His young daughter, Katie Belle, came running in and said, “Daddy’s having a fight with his heart.” It wasn’t the first time, but this one was physical and cost Townes Van Zandt his life. The singer-songwriter, whose dark and illuminating lyrics walked with a self-destructive limp, died of a heart attack Jan. 1, 1997, at his home near Nashville.
The writer of such country hits as “Pancho and Lefty” (Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson) and “If I Needed You” (Emmylou Harris and Don Williams) was 52.
It wasn’t the infrequent radio songs, however, but a penetrating body of work that gave Van Zandt the reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. Such early Van Zandt albums as 1968’s For the Sake of the Song and 1969’s Our Mother the Mountain inspired such Texas songsmiths as Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and Lucinda Williams to go deeper. Van Zandt’s rhythm with nature gave his music a Native American feel, while his simple, sturdy melodies sang of a primitive sophistication. Above all, he was a poet.
Earle took his worship of Van Zandt public, allowing his assessment that “Townes Van Zandt is the best damn songwriter in the world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that’” to be stickered on the cover of Van Zandt’s 1987 LP At My Window. (It’s a quote that’s been paraphrased ad nauseum.) Naming his son Justin Townes after his mentor in 1982 almost guaranteed that Earle had fathered a songwriter.
And yet, Van Zandt’s oldest boy J.T. took to other pursuits, building boats and fly fishing, because he had seen what the life of a troubadour had done to his family.
The Fort Worth-raised, Houston-honed Van Zandt was a long, desolate stretch of highway. He was always on the road, even at home. Singing along to his songs would be like making love while a TV documentary on Hiroshima flickered in the background. Instead you drank along, as Van Zandt traipsed the gutter between life and death. He wrote of his own experiences — including alcoholism, depression, and the drifting life — in a way that almost made sadness seem like a sacrament.
He was too smart, too original, too honest to be anything but a cult hero. “I remember him saying to me that he was afraid people were only going to know who he was after he was dead,” Gilmore said on the day Townes died. Ironically, it was the same date as when Hank Williams was pronounced dead on New Year’s Day 44 years earlier.
New York Times writer Robert Palmer drew out the parallels between Townes and Hank in a June 7, 1987, article. “Both men live in their music, as if singing and writing and being human were the same thing and as natural as breathing,” Palmer wrote. He described the music of both Williams and Van Zandt as “the direct, untrammeled expression of a man’s soul.”
A common trait between the two songwriting beacons of different eras was an affinity for alcohol and drugs. Van Zandt’s battle with the bottle was ongoing, as he slipped in and out of sobriety — sometimes during the break between sets. But even as he slurred his words, Van Zandt was capable of compelling musical performances, with such richly down-and-out songs as “Marie,” “No Place to Fall,” and “Tecumseh Valley,” appropriately darkened by Van Zandt’s state. He shared a lot of himself onstage, and when he stepped off, the songwriting community was there to share what they could with him, whether it be a bed or a snort.
“The songs were always there,” said Griff Luneberg, manager of the Cactus Cafe, which hosted countless Van Zandt concerts. “No matter what shape Townes was in, he had the songs, and that’s what people came to hear.” Luneberg recalls Van Zandt’s final Austin show, at the Cactus on Oct. 12, 1996, as “pure magic.”
Although his career was on an upswing, as a newer generation of singer-songwriters, especially in Europe, acknowledged their debt, Van Zandt’s health had been unstable in his final years. At the time of his death, he was at home in the Nashville suburb of Smyrna recuperating from hip surgery. But his drinking was the cause for most concern.
“I had expected a call about Townes for years,” Jerry Jeff Walker said. “Today I got that call. It’s still very sad when it comes.” In 1972, Van Zandt called his album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (which contains his two biggest hits, “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You”) as preparation for the inevitable.
He was born John Townes Van Zandt in Fort Worth on March 7, 1944, to a prominent Texas family. His great-great grandfather Isaac Van Zandt, a former legislator with Sam Houston, is the namesake of Van Zandt County. His great grandfather on his mother’s side, John Townes Sr., founded the University of Texas Law School. Townes’s father, Harris, was a successful attorney who moved his young family from Houston to Fort Worth in 1941 and then to Midland in 1952, to handle his firm’s oil company clients.
Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, had profound effect on a 12-year-old Townes, who pled for a guitar. His father held off a few months until he heard a country song by Bobby Helms that he liked. The deal was that Townes could have a guitar if he learned to play “Fraulein,” which he did and kept the song in his repertoire through the years. Though the young Van Zandt’s earliest musical heroes were Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, and the Everly Brothers, he soon became under the spell of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, whom he heard on the radio when driving with his father to oilfields in West Texas.
