For the Sake of the Song / Our Mother the Mountain – Townes Van Zandt
Originally published on December 13, 1991 in the Austin Chronicle
It’s McColl, South Carolina, 11 miles or so south of Laurinburg, North Carolina, which is just south of Fayetteville, in the early 1970s. I’m sitting in what might have once been the living room of the 100-year old plantation house we’ve been staying at for the last couple of months. There are five or six people living in the house, gradually restoring it room by room, but they’ve just finished the kitchen and dining room at this point, so most of the house looks like the set for some Southern gothic drive-in horror movie. It’s cold, very cold for what I’d imagined South Carolina would be like, but I learn this is normal for November. The room is heated by a large coal stove, and the first person up each day has to go out to the coal pile in the back, get coal, put it in the stove and start a fire, which with coal, is a bit easier said than done. As a result, in the morning everyone lies in bed, hoping someone else will get up first. It’s afternoon now, and I’m in the house alone. The fire is roaring, so the room is almost too warm, and I’m sitting in front of the rather ratty stereo. I’ve gone through the house and gathered up a stack of albums from different people’s rooms that I’ve never heard before and that’s what I intend to spend this afternoon doing.
But I’m stuck on Townes Van Zandt. I’m playing two albums by him - For the Sake of the Song and Our Mother the Mountain - over and over. I don’t like them and I’m trying to figure out why. My friend Everett swears they are great; he had heard of Van Zandt before, but visiting here was really the first time he’d listened to him, and we usually agree. He’s so excited by these albums and I’m so disinterested that I figure something must be wrong. So I listen to them over and over, watching the huge red cotton harvesters lazily lumbering through the fields surrounding the house.
It’s a few years later and I’m with Everett again, sitting in Castle Creek near the corner of 15th and Lavaca, waiting to hear Townes Van Zandt. I still don’t get him, but I’m hoping maybe I will. We’ve been in Austin a few weeks, and have so far caught Doug Sahm, Steve Fromholz (Frummox being a favorite album), Willie Nelson’s back-up band playing under a dozen different names, Willis Allan Ramsey, Kenneth Threadgill, Ray Wiley Hubbard & the Cowboy Twinkies and who knows who else. I’m wondering why the ceilings in the club are so low and the place so smokey. Van Zandt finally comes on and after telling some profoundly lousy jokes begins to play. I’m mesmerized. This lanky guy telling lousy jokes is one of the half dozen finest songwriters in America, I’m thinking, and that’s before he does “Pancho and Lefty.”
Now shake your heads clean and remember I’m hearing it for the first time, I’ve never heard it before and there’s no one grabbing me and saying this is a great song. Instead, there’s just this voice that reminds me of the sweetness in pain, of too many mornings of leaving or being left, of love on impossible terms, and of no love at all, when your heart is so empty and you try to fill it with the speed of the night, the desperate pace at which you are racing forward towards tomorrow, and that doesn’t fill it at all. This voice that has been places I’ve just read about, heard about, maybe dreamed of but never been, or at least never been so close to before. “Living on the road, my friend…” He’s singing about Pancho, though he wasn’t his mama’s only boy - he was her favorite one, it seems - and how Lefty can’t sing the blues like he used to. The movie in my head is startling in its clarity and surprising in its emotional depth. The federales bragging that they could have had him any day, they only let him go so long out of kindness, he supposes. A story of honor and of treachery, about how Pancho was gunned down and Lefty split for Ohio. Then he sings, that “Pancho needs your prayers it’s true/Save a few for Lefty too/He just did what he had to do.”
There are moments you remember, friends, and this line, though not about love, was about love, was about friendship, was about life. “Save a prayer for Lefty too, he just did what he had to do.” And sure, now it’s almost supermarket muzak famous, but there was that moment when Van Zandt tipped his hat to the losers and the gamblers, the sneaks and the crooks, the junkies and the whores - all the people who just did what they had to do, sang that they deserved our prayers as well as the bandits and the heroes, the outlaws and the poets. It wasn’t just songwriting, storytelling, or myth making, it wasn’t just understanding and acceptance, though it was all those things; it was the bestowal of grace, an act not usually given to songwriters but more often to saints. Van Zandt was no saint - he wouldn’t fall for that kind of crap. He was a poet and a madman, a bandit and a hero and probably more than a bit of a gambler and a snake. Too often poetry demands more of us than we should have to give, than we can give and songs perpetuate the worst kind of romantic bullshit. But here was a song and a singer who knew what to expected and expected no more.
There was “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” “If I Needed You” and “For the Sake of the Song.” There was “White Freight Liner Blues,” “Why’s She Acting This Way” and “To Live is to Fly.” There was the voice that came from somewhere deep inside, the phrasing and the poetry. But most of all there was that bestowal of grace, an act so scared that to pass it off as mere songwriting seems a hint dishonest.
Now I have all of Van Zandt (on both vinyl and CD), but that sounds like a collector or a reviewer. That night in that club with that singer and those songs was a time to always remember (and I’ve heard him a dozen times since). Moments like that are carried in the heart; they provide refreshment during emotional famines, they provide strength when weakness is the order of the day.
There are stories, perhaps appropriate here, about Guy Clark (when I first heard him it was a hip AM station in Boston playing Old No 1 and I drove straight to a record store to buy the album), and maybe I should talk about how you hear Clark and Van Zandt over and over again in the best songwriters around, in Lyle Lovett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Pat Mears. But here and now, on this silly page in this too-thick issue, let there just be a quiet space, the kind suitable for love and for poetry, for understanding and for grace, the kind of place to stop and say a prayer. Because the line is about love too, about those who left you - ones you’ve never forgiven and never will, and those you’ve left - who hate you still, or worse, love you yet and still don’t understand. Save a prayer for those too, for us too, for me too, because we just did what we had to do.
The Chronicle is sponsoring a Fiction Contest. Short Stories, to be precise - unpublished, no longer than 2000 words. There will be prizes (great) and judges (better) to be announced. The deadline is January 27, 1992. Do not put your name on the story; enclose a cover letter instead. The story must have a title; the cover; the cover letter should refer to the title. The stories, typed and double spaced, will not be returned but become the property of the Chronicle. Keep a copy. Preliminary judges will read all the stories and pass the best on to our distinguished panel of judges. KGSR co-sponsors.
In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been rearranging the back of the Chronicle and may continue to do so. Let me especially call attention to Anne S. Lewis’ column Second Opinion, which runs in the Classifieds in the Mind, Body, Spirit section. This issue it’s on the homeopathic medicine, which is too often ignored or misunderstood. It’s my son Eli’s favorite column in the paper, though at 16 months he can’t read and has no idea what the Chronicle is. His mother writes it and that’s good enough for him. Readers don’t even need that relationship to appreciate the column.