The Great, Late Townes Van Zandt

He was a reckless drunk and a hopeless idealist, but he was also the best Texas songwriter of our time. Just ask Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and countless others who knew him well.

March 1998By Comments

Townes Van Zandt strumming in the mid-seventies.
Photograph by Al Clayton

Townes Van Zandt perched on a chair in the little nightclub in Berlin and sang for an hour and a half. It was October 1990. He was sober, which was a surprise; he was soulful and funny, which wasn’t. The adoring audience sat transfixed through his entire set: the precise playing, the weary singing, the apt covers like “Fraulein,” the country chestnut. The Germans loved him. They knew his lyrics by heart, though most of his jokes sailed over their heads.

Two and a half years later, Townes played at La Zona Rosa in Austin. He was so drunk he couldn’t finish a single song during the entire abbreviated set. Embarrassed fans started filing out after fifteen minutes as he fumbled with chords and slurred his words into gibberish. Some stuck it out to the end, feeling guilty for watching, but—well, you never knew what might happen when Townes Van Zandt was onstage. After the show, he collapsed.

Townes was a holy mess, his life a mix of the sublime and the horrific. By the time he died of a heart attack at 52 on New Year’s Day, 1997, the Fort Worth native had written a large batch of enduring songs and become the subject of colorful tales—many of them even true. They will be retold on March 28 when Austin City Limits airs “A Celebration of Townes Van Zandt,” during which Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and others reminisce about their friend and play his songs. At the taping of the show on December 7, Nelson and Harris did “Pancho and Lefty,” which he and Merle Haggard took to number one on the country charts in 1983. Harris and Earle sang “If I Needed You,” which she and Don Williams took to number three in 1981. Griffith sang “Tecumseh Valley” and Lovett “Flyin’ Shoes,” as each had been doing in concert for years. Griffith called Townes “one of our greatest native folk songwriters.”

Before the show, Susanna Clark, who was one of Townes’s best friends, recalled how her husband, Guy, and Rodney Crowell reacted to seeing a TV interview with Griffith after he died. Griffith had said, “If there weren’t a Townes Van Zandt, there would be no Nanci Griffith.” Hearing that, Crowell said, “There’d be no Rodney Crowell.” Guy said, “There’d be no Guy Clark.” You could add Lovett, Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Joe Ely to that list, as well as hundreds of wannabes with acoustic guitars and whiskey visions learning to play “Pancho and Lefty,” analyzing every twist and shade in its melody and lyrics and dreaming of the open road. For better and worse, Townes was the most influential Texas songwriter of his time.

And yet he remains today what he was all his wild, heartbreaking life: a cult artist honored by peers and ardent fans but largely unknown in the mainstream. He never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century. He sang about how precious it was to be alive yet spent a good deal of his life killing himself with drugs and alcohol. A kind of death cult grew up around him fed by stories and myth—some of his own making, some of his fans’, many of whom saw romance in his self-destruction. When he died on January 1, 1997—the same day his hero Hank Williams had died in 1953—the most surprising thing was that he had lived so long.

“Everything is not enough . . .”

John Townes Van Zandt, born on March 7, 1944, was groomed to be an entirely different kind of Texas legend. His great-great-grandfather Isaac Van Zandt was an original son of the Republic, appointed chargé d’affaires to the United States by Sam Houston in 1842. Isaac died while running for governor five years later; Van Zandt County, about fifty miles east of Dallas, is named for him. Succeeding generations of Van Zandts were civic leaders who built up Fort Worth from a dusty cowtown to a transportation hub of the New West. Townes got his name from John Charles Townes, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, for whom Townes Hall, the main building at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, is named.

When Townes was nine, he saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and asked his father for a guitar for Christmas. After promising to learn “Fraulein” as his first song, he got one. Although the family moved around a lot, his middle-class childhood was happy: He wrestled and played baseball and football, and he loved practical jokes. “He was a happy-go-lucky, funny kid,” says his older sister, Donna Spence. And he was smart. “Townes was a genius,” says his first wife, Fran Lohr. “They couldn’t test him because his IQ was so high— way above 140.” For his last two years of high school, his parents sent him to the exclusive Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota, where, he later said, he got “a real serious private prep school ivy-covered education.” He loved Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and wrote many poems of his own.

