Popular music is littered with the corpses of performers who died before their time. Some of them burned out on drugs and alcohol, others went by accident, and a few were killed by somebody else's hand. With many of them dying during what should have been the prime of their careers, their musical legacies are often clouded. A kind of cult of the dead seems to have sprung up around many of them, distorting their true significance and preventing any clear-eyed assessment of their music. Yet while some have been elevated to near iconic status for apparently no other reason than their untimely deaths, others of real talent are barely remembered.
Of those who slipped through the cracks of popular music history not making the kind of impression on the public at large his music merited, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt's story is probably the most poignant. Born to a well off Texas family in 1944, Van Zandt stood out even as a kid when he was recognized as having a genius IQ. However a diagnosis of manic depression (bipolar disorder) in 1962 led him to being institutionalized and receiving three months of insulin shock therapy which erased most of his long term memory. After flirting with a few other options—university (he was accepted into pre-law), the Air Force (rejected on the basis of being a severe manic depressive)—he began to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter in 1967.
During his life, most of his success came from other people's recordings of his music. Emmlou Harris had a hit in 1981 with his "If I Needed You" and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took "Pancho and Lefty" to number one on the country charts in 1983. Musicians ranging from Bob Dylan (who claims to have every album Van Zandt recorded) to Norah Jones have cited Van Zandt as an influence and Steve Earle recorded an album of Van Zandt covers in 2009 simply titled Townes. After his death in 1997, and the legal bother of figuring out who owned the rights to his music was resolved, his recordings started to show up in movie and television show soundtracks. Probably the most famous of these is his cover of The Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers", which plays over the closing credits of the Coen brothers' movie, The Big Lebowski.