Monday, June 17, 2024

Townes Van Zandt: The Alchemist

by Paul Kopasz 1996

In 1975 Lester Bangs wrote “Lou Reed is my hero principally because he stands for all of the most fucked up things I can think of, which probably just goes to show the limits of my own imagination.”

I feel that exact way about Townes Van Zandt.

Aside from the obvious electro-shock brotherhood between Reed and Van Zandt, the two really are quite a bit alike: both outlaws in the truest sense, both visionary lyricists, both with one eye always on tradition, and both utterly unconcerned with fashion.

Townes Van Zandt, the quintessential Texas drifter songwriter, is my hero principally because he stands for all of the most perfect poetry I can imagine, in addition to the fact that he can drink more than I can.

There always has been and always will be a place in popular culture for the reckless, ruthless self-destroyer, the bull in the china shop. Townes exists, along with his finest songs, in that rarefied atmosphere inhabited by such men as Hank Williams and Edgar Allen Poe, a place where suffering for one’s art is a joke — not a sarcastic or sad joke, but a genuinely funny joke. No one understands this sort of obscurity except folks like Townes, and I can’t explain it because I don’t understand either. What I do know is that a person’s bad habits and misdeeds always outshine their strengths and that perhaps their misdeeds should be de-emphasized as well as deglamorized. People who write about musicians always victimize those musicians by (in effect) casting only one opinion into stone (their own).

Perhaps it was not even fair for me to mention my envy of Mr. Van Zandt’s ability to hold his drink.

What Townes really enjoys soaking up isn’t booze; it’s misery. His own, other people’s, the General Anguish of the World. Lightnin’ Hopkins taught him (he says) how to “become a blues sponge,” and Townes seems to have run with the ball from there. Some of his best songs (“The Tower Song” say, or “Only Him or Me”) are among the saddest things written by any English-speaking artist in the past 30 years. By turns harrowing, depressing, merely melancholy or reaching the sublime heights of bittersweetness, his compositions very, very rarely fail to affect. His sad songs have that wonderful quality of being able to make a depressed person feel better. On another level, those sad songs make some of us feel more sad than we really have the right to feel, and, in doing so, make us happier because we realize we still have feelings and emotions and we still can cry.

Not all of Townes’ songs are sad, of course. There are plenty of upbeat swing tunes, revved-up to rock ‘n’ roll speed, but with that dry, cracked voice reminding the listener — “Hey, this guy’s from Texas and he has been around the block once or twice.” There are plenty of sweet lullabies and love songs, too, enough probably to allow Townes to be marketed as a sort of outlaw crooner (a la Charlie Rich) were that idea in any way palatable.

The reason Townes, a Fort Worth native, has never been a pop star has always been blindingly obvious: He can’t be a big shot because it takes so much dedication just to be Townes.

I first became acquainted with the great man’s work at the embarrassingly late age of 27. A colleague of mine was helping me book some shows in small clubs and happened to be doing some of the same sort of work for Townes.

She introduced me to some of his 1970s albums, and about one year later (1990) I found myself on a short European tour with Townes and Guy Clark and a few other solo acoustic-guitar types. Townes made quite an impression on me in spite of the fact that I was still in the neophyte stages of my introduction to Van Zandtdom — still thinking that “Pancho and Lefty” was “probably his best song.” Little did I (and do I) know.

The depth of material in the Townes Van Zandt catalog makes the Kentucky Wildcats bench look like the basketball equivalent of a wading pool.

The listener who digs right in to the Van Zandt oeuvre will find himself deciding on a new “favorite song” every three days or so. There is almost no limit to the number of masterpieces on these albums because nearly every song is fantastic, and because the songs reveal themselves so slowly. A line buried in the second verse of an unassuming song in the middle of an album will reverberate in a listener’s memory until, maybe a month later, he or she will be staggered by some cataclysmic understanding:

“You’re gonna drown tomorrow, if you