“Townes was basically primped to be a Texas senator or lawyer,” says John Townes Van Zandt II, his son by his marriage to Fran, and for a while he played along. He enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1962, wrote poetry, played the guitar for fun, and listened to records by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Hank Williams. He was a good student who was popular with professors. Townes met Fran, and the two started dating. Not all, however, was well: In the spring of his sophomore year, his parents, who were living in Houston, flew to Boulder to bring him home. “They thought he was binge drinking and suicidal,” remembers Fran. Townes’s parents admitted him to the UT Medical Branch in Galveston for three months of insulin shock treatment. “It was a time when they used extreme measures for things like that,” says Fran. “He seemed okay to me. He seemed like a normal college student.”

In the spring of 1965, Townes enrolled at the University of Houston as a pre-law student and pledged a fraternity. He and Fran married in August, and soon after, he tried to join the Air Force. “He wanted the adventure, and he wanted the discipline,” Fran says. Yet the doctors at UTMB wouldn’t let him go, calling him “an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life.” If he had a problem, his sister thought, it was that he felt too much. “You and I would hear about a starving person and go about our lives,” says Donna, “but it would just break his heart.” Fran remembers him happily giving his money away and once bringing a homeless man home to their Houston apartment.

After years of playing the guitar for himself and his friends and family, Townes decided to play in front of strangers. He hung out at Houston’s Jester Lounge, where he listened to and then opened for artists like Hopkins, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Doc Watson. He developed a wheeling, flat-picking style from listening to Hopkins. And he started writing, at first novelty songs like “Fraternity Blues.” Townes later told Austin deejay Larry Monroe that he heard Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin’ and decided, “This is what I’m gonna do.”

“Nothing is too much to bear . . .”

If music was in his heart, he was still studying to be a lawyer. “A lot of Townes was doing things because it was what he was supposed to do,” says Fran. But in January 1966 Townes’s father died at age 52, prompting him to leave school for good, turn his back on his past, and do what a musician was supposed to do. For the first time he went on the road, playing shows with Walker and Clark, and he began to write serious songs. One of the first was “Waitin’ Around to Die,” a road map for his adult years: “I guess I’ll keep gambling, lots of booze and lots of rambling / Aw, it’s easier than just waitin’ around to die.” He purposefully set out to live by those words, telling Fran that “you were living a lie if you sang the blues and hadn’t lived them.”

In 1967, Townes went to Nashville, where a tape he had made caught the attention of Kevin Eggers, who was looking for acts for his fledgling independent label, Poppy Records. The following year, Eggers released Townes’s first album, For the Sake of the Song, which contained some of Van Zandt’s most despairing songs—“Waitin’ Around to Die,” “Tecumseh Valley”—plus bizarre kitsch like “The Velvet Voices” and “All Your Young Servants.”

Over the next five years the Texas blue blood turned Texas bluesman cut five more albums, all on tiny Poppy. They were sometimes overproduced and frilly, the Nashville sound threatening his dark vision, but the songs he wrote during this period were some of his best. Influenced by Shakespeare as much as Williams and Dylan, they told of the romance of rambling, the precious weight of moments, the quiet glories and sore failures of love—and the utter aloneness of human beings. They were odes to joy that had no sentimentality, blues numbers that had no self-pity, and sad songs that made people feel good. Townes believed that the sky was full of songs just waiting to be pulled in. He said that “Pancho and Lefty” came through the window of a seedy hotel room and that “If I Needed You” came to him in his sleep, in a flu-driven fever dream. “I was just tapped on the shoulder from above and told to write these songs, as opposed to wanting to be a success in the music business,” he told writer Don McLeese. “What I do is between me and the Lord, to examine and possibly alter the state of grace in which I live, and thereby the state of grace of anybody who listens.”

His impact was indisputable. Emmylou Harris remembers seeing him play Gerde’s Folk City in New York in 1968 or 1969. “I was stunned,” she said at the Austin City Limits taping. “I had really never seen anything like that before. I thought he was the ghost of Hank Williams, with a twist.” In 1969 Townes was in Lubbock hitchhiking to Houston, his backpack crammed with copies of Our Mother the Mountain but no clothes, when he was picked up by Joe Ely. He gave Ely a record, and that night Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore stayed up listening to it and learning to play the songs. “Every song seemed like a dream,” Ely says now. “They were painted dark shades of blue.”

