When it comes to music, I like to think that both my knowledge and personal taste are pretty broad. Even so, there are a handful of artists whose work has just managed to plain escape me over the years. There are just a few select musicians and songwriters out there, who despite hearing great things said about them from just about everyone whose opinion I respect, have somehow fallen beneath my own radar.
Townes Van Zandt is a perfect case in point.
Although Van Zandt has never sold that many records on his own as a solo performer, he is universally respected as one of the best songwriters of his generation by nearly every artist whose music I even remotely care about. Which is why I made a point to pick up John Kruth’s To Live’s to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt and read it.
So here is what I knew about Townes Van Zandt before reading this very detailed and in-depth, if occasionally somewhat difficult to follow biography. Van Zandt has many times been called a great songwriter. Some even swear that while he was among us, he was quite possibly the best. Most often, Townes Van Zandt has been cited in the same breath as two of his own heroes, Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Dylan.
Steve Earle, who is something of a Van Zandt disciple, once famously said of his mentor that he was not only the best, but that he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and tell him as much. Van Zandt himself replied that he knew Dylan’s bodyguards and doubted very much he’d be standing on that table.
I was also aware of Van Zandt’s well-earned reputation for hard living, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, and womanizing — all contributing factors to his early death in 1997. I also knew that his work had influenced several generations of songwriters and musicians, from Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris to the Cowboy Junkies and The Black Crowes.
I knew that as a songwriter, he was part of the small, but elite group to produce a song that is now considered a standard. You can say that about Dylan’s “Blowin In The Wind,” and you can say it about Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday.” You can also say this about Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”
So what I didn’t know, and what I learned for the first time reading this book, was that Van Zandt was born into wealth, and that he died on the same day as his hero Hank Williams.
Townes Van Zandt was the son of a rich Texas family with a history as deep as the Big State itself. He essentially threw it all away around the same time he discovered people like Elvis and blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins. With that, Van Zandt instead chose to pursue a life of wine and women, but most importantly, his unwavering dedication to song.
This so horrified his parents that they had actually had him committed to a mental institution. In one humorous but telling story in the book, Van Zandt takes off his ever-present cowboy hat, and points to several small red dots on his forehead. “Electro shock therapy,” he says.
Van Zandt’s story is told here in painstaking detail through a series of in-depth interviews with those closest to him, including wives and girlfriends, the musicians and friends he both inspired and aggravated (including Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and best friend Guy Clark), and business associates like longtime manager Kevin Eggers (himself the subject of debate to this day amongst Van Zandt’s friends and fans).
The stories here range from tales of Van Zandt’s numerous, often notorious drunken escapades on the road playing a seemingly endless string of roadhouse honky tonks and Juke Joints, to a closer look at a brilliant, but complicated man hounded throughout his life by the twin demons of alcoholism and depression. In between, author John Kruth, who is himself a musician, offers keen insight into Van Zandt’s artistic body of work.
What emerges is a portrait of a rare artist, who was equally capable of the simple, romantic beauty of a song like “To Live’s to Fly,” and the darker edges of something like “Sanitarium Blues.” The book also reveals Van Zandt as a complex enigma who was capable of both humor and compassion, but also of harsh cruelty.
Although occasionally hard to read because of the way that Kruth’s narrative interlocks with the interviews — they often jump in and out in such a way it’s a little tough to catch your breath — To Live’s to Fly is a fascinating, and uncompromisingly honest look at a songwriter many who would know claim was the best of his time.
For fans, this book is a must. For those looking for an introduction it works as well, although I would also point you toward the album Live At The Old Quarter, Houston Texas.