Freeing a Mentor From His Mythology
By ANTHONY DeCURTIS
Published: May 7, 2009
SINCE he released his first album in 1968, and especially since his death in 1997, the country songwriter Townes Van Zandt has been a prototypical cult figure. Though his songs have been recorded by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and the Cowboy Junkies, Van Zandt never sold many records himself, and he battled addiction and depression for decades. His songs, at once lyrical and unsentimental, depicted love, and life itself, as experiences to be enjoyed free from all (inevitably disappointed) expectations. In the world of alternative country and beyond, to announce yourself as one of Van Zandt’s fans helps establish your critical discernment — and, by implication, indicts an undiscerning public that allowed a genius to die essentially unknown.
The singer-songwriter Steve Earle is having none of that. Something of a cult figure himself, he was Van Zandt’s protégé and remains one of his most ardent champions. But he is not interested in sustaining the myth of Van Zandt as a beautiful loser. “When somebody’s as good as Townes Van Zandt was and more people don’t know about it, it’s Townes’s fault,” Mr. Earle said at his home here. “For whatever reasons, he shot himself in the foot every damn chance he got. ”
Mr. Earle has put himself in a tough emotional spot. Recording “Townes” (New West), an album of songs by Van Zandt set for release on Tuesday, forced him to confront the tangled history he shared with his idol. After all, Mr. Earle is one reason why the adjective “legendary” clings to Van Zandt as if it were his first name. On a promotional sticker on one of Van Zandt’s albums Mr. Earle declared, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
That statement embarrasses Mr. Earle today. “Did I ever believe that Townes was better than Bob Dylan?” he asked wearily. “No.” For Mr. Earle, Van Zandt was both an inspiring and bedeviling model, a man who put his art above all other considerations but who sometimes seemed to regard success itself as inherently compromising. Though far from a superstar, Mr. Earle has earned two gold albums and two Grammy Awards, and he views such recognition as a valuable reward for hard work. “I don’t think Townes was a victim,” Mr. Earle stated. “Part of him didn’t consider himself worthy of anything.”
In a way, however, Van Zandt’s reward was the legend that followers like Mr. Earle helped foster. To this day he is the subject of tales that are told and retold, embellished and laughed over, whenever anyone who met him has a willing audience. There was the time, for example, when Van Zandt, frustrated that Mr. Earle was fooling with a .357 Magnum during a get-together, picked up a pistol himself, put a couple of bullets in the chamber and spun it around, pointed the gun at his own head and pulled the trigger twice. The gun didn’t fire, but Van Zandt had made his point about bravado.
Such stories established Van Zandt as a doomed romantic figure. Throughout his life he wandered among Tennessee, Colorado and his home state of Texas, often calling no particular place his home. His live performances could be riveting. On good nights he seemed to disappear into chronicles of existential joy and agony like “To Live Is to Fly,” “Waiting ’Round to Die” and “Tower Song,” gently delivering irreducible truths summed up in lines like, “Everything is not enough/And nothing is too much to bear.” On bad nights he would fall off his stool onstage, too drunk or high to get through a set.
With “Townes” Mr. Earle attempts both to pay a debt and to extricate his idol’s songs from the mythology surrounding his life. Mr. Earle, who first made his mark in the 1980s with smart country-rock albums like “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road,” has endured devastating struggles with addiction, was jailed for drugs and weapons possession and nearly died. The romance of Van Zandt’s problems long ago lost whatever allure they may once have had for him.
Mr. Earle’s house here, which he purchased last year with his wife, the country singer Allison Moorer, includes a sleek electric wine cooler left by the previous owners. Mr. Earle displays it prominently by the counter in his kitchen. You won’t be served a hard drink here. Bottles of seltzer and diet soda stock the cooler. Mr. Earle’s rule is that if you bring an alcoholic beverage into the house, you must carry the container out when you leave. “I don’t underestimate my disease,” he said.
The years between 1990 and 1994 that Mr. Earle essentially lost to heroin and crack cocaine constituted a “vacation in the ghetto,” as he has described it, during which he gradually abandoned writing, recording and even playing. That unproductive period has instilled a ferocious work ethic in him. “Townes” is the ninth studio album he has released since he sobered up and got out of jail in late 1994. He has also published a collection of short stories, written and produced a play, performed hundreds of shows, produced albums by other artists and become an outspoken political activist.
He’s now finishing a novel called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” which is loosely based on the life of Hank Williams. The urge to complete that book, which he has intermittently been working on for eight years, led indirectly to the “Townes” project. “I’ve talked about doing it for a long time,” he said about recording an album of Van Zandt’s material, “and since I didn’t have to write the songs, I thought I could make this record, turn it in and then finish the book.”