So, it turns out, was Townes. In 1971 he overdosed on heroin and almost died. In the 1975 country music documentary Heart-worn Highways, he’s seen wandering playfully around an Austin back yard in the middle of the day with a bottle of whiskey, a can of Coke, and a BB gun. Given his bouts of deep depression and his adventures of manic frenzy, people took literally the title of his sixth album—The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt—though Eggers says it was a “goof on the nonexistence of his career.” Stories of his reckless ways were told and retold. One of the most notorious involved a drunken Steve Earle, an angry Townes, and a five-in-the-morning game of Russian roulette. Or maybe it was a calm Townes and an angry Earle. Either way, the inveterate gambler was lucky. “He was very similar to Hank Williams,” says Eggers’ brother Harold, Townes’s longtime road manager and sometime manager. “He was running himself into a wall.”

Townes spent most of the seventies moving between Austin, Houston, Nashville, New York, and the mountains around Crested Butte, Colorado. He and Fran divorced in 1970; sometime during the next decade he married and divorced again. He was living the life he was writing about: traveling, lighting for a while, then traveling again. John remembers spending a year with his father in Austin “listening to all these unrecognized folk players and pickers drink and play every night until morning.” Maybe because Townes had grown up in one elite society, he rejected another: the rarefied hierarchy of the Nashville music scene. “He surrounded himself with desperate people,” says John. “He didn’t have to explain his way of living to them.” In whatever town he played, says Harold Eggers, he would go down to skid row and give each of the winos five dollars. “He almost resented money,” Eggers says.

“Where you been is good and gone . . .”

Townes’s final decade gave him plenty to be happy about. In 1987 he released his first album of new songs in nine years, At My Window, on a new label, Sugar Hill Records. Then 43, he was living in Nashville with his third wife, Jeanene, and their four-year-old son, Will (their daughter, Katie Belle, would be born in 1992). He had an extraordinary collection of songs to his credit, and many of the artists he had inspired ten and twenty years before—Earle, Ely, Gilmore, Harris, Lovett, Crowell, Butch Hancock, and Lucinda Williams—were making albums of their own. Now a new generation of musicians was discovering him. The Seattle protogrunge band Mudhoney recorded his “Buckskin Stallion Blues” with Gilmore. The Canadian folk rockers Cowboy Junkies invited him to tour with them and recorded a couple of his songs.

But for every high in Townes’s life, there was a low. A life of hard living had taken its toll. You could hear it in his voice, which was lower and thinner and halting; he often spoke his lyrics instead of singing them. You could hear it in his new songs, which came less frequently and had less subtlety than his earlier work; he told Jeanene that “A Song For,” the unrelentingly bleak first song on 1994’s No Deeper Blue, was a suicide note. You could see it in his live performances, where he sometimes seemed to be dying onstage. He went into detoxification programs a dozen times, by John’s reckoning, though he’d have to bottom out before he’d go. “Unfortunately, someone who is as afflicted as Townes, he has to drink,” says his friend Steve Wiener. “He would try to ration it out. He’d stop drinking between four and nine p.m. on the day of a show.” Of course, he sometimes crossed the line, as he did that night at La Zona Rosa.

Yet crowds would come—partly out of curiosity, to see if he’d crash, but mostly because when Townes was on this side of the line, and especially when he was close to it, his heart and humor filled the room. “He showed his innermost pain under the spotlight,” says Ely. “He’d start crying in the middle of a show—I mean, nobody does that.” Over and over he told the same corny jokes (“What’s white and crawls up your leg? Uncle Ben’s Perverted Rice”) after the darkest of songs, as if to say, “Hey, lighten up.” He loved playing in front of people—he felt safe onstage, he told Harold Eggers—and he especially loved touring. John remembers a show his father did at Austin’s Cactus Cafe in 1996: “He was real shaky, trying not to drink too much and blow the gig. He had his microphone cord wrapped around his guitar strap, and he was struggling with the strap. The crowd began murmuring, and finally the sound man ran up and fixed the strap. It was a forty-second ordeal. It was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Townes looked up from his lap, still shaky, and said, ‘It gets much worse.’ The way he laughed, everyone roared in laughter. It was a great show once he played a few songs and got into it.”

The only thing Townes ever wanted, he told Jeanene, was to write the perfect song that would save somebody’s life. The only thing his friends and family wanted was to help him save himself. After the debacle at La Zona Rosa, he let Wiener take him to a Nashville treatment center—but not before having a drink in the Dallas airport. “Amigo, I’ve been drinking for thirty years,” Townes told him. “You can’t feel guilty that you can’t stop me.” Most everyone tried to get him to slow down, and most everyone failed. “When I told him he drank too much,” says Susanna Clark, “he’d say, ‘Susanna, there’s sober people in India.’”

