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Townes Van Zandt

                                    David Kirby


            “Townes Van Zandt’s the best songwriter in the world,”
                                    says Steve Earle, “and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee
table in my cowboy boots and say that,” and Jimmy Dale

            Gilmore calls him a combination of Hank Williams
                                    and Bob Dylan, though he reminds others of Keats,
who also wrote hard and died young, and Chatterton,

            an icon of doomed genius to the English Romantics
                                    as much as Van Zandt is to his generation of Texas
musicians, and others still of Van Gogh: songwriter

            Guy Clark calls Van Zandt “the Van Gogh of country 
                                    music,” a compliment the artist deflected by saying,
“Actually, Guy said that because I have no ear.”

            So what went wrong? Why doesn’t Townes Van Zandt
                                    have the stature of Dylan or Willie Nelson? In a word,
his career was, like, massively mishandled: while his producers

            mangled his work, drowning spare voice-and-guitar pieces
                                    in lush strings and syrupy orchestral arrangements,
Townes had only one interest, and that was to get

            the song right and then go on to the next one,
                                    in this manner bearing out Thomas Carlyle’s dictum
that genius is “the transcendent capacity of taking trouble,”

            not to mention a like assertion by the Richard Wagner
                                    who said “achievements, seldom credited to their source,
are the result of unspeakable drudgery and worries.”

            The son of a fourth-generation oil family,
                                    Van Zandt was a crooked branch on a tree
filled with congressmen, soldiers, and lawyers.

            His exasperated parents sent him to a military boarding
                                    school, where, as his roommate recalled, “Townes
could probably get into trouble faster than anyone

            I’ve ever seen,” and in later life, he was such a fuck-up
                                    that only one member of his gang comes across
as more quirky and self-deprecating, that being yet

            another Texas songwriter, one Blaze Foley, who liked
                                    to sleep in dumpsters and even had a preference
for those emblazoned with the initials BFI, which stood

            for the name of the manufacturer, Browning-Ferris
                                    Industries, though Foley insisted they meant “Blaze
Foley Inside.” Foley had a thing for duct tape,

            and when he died, his friends hatched a plan to kidnap
                                    his corpse and wrap it mummy style; when Van Zandt
talked them out of it, one of the would-be pranksters

            said, “You know it’s pretty scary when Townes Van Zandt
                                    is the voice of reason.” Yet Townes
was charismatic to a degree that was all but unnatural, and among

            the hundreds of stories about him is that of how
                                    a woman named Bidy, who was one
of the many who were obsessed with him, went to see a therapist,

            but all Bidy could talk about was Townes. Townes this,
                                    Townes that: no matter how the therapist, who was also
a woman, tried to swing the talk back to Bidy’s 

            problems, it was all Townes, all the time. So finally 
                                    the therapist says, “Look, who is this Townes Van Zandt?”
And Bidy, says, well, you can catch him up at such

            and such a roadhouse this Friday. So the therapist
                                    goes to the gig. And at their next session, Bidy says
something like, “I think I’m ready to talk about

            my childhood now,” and the therapist says, “Wait,
                                    we can get to that—tell me more about Townes. . . .”
Even after he had four or five albums out, he had

            no money, famously getting paid in cash after
                                    gigs and then giving it away to homeless
people, pulling out a wad and spilling twenties

            and fifties that blew down the street like autumn leaves, 
                                    and you could add to this the fact that Townes
was an indifferent performer as well, missing shows

            or showing up drunk and singing off-key,
                                    though in that he was like, say, Michelangelo,
“who liked to leave some roughness on a finished statue,”

            as Mary McCarthy writes of the sculptor in The Stones
                                    of Florence,
“to show the mark of the sharp tools
he had used on it, and in the same way left some roughness

            on his speech and manners, to show the mark of Nature,
                                    which had formed him in a certain mould.” It is for this
or, for that matter, perhaps some entirely other reason

            that Townes’ “sad songs had that wonderful capacity to make
                                    a depressed person actually feel better,” as one of
his many associates said, just as they make me feel better

            about all the great ones I have known, now dead: where is
                                    Ivan Johnson, who sat two rows behind me
at the symphony, and Wiley Housewright, who sat

            two rows behind Ivan? Where, for that matter, is
                                    Uncle Paul Shelley, who was buried only last week
as the minister imagined him standing just across

            the sill of Heaven, greeting the rest of us as we came up,
                                    one by one, tall, courtly Paul, who looked so much
like my father? And where is my father? Where do

            they go, the dead? In Tom Jones, the eponymous hero
                                    says to the schoolmaster Partridge, “Was your mistress
unkind, then?” “Very unkind, indeed, sir,” says Partridge, 

            “for she married me, and made one of the most confounded
                                    wives in the world. However, heaven be praised, she’s gone;
and if I believed she was in the moon, according to a book

            I once read, which teaches that to be the receptacle
                                    of departed spirits, I would never look at it for fear
of seeing her,” whereas I would look at nothing

            but the moon if I thought I could see my father there.
                                    Too many late nights and too much booze did him in—
Townes, I mean, not my dad—and his heart gave out

            when he was 54. Caught as we are between the lives
                                    we live now and our own deaths, reader, are we not
like the soul who tells us, in the penultimate verse

            of “The House of the Rising Sun,” that “One foot
                                    is on the platform, the other’s on the train. / I’m going
back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain”?

            Are we not Caliban, hearing voices that make us sleep
                                    and dream and wake and cry to sleep and dream again?
In “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt sings,

            “You weren’t your mother’s only boy / But her favorite
                                    one, it seems / She began to cry when you said goodbye /
And fell into your dreams.” What does that mean,

            to fall into your dreams—is that a good thing or a bad one?
                                    In the song, it sounds bad, since the two desperadoes
are falling apart at the end of their lives and being chased

            down by the federales to boot. Then again, it sounds
                                    downright tasty: if you could do it right now, reader, if you
could shake everybody’s hand and give away your wallet

            and your wristwatch and your car and all your clothes,
                                    wouldn’t you take a running jump and “fall into your
dreams”? I would: I’d give away everything I had

            and hug the neck of most of the people I know and pop
                                    a couple of them right square in the face and then fall
into my dreams, the songs I love best, the ones that haven’t been written.


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