The duality of that motivation — expediency partnering neatly with heartfelt desire — suggests some of the complexity of Mr. Earle’s relationship with Van Zandt. Mr. Earle, who was raised in Texas, moved to Nashville and now primarily lives in Greenwich Village, first met Van Zandt in the early 1970s. At the time Van Zandt was the leading light on a Texas music scene that floated between Austin and Houston on a sea of alcohol, drugs and artistic conviction. Now 54, Mr. Earle was a teenager at the time, and Van Zandt was roughly a decade older. Mr. Earle was a well-read high school dropout who believed that in the wake of the Beatles and Bob Dylan it was possible to create songs that might be “literature that you can consume while driving in your car,” as he said at a recent event. Van Zandt’s hard-bitten, eloquent songs lived up to that standard and he was near at hand.
“I met him at his absolute peak artistically,” Mr. Earle recalled. “He had a really horrible reputation because of his behavior, but I also knew that he had made a decision to write songs at a certain level, that how good the songs were was primarily important to him. I committed to making art whether I ever got rich or not by Townes’s example.”
To all but a handful of his closest friends Van Zandt was a remote, elusive figure, apt to disappear and turn up with equal unpredictability. As mentor to Mr. Earle he was hardly a steady, guiding hand, and he was much too stoic to dispense sage advice about songwriting or anything else. The premise of their relationship was something like, if I didn’t think you were good enough to do it yourself, you wouldn’t be here. He did, however, recommend that Mr. Earle always put the top back on the bottle so that the alcohol wouldn’t spill when it inevitably got kicked over and, when injecting drugs, to use clean needles every time.
He also instructed Mr. Earle to read “War and Peace,” though Van Zandt had not read the book himself, as Mr. Earle discovered to his surprise when he dutifully returned with questions about it. “I just thought you
should,” Van Zandt idly told him.
Beyond that, like so many protégés, Mr. Earle was expected to reflect well on, but certainly not to exceed, the master, as he eventually did, at least in terms of commercial success and visibility. To this day Mr. Earle retains an eager, puppyish quality that the softer side of Van Zandt could enjoy. In his cool detachment, though, Van Zandt also understood that withholding his approval would always bring an admiring Mr. Earle back for more. Distance can breed desire, and perhaps Mr. Earle took his mentor’s remove as a challenge; in any case being part of Van Zandt’s circle was important validation for Mr. Earle.
“As in a lot of these kinds of relationships, the hero is the tor-mentor,” said Justin Townes Earle, Mr. Earle’s oldest son and a recording artist in his own right. The origins of his middle name are obvious. “From the day my father met Townes, Townes tortured him,” he continued, alluding to how Van Zandt mercilessly heckled his father from the audience the first time he saw him perform, repeatedly insisting that he play “The Wabash Cannonball.” “Then he became the noogie songwriter who put my dad in a headlock.” Justin suggested that his father may be irked “that Townes never said to him, ‘Great record.’ ”
“Maybe he did,” he added, “but I think if he had, my dad would have told me.”
“Townes will always be bigger than life in his head,” the younger Earle concluded. Steve Earle admitted that Van Zandt never really saw him as an adult. “I was the kid,” he said. “I understand that, and I’m cool with it. But he could be brutal with me. ”
The two men saw each other infrequently after Mr. Earle’s descent into the drug underworld, though Van Zandt once visited him in the depths of his addiction at the request of mutual friends. “I must be in trouble if they’re sending you,” Mr. Earle remarked. Once Mr. Earle became sober, he began recording and touring with a vengeance, and Van Zandt continued his peripatetic ways. But they remained friends, even performing together at a Nashville benefit in 1995. When Van Zandt died of a heart attack at 52, Mr. Earle wrote the ballad “Fort Worth Blues” for him on his album “El Corazón.” “See you when I get there maestro,” reads Mr. Earle’s dedication.
So, given that complicated emotional history, how effective a tribute is “Townes”? In a sense it is the Townes Van Zandt album that Van Zandt couldn’t or wouldn’t make himself, but should have. With rare exceptions, most notably “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas,” Van Zandt’s overproduced recorded work betrays the extraordinary quality of his songwriting. Mr. Earle sought to remedy that.
“It is a form of channeling at its best,” said Mr. Earle, who recorded most of the album in his Greenwich Village apartment. “What I tried to do is sit in a room by myself for 12 of the 15 tracks and play them as close to the way I remember him playing them.” Van Zandt classics like “Pancho and Lefty,” “To Live Is to Fly” and “No Place to Fall” sit comfortably next to worthy, if lesser known, songs like “(Quicksilver Dreams of) Maria” and “Where I Lead Me.”
Completing a generational journey, Mr. Earle and his son Justin duet on “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” the dense, troubled gambling story-song that Mr. Earle performed nearly 30 years ago to impress Van Zandt the first time he saw Mr. Earle perform. Like the album itself, it’s a tribute that demands respect from its subject.
“Townes’s inability to promote himself and put his dukes up for his own art failed him over and over again,” Mr. Earle said. “But none of us is whole. We all do some things better than others. As a songwriter, you won’t find anybody better. I hope this record will make it a little more apparent just how good these songs are.