January 1, 2007
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Townes Van Zandt. Sadly, I was not aware of Townes until after his death, although I’m not sure why I didn’t get there sooner. I was attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival for about 4 years by that point, so I’m sure I’d heard one or two of his songs, and I know I’d heard the infamous Steve Earle quote, because we’d talked about it at the festival, but I never took the time to find out who he really was, or what he was all about.
Then in maybe 2000 or 2001, my girlfriend and I were at the music store and we decided to buy a Townes CD, because we both knew that we should know more about him. We picked up the great High Low and In Between compilation of two of his greatest albums. We brought it home and listened to it. We agreed that there was something special about it, but neither one of us really fell for it then. I recognize now that I didn’t give it enough attention, didn’t really give it the time that it needed to really sink in. Or perhaps I just wasn’t ready for it yet.
A couple of years later I received the fantastic “Legend” compilation as a gift. I had been hosting my singer/songwriter show for quite a while, and I’d certainly become familiar with Townes, although still not fully immersed in the Van Zandt magic. I had been playing some of Townes’ music, but I was probably more familiar with covers of his work. Around this time I found the Live at the Bluebird Café disc featuring Townes, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle.
I had been a big Steve Earle fan for years, so I knew that because he was such an influence on Steve, I should like Townes more. I doubt at the time I knew why Townes was so great. Heck, I didn’t even know why Steve Earle was so great. I liked Steve Earle for all the wrong reasons (I jumped on the bandwagon around Copperhead Road, largely because my music loving aunt was a fanatic, and I trusted her opinion more than I trusted my own.) The things that I loved about Steve at the time, great melodies and energy and a rockin’ band, were not evident in the Townes stuff that I’d heard.
Townes’ music, like that of so many of the true greats, is not easily digestible. It’s not meant for mass consumption. Whenever other folks have taken Townes songs and made them more friendly to the ears (Willie, Emmylou, etc.), they’ve watered them down somehow. They’ve sort of stripped out the pain and the beauty and the majesty. But no matter, whatever gets Townes wider recognition has to be a good thing.
I’m not sure what song really got to me first, but listening to his greatest songs on the Legend albums impressed upon me what an amazing body of work this man had. I was really starting to get into songwriters that I really had to listen to in order to enjoy, John K Samson of the Weakerthans being the best example. I was finally taking the time to focus on the words, and work at understanding the meanings and the emotions.
You can’t really blame me for being slow to catch on. I was raised on soulless 80s pop music. The stuff that I grew up loving was so easy to enjoy. It’s catchy, polished, and does not require any kind of investment of time or attention. You get it right away, and there’s not much more to it than that. I loved that stuff for so long (still do), but it gets old so quickly. Also, even though I have been a fan of great songwriters for years, I don’t often spend time analyzing lyrics, or paying much attention to them at all, for that matter. I was raised on tv and video games, so I have a healthy attention deficit that I come by naturally.
Funny, but when I first listened to Townes, I thought he sounded so old. I thought it sounded like classic country music (which I also hadn’t learned to love until later). I thought it sounded like a voice from the past. That is funny, because as I listen to Townes today as I write this, it sounds so timeless. It sounds to me like it could have been recorded today, because the words and meanings are still so relevant and so powerful. It’s so simple, so beautiful, and so powerful that it couldn’t possibly get “old” or sound dated.
I watched “Be Here to Love Me” today for the first time in many months. I actually ended up watching it as an after-thought. To be honest, the thought had never occurred to me, until Kristi suggested it (she was originally going to put in Fight Club, but it was too long.) If you haven’t seen that film, stop reading this and go find it. Only if you watch it will you know what the hell I’m talking about.
Sometimes music and messages reach you that way. By accident. They come to you when you most need them or are most susceptible. When they can have the most impact. I’d watched the film before, and I’ve been absolutely moved by it every time. Obviously it highlights what amazing songs and words Townes wrote; that movie is full of just one amazing song after another, and there are so many that were left out.
I have some reservations with the film. It’s loosely threaded together footage and interviews. On one hand, I like the fact that there’s no real narrative making it a clear documentary, but on the other hand, it presupposes that the viewer knows a fair bit about Townes and the people in the movie. It doesn’t really tell the whole story that clearly.
But for its relative shortcomings, the movie is still one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen. It vividly paints a picture of a man who started out looking like he had it all. Townes came from money and education and status, but ended up living so much of his life broke and drunk and seemingly hopeless. I’m never sure how to feel about Townes. It seems so tragic that someone who had all of the opportunity in the world would end up a victim of vices and demons. It seems like with his family and background, Townes should have lived a happier, more secure life. It seems like he lost out on so much. He didn’t really know or appreciate his children. He alienated his family, his friends, his loves. He took great opportunities and gifts and seemed to squander them all. He never became as famous or as rich or as strong as he deserved to be.
But had he been rich or famous or strong, how could he possibly have written the songs that he wrote? How could he have sung with such conviction? How could you write such haunting and sad songs if you’d never lived with pain, loss, and addiction? The truth is that Townes lived a seemingly tragic life because he wanted to, but really, because he had to. Would Townes have had the kind of impact on songwriting and music and me if he had lived a clean life, or even if he were still alive today? Would he have really impacted the world (as I see it) as strongly if he had been more subtle or built to last?
Like other great prophets through history (fill in your own names)Townes lived a humble life, but did such great things. Like other great prophets, he was persecuted, misunderstood, and abused by others who didn’t see what greatness was in him. He died tragically, and left this world too soon. But luckily, he left behind a body of work and a legion of believers that ensures that he will never be forgotten. The real power of his messages only amplifies as time goes on. Those messages will never go out of style or stop being relevant.
The music of Townes Van Zandt is not for everyone, although I honestly believe that there’s something for absolutely everyone in his body of work somewhere. His is a music that requires the kind of patience and attention that most of us aren’t willing to devote regularly. Even me. I am absolutely blown away every time I really sit and listen to Townes, but I don’t do it very often at all. For me, listening to Townes Van Zandt is like eating dark chocolate or cheesecake or something; it’s too rich to be consumed every day. If you ate super rich deserts every day, they would lose their power and their appeal. It’s only after being away from cheesecake for a while that you can bite into a piece and really go, “Damn, that’s good!” And the same can be said for Townes. Although he is without a doubt my favourite songwriter, and surely my favourite recording artist, I won’t ever listen to him daily, because I don’t want to lose that sense of amazement and wonder that I feel when I take the time to sink my teeth into a big helping of his music.
Townes, it’s been 10 years since you left us, but you’ll never really die. Folks like me will make sure of that. We owe it to you for all that you’ve done for us, and we owe it to others to share your work with them. Thanks for all that you did (well, not all of it. Some of it was downright stupid and selfish) and all that you mean. I’m sorry that you had to suffer and die so soon, but in a way, I guess that’s just the way it was meant to be. But thanks for all that you left behind.