,” he writes. “Every night—in small clubs, in lonely bedrooms, and wherever the brokenhearted watch the shadows grow long.”

In analyzing Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” Dylan focuses on the wretched facts of the songwriter’s mental health problems. Yet, despite taking that biographical approach, he doesn’t argue that “Pancho and Lefty” is an imaginative autobiographical account of Van Zandt’s bipolar disorder—the romantic who wants to ride into the sunset yet fears that he will sell out and wind up in a cheap motel room in some cold northern city. Interestingly, Dylan selected the version of “Pancho and Lefty” recorded not by Van Zandt but by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard—two singers, he says appreciatively, who could “sing the phone book and make you weep.” In the hands of Nelson and Haggard, Dylan writes, this song is “an epic panoramic tale, beautifully sung and beautifully produced, featuring two of the most iconic singers in the modern era.”

I have several recordings of Townes on my playlist but in truth , recordings rarely do him justice. He too often acquiesced to production teams who felt they knew better and attached whistles and bells to songs that belonged voice and guitar.

I feel that the best recordings of Townes songs were all made by fellow artists,. The posthumous Tribute To A Poet album featured covers that might preserve a majority of his songs in way that he was unable to, and that benefit from better production values and ´better´ vocals, in a technical sense anyway, if not in tone and attitude.

Tomorrow, we take a look at what many consider to be Townes´ finest album.

We´ll see you round the corner.

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