Something I’ve never understood is why people romanticize alcoholics. Even worse is why they see that somebody dying a sad and lonely death as a result of their addiction is proof of their authenticity as an artist. What they can’t understand is the drugs and booze which resulted in these people’s deaths also prevented many of these artists from achieving their potential. Yet people like Graham Parsons have obtained near mythical status more because of the way he lived and died, not through his body of work.
I mention Parsons specifically because of his association with country music and early attempts at marrying it with pop music. For while he has achieved a great deal of notoriety after his death, one who was far more prolific and influential has until recently been largely ignored. For some reason, while his talent was always recognized by his peers, Townes Van Zandt never managed to capture the public’s imagination in the same way as people like Parsons.
Maybe it was because he was genuinely unwell, suffering from severe depression all his life and diagnosed by the medical profession as everything from bipolar to manic depressive. His turning to alcohol to combat his depression only made matters worse and he spent a great deal of his life living in isolation.
Most of his income came from other musicians’ success performing his material, as his albums didn’t sell very well. However, listening to Van Zandt perform his own material makes you appreciate he was more than just a gifted songwriter and his influence extends far beyond people covering his material. Earlier this year a two-disc set of studio outtakes and demos, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972, was released. The recording sessions were made during what is considered Van Zandt’s most productive time as an artist. Now, the label that released the collection, Omnivore Recordings, in conjunction with the Van Zandt estate, have released remastered editions of the two albums on which the bulk of the material from those sessions appeared, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
While you might think there’s something eerily prescient about the title of the latter release, it was more an example of Van Zandt’s sense of irony than any foreknowledge he might have had about his death. It was on this album he recorded “Pancho and Lefty”, later a hit for first, Emmylou Harris and then Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Ironically, after his death it was revealed that during the last few years of his life, Van Zandt had earned around $100,000 per year from royalties.
Musically, Van Zandt was the place where country, blues, folk and gospel hung out together. While some songs, like “Two Hands” and “When He Offers His Hand” on High, Low And In Between are straight-ahead gospel, his most memorable tracks are the ones which defy any specific classification. “You Are Not Needed Now” and “To Live Is to Fly”, from HLAIB and “Sad Cinderella” and “Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool You”, from TLGTVZ resonate with a sound and a quality distinct to Van Zandt.
It’s as if he had the ability to reach into the places we hide our innermost fears and desires and found a way of turning them into song. Yet, he didn’t try to manipulate our emotions or reactions through sentiment or any of the other ploys other songwriters employ. His lyrics reflect an uncanny ability to empathize with people’s feelings. Listening to some of his songs you may wonder how he managed to read your mind because of the way he was able to articulate the secret hopes, dreams and fears most of us keep buried in the deeper recesses of our souls. His songs always managed to sound like they were talking about something his listeners could have experienced. Take “Sad Cinderella,” for example: “When the bandits have stolen your jewelry and gone/And your crippled young gypsy, he’s grown tall and strong/And your dead misconceptions have proven you wrong/Well then princess, where you plannin’ to turn to?”
When you hear him sing, your first impression is of a rather thin voice whose twang reveals his Texas roots. Yet there’s something about it which draws you into a song quicker and deeper than most singers. Maybe because his voice sounds so regular there’s less of a barrier between him and his audience than if he had a more melodic voice or polished singing style. The raw simplicity of his delivery gives it an honesty and sincerity we aren’t used to hearing.
One of the oddest experiences of listening to both of these Van Zandt discs is hearing a song which reminds you of a present day performer. The natural reaction is to automatically think, “Wow he sounds just like” so and so. It’s when you remember Van Zandt’s song was released over a decade earlier you begin to appreciate how much of an influence he’s been on those who’ve come after him.
Like the human condition, Van Zand’t songs are funny, sad, emotional and sometimes just matter of fact. The dryness of his humour and his delivery make it easy to miss some of the subtler moments in his songs. One of my favourites is the chorus of “Pancho and Lefty”: “All the federales say/They could have had him any day/They only let him hang around/Out of kindness I suppose”. Who ever heard of a cop letting an outlaw “hang around” out of kindness? It’s these little touches which distinguished Van Zandt from most of his contemporaries and followers.
Steve Earle was once quoted as saying he thought Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world and “I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that”. Whether you agree with him or not after listening to Van Zandt’s music is up to you. However, one thing you won’t be able to deny is he was an amazing talent whose artistry has been overlooked for far too long.
With lesser lights being held up as examples of great talents because of our fascination with their untimely deaths due to substance abuse, isn’t it about time we started to recognize those among the troubled who were truly talented? While his fellow musicians have always known the gift Van Zandt was to the world of popular music, it’s about time for the rest of the world to catch up. You won’t believe what you’ve been missing for all these years.