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.
Unfortunately a great many of the recordings he made during his lifetime, especially those when he was at his most prolific during the early 1970s, ended up being overproduced. Even the producer of those albums, “Cowboy” Jack Clement, admits he went somewhat over the top. In the same review of a reissue of Van Zandt’s 1968 For The Sake Of The Song, which quotes Clement, the album is described as being so overproduced it would make a Southern Gospel album hang its head in shame. Thankfully it turns out there were recordings made of Van Zandt’s material prior to Clement adding all his bells and whistles. With the approval of his estate, Omnivore Recordings has put together a two-disc set, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971 – 1972, featuring some of Van Zandt’s best work.
The first thing you’ll notice about Van Zandt is his voice. Initially it may strike you as being almost thin, lacking the timbre or body we’re used to in our pop singers. However, there’s hardly anybody quite as mesmerizing. Something about his delivery or his expression leaves you hanging onto every word. You’ll quickly realize what he’s saying and how he says it are of equal importance. The first song on disc one, the “Unreleased Studio Sessions”, is a cover of the Jimmie Rodgers standard “T For Texas”. While Van Zandt is faithful down to including the yodel refrain, his somewhat ironic delivery makes you question the sentimental nature of the lyrics. Yet at the same time you know he’s not making fun of the song. There might have been a girl called Thelma, but we can also tell by the way he sings the line, “T is for Thelma/That girl who made a mess outta me”, she’s not the one responsible for the mess he’s in.
Then there’s “Blue Ridge Mountains”, the fifth song on this disc. Musically it sounds like your typical “mountain music” song, one about the joys of life back home and how the singer yearns for what was the simpler days of his youth. Until you get to the last line of the refrain, which opens the song, “I ain’t comin’ back here anymore”. This prepares you for what’s to come. For while he sings the song with a yearning quality we’ve come to associate with the “wish I were back home in the country” type of song, the lyrics tell you how he really feels. “I’ve seen this whole wide country over/From New York City down to Mexico/And I’ve seen the joyful and the sorrow/And I ain’t comin’ back here anymore”.
Normally this type of song would have the singer saying just the opposite of the sentiments expressed in the previous verse. No matter what charms big cities and foreign locales have to offer, nothing compares to my old home. Well, Van Zandt has no illusions. The wide world has plenty to offer and why in the world would anybody want to go back to living in the back woods after having experienced it? As this song makes obvious, false sentimentality had no place in Van Zandt’s world. Others might pretend they would trade civilization for a dirt floor cabin with no running water or electricity, but not him.
However, Van Zandt was more than just irony. He could write and sing songs that would break your heart. “Sad Cinderella”, track 11 on disc one, is about facing up to reality after having been treated as something special for no real reason. Whether through beauty, wealth, or popularity individuals are elevated to the status of royalty and then just as suddenly have it all taken away. “When your magazine memory has spun you around/And you realize your lovers were just painted clowns/And outside the window you start hearing the sounds/Where they’re building a cross for to burn you”.
Sung with no adornment, save for his empathy and compassion, Van Zandt made this song into one of the most beautiful condemnations of what we do to people in our desire for celebrities. What’s even more amazing is he wrote this in the early 1970s when celebrity worship was nothing compared to what exists today. It’s a bittersweet reminder there are human beings behind the gossip and the headlines. It also shows off Van Zandt’s uncanny ability as a songwriter to find those words which cut to the heart of a subject emotionally and intellectually without beating a point into the ground.
While many of the songs on disc two (“The Demos”) duplicate those on the first disc, hearing Van Zandt sing them almost unaccompanied save for his guitar (a couple have a second guitar or other basic accompaniment) allows us even more of a chance to appreciate his voice. There’s a rawness to his singing that’s kind of like an exposed nerve. In fact, some feel so personal it’s almost as if you’re overhearing a private conversation between Van Zandt and the subject of the song. However, it’s not all heartbreak and sorrow as he had a keen eye for the absurd and a wonderfully dry sense of humour.
For those of you who have never heard Van Zandt, and those who have always loved his music, the two-disc collection Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 is a treasure to be savoured. Not only does it contain a great mix of his material and covers, his version of “Who Do You Love” will knock you on your ass. It’s him as he was meant to be heard. No strings, no horns or any of the other bells and whistles his producer piled on the songs after they were recorded. Just him and a band playing music unlike just about anything you’ve heard. You might think you recognize elements of others in some of these songs, but then you’ll remember when he recorded them. He might not have gained the popularity or acclaim he deserved while alive, but his legacy is assured through those he influenced.