The family relocated again, in 1958, to Boulder, Colorado, but Townes was shipped off to military prep school in Minnesota, where he rebelled with folk singing and glue-sniffing. Still, with his superior intelligence, Van Zandt graduated near the top of his class. But college, at the University of Colorado, was a wash-out, as Townes started drinking as soon as he woke up. He also discovered a new songwriting hero in Bob Dylan and learned to play “One Too Many Mornings” and “In My Time of Dying.”
According to A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt by Robert Earl Hardy, Van Zandt struggled at college by trying to balance what his family expected and what he wanted, which was to be a fulltime songwriter. A self-sufficient one. His family had given him a car, but he chose to hitchike across the country. When his family discovered that he had dropped out of college without telling them, they flew from Houston and just showed up at Townes’s apartment in Boulder, where they found him passed out after a night of hard-partying. They took Townes, who had just turned 20, back to Houston and had him admitted for psychiatric evaluation.
The report concluded that Van Zandt had an “obsessive-compulsive schizoid character with strong paranoid trends.” Electroshock and insulin coma therapy were prescribed to stem the onset of psychosis and Van Zandt underwent 40 treatments from April – June 1964, according to No Deeper Blue. Van Zandt said the procedure erased all his childhood memories. But his college credits transferred, to the University of Houston, where, to appease his parents, Van Zandt enrolled in the pre-law program in Jan. ’65. Van Zandt married his college girlfriend Fran on Aug. 25, 1965, the day before the marriage deferment for the draft would no longer apply to newlyweds. This was not a coincidence.
By that time, Van Zandt switched majors to folksinging after discovering the Jester Lounge on Westheimer Boulevard. He befriended another Jester hopeful, Guy Clark, and became greatly influenced by the blues musicians Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Josh White, who played the same circuit under the auspices of the Houston Folklore Society, organized by John A. Lomax Jr.
“There are only two types of music,” Van Zandt used to say, “the blues and ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah.’” (Another quote trampled to death.)
Van Zandt wrote his first great songs inside the walk-in closet of the apartment he shared with Fran. “He would shut the door and stay in there for hours,” she told Hardy. “Waitin’ Around to Die” was one of the first. It’s a song where nothing good happens and then it ends. Live, Van Zandt would almost always follow it with a bad joke or a funny song, to break up the mood.
Houston songwriter Mickey Newbury, hot on the charts in 1968 with “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, was an early Townes fan and got him a publishing deal with former Sun Record engineer and Johnny Cash producer Jack Clement. They played “Tecumseh Valley” for Kevin Eggers, a New York businessman with an upstart label, Poppy Records, and that was all it took to get Van Zandt a record deal. Clement produced For the Sake of the Song at Owen Bradley’s famous Quonset Hut studio in the fall of ’68. Though the album stiffed and Van Zandt was unhappy that he had to change “whorin’” to “walkin’” on “Tecumseh Valley” (recut with original lyrics on the next LP), the title track would prove to be an enduring theme through the years.
I never interviewed TVZ, but we did have a conversation about his music once. I had to review one of his shows at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas in 1993 and I didn’t know all the songs so I called the number I had for Townes’s road manager the next day. Townes picked up. We went over some titles and I told him I was surprised he did a Bruce Springsteen cover, a car song, no less. “That’s not a car song,” he said. “Listen to it again.” So I played “Racing in the Streets” and realized that it’s really about how pursuing your passion with singlemindedness can steamroller everything else in your life. He was not much of a husband and even less of a family man, until later in life.
His son J.T. was born in 1969 and the next year Fran and Townes filed for divorce. He started using heroin and, of course, drank every day. Eggers was in charge, which, Clement told Hardy, added to the chaos. “He just never did what he said he was going to do,” Clement said. “I tried to like the guy [Eggers] and I think he probably had good intentions at some point, but he was basically a fuck-up.”
But Eggers allowed Van Zandt to lead the life of the wandering minstrel, which is all he really wanted. Townes did especialy well on the lucrative college circuit where, “the girls lined up like it was Elvis,” said bassist Rex Bell. He was a strikingly handsome songwriter who loved to lose his mind—what could possibly go wrong?
When Van Zandt was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in 2015, singer-songwriter Gillian Welch acknowleged a mentor who “seemed to exist in a world between worlds — between Texas and Tennessee, country and folk, the physical and the metaphysical.” But Townes was not for everybody. Nothing truly original is.
The songs are always there, providing some comfort in the sadness, and one in particular defines a life lived like none other. On “A Song For,” the lead-off track of his final studio album (1994’s No Deeper Blue), Van Zandt wrote his epitath:
“London to Dublin/ Australia to Perth/ I gazed at your sky/ I tasted your earth/ Sung out my heart/ For what it was worth/ Never again shall I ramble.”