The complex legacy of Townes Van Zandt, an artist who cared more about music than business, who literally lived his whole life for the sake of the song
Originally published on June 14, 2002 in the Austin Chronicle
Sometime in the early Seventies, I was hanging out in an old cotton plantation mansion in McCall, S.C. The building, over 100 years old, was run-down, paint-stripped, and in overall bad repair. The folks I was visiting were restoring it room by room. The house's regular residents all attended college in nearby Laurinberg, N.C., but a friend of mine had a cousin of a friend of his living there, so we hung out. The first time we visited was for a couple of months, but over the next few years we'd often spend a week or two there. Sometimes this was on travels to and from Florida or Texas, sometimes just a vacation from Boston or Vermont (depending on where we were living). It was a great old house, surrounded by working cotton fields, with falling-apart outbuildings and a huge stack of coal in the back yard, which was how the house was heated. Being the first one up on a very cold morning and having to start up the coal stove was no fun. It was not uncommon to lie there in your sleeping bag for quite a while, hoping someone else lost patience and got it going first. The house was surrounded by porches on both the ground and second floors. Often we would sit out on the back steps, making ice cream, or sit with our feet dangling off the second-story porch as we passed back and forth a pint of Southern Comfort. Out in the cotton field, the big harvesters sat idle. Late enough and drunk enough, we would go out and try to start them. Thank God we never succeeded. After the machines went through the fields, hand pickers followed them, getting whatever they missed. It was miserable work.
Gradually over the years, the house was restored. The kitchen and a bathroom, then the dining room, then a common living area and so on.
In the living room was a ratty record player and a stack of records. Life, at this time, was very much defined by music. Visiting friends such as these meant listening to every record that they had that you had read about but not yet heard. One of the women in the house had a couple of the very earliest Townes Van Zandt albums; Our Mother the Mountain is the only title I'm certain was there.
Already Van Zandt was more legend than listened to, and exactly the kind of singer-songwriter with deep roots in American music (blues, Appalachian, folk, country & western) that I was listening to at the time. Loving anything cult -- Beach Boys post-surf, Leonard Cohen, Van Dyke Parks, Tim Buckley, Buffy Sainte-Marie, S. David Cohen (David Blue), Richard and Mimi Fariña, Kaleidoscope (American), the Holy Modal Rounders, the Fugs, Pat Sky, Danny O'Keefe, Joy of Cooking, etc., etc. -- was the way to go. Try as I might -- and I spent many an afternoon in this front living room, the coal fire simmering in the stove, listening to music, listening to Van Zandt -- I never got him. The voice, the lyrics, the arrangements, it just didn't work for me.
A couple of years after I first visited McCall, my friend Everett and I passed through on our way to Austin. It was late 1974, we were driving in his 1952 Chevy Deluxe with a crappy tape player on the front seat. It had crudely soldered extensions so we could hook it up to a big 9-volt battery and get as many as 10 or 12 hours of music before we had to buy a new battery. On the way down, I really came to appreciate Willie Nelson for the first time and fell deeply in love with Waylon Jennings' (and Billy Joe Shaver's, though I didn't know it) Honky Tonk Heroes. I was a Yankee (born in NYC, raised in New Jersey) who came to country music by hearing the Byrds' version of "Pretty Boy Floyd" on a campus jukebox and then going up to a friend's room to listen to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. We had both heard it before but hadn't really listened. Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline soon followed.
We landed in Austin around Thanksgiving 1974 and rented a duplex a couple of blocks west of Lamar, in the 40s blocks. We set about discovering Austin. Barbecue, Dr Pepper (more regional then than now), the Austin Sun, Mexican food, KOKE-FM (then the best radio station in the country as far as we were concerned) -- we were on a voyage of cultural discovery.
The first night here we saw Doug Sahm at the old Soap Creek Saloon in the hills and caught J.J. Cale in a lame show at the old Ritz a couple of nights later. We were in love with a city and its lifestyle and we knew it.
Any act at Castle Creek (next to the Texas Chili Parlor) was worth checking out. We saw any number of incredible shows at that club. One night Townes Van Zandt was playing. Everett had gotten the albums in a way I hadn't, so reluctantly I went along. I can think of no show by an artist I didn't know where I came away with so many favorite songs after seeing them performed just once. The only one who came close was John Cale on the Sabotage tour, but I had loved the Velvets and Paris 1919, though I was unfamiliar with most of the rest of his solo work. "Pancho and Lefty" I got the first time I heard it, and it blew me away. I was in my mid-20s and just beginning to think about moral relativism, and here was the perfect song. Two quotes are relevant here: Chester Himes, "Anyone is capable of anything," and Jean Renoir, "The truly terrible thing is that everyone has their reasons." "Sing a song for Lefty too/He just did what he had to do."
"If I Needed You," "Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud," "For the Sake of the Song," "Two Girls," and his version of "Fraulein." Over the years I came to own every one of his albums, I saw him live maybe another dozen times. He was often brilliant, rarely awful, but always was the memory of that first night. The too-low ceilings of Castle Creek, the smoke, the sense of being a little lost and out of place in this new-to-me community that I was coming so to love.
Currently, I'm involved in a couple of Van Zandt-related projects, so I mostly recused myself from involvement with this week's cover story. Proposed by Music Editor Raoul Hernandez and authored by Andy Langer, it details the complicated topography of an artist who cared more about music than business, who literally lived his whole life for the sake of the song.