Townes deteriorated rapidly in his last three years, almost dying in 1994 when Jeanene (by then his third ex-wife) drove him to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville for pneumonia. Then, on Christmas Eve, 1996, he fell and hurt his hip; a week later he agreed to go to the hospital, where doctors said the hip was broken. After making Jeanene promise not to leave him there, he let doctors operate on him at one in the morning on January 1. Jeanene took him home later that day. At ten that evening, while lying in bed nibbling on cheese, crackers, sliced apples, and roast beef, with Will and Katie Belle nearby and Jeanene on the phone with Susanna Clark, Townes had a heart attack and died. “He told me three or four times in the last three or four years that he’d live to be fifty-two,” says Steve Wiener. His father had died of a heart attack at 52. Townes was sure the same fate would befall him.

“All you keep’s the getting there . . .”

Townes had two funerals—one for each of his lives. The service in the North Texas town of Dido, where his father was born, was mostly a family affair. Some of his ashes were buried under a headstone bearing the epitaph “To Live’s to Fly.” The service in Nashville, by contrast, was a music business happening; it grew so big that it had to be moved at the last minute from a funeral home to a large church. Friends like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett eulogized him and sang songs.

As often happens after the death of someone famous, especially someone mischievous enough to tell writers what they wanted to hear, the tributes and obituaries missed some things, like his sense of humor, and printed exaggerations of the legend. The New York Times, for instance, pegged him as a rich kid who had spent “many of his teen-age years in a mental institution” and ate dog food to survive as a poor musician.

As also happens when someone famous dies, squabbling erupted over Townes’s legacy. For several years now, fans have awaited a sixty-song, multi-CD set from Tomato (formerly Poppy) that was recorded in 1991 and contains new versions of his songs. That in itself would be nothing extraordinary, but the premise was that all of the songs would be duets, with Townes and one or another of his various admirers. Almost half of the collaborators have already sung their parts, including Willie Nelson, Freddie Fender, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Emmylou Harris. Townes was sober when he recorded his vocals, says Kevin Eggers, who calls them “magical.”

But there’s a problem. According to Jeanene, Eggers got Townes’s blessing to bring in a group of backup singers to sing on 5 songs during the recording sessions. Two years later, she says, Eggers brought them back to sing on 25 more songs without Townes’s knowledge—“and they drown him out.” Eggers retorts that they’ve always been on the songs and that Townes loved them. Although Jeanene has threatened to sue to prevent release—“It can’t come out with those cows mooing over Townes”—Eggers will put out a single-CD sampler this April and the whole set by next year. Or at least those are his plans. “I will put the records on a shelf,” he says, “if she keeps harassing me.”

Jeanene often inserted herself into the thick of Townes’s career when he was alive, and her continuing to do so after his death bothers some, who point out that she is his ex-wife, not his widow. Then again, their divorce decree gave her all the copyrights that he owned, and she is coexecutor, with John, of his estate. Jeanene says that she and Harold Eggers took care of Townes during his last fifteen years, even after their divorce, and—with their two children to raise—she’s not going to stop now.

Which is to say the estate hopes to put out an album of its own: just Townes and his guitar, two new songs plus “Pancho and Lefty” and other usual suspects. At the time of his death Townes and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth were making another album, this one for Geffen Records, which would have been his major label debut. He got a kick out of being discovered by the younger generation. “I’m the mold that grunge was grown in,” he would tell Jeanene, who is buying the masters from Geffen for a possible future release. They cut four songs, including “Screams From the Kitchen,” whose chorus is: “Good-bye to the highway, good-bye to the sky. I’m headed out, good-bye, good-bye.”

“To live’s to fly low and high . . .”

Guy Clark opened the Austin City Limits show by telling how Townes had had an epiphany in school when a teacher was talking about how the sun was eventually going to burn out: “Townes said he snapped and said, ‘Hold it. Do you mean I’m supposed to be here on time, shine my shoes, sit up straight, pay attention—and the sun is burning out? Man, are you hip? The sun’s burning out!’” Then Clark played “To Live’s to Fly,” Townes’s quiet masterpiece of affirmation in the face of despair and loss. If “Waitin’ Around to Die” was his road map, “To Live’s to Fly” was his statement of purpose. He wasn’t the best gambler, but he was lucky. Whether touched on the shoulder by God or just plain touched, he figured out what he was supposed to do: write songs, sing, save lives. Fly. And, like the punch line to one of his bad jokes, crash. It’s funny how sometimes those who are so good at dying are so good at living. To Townes Van Zandt, that was the best joke of all, and he got to tell it over and over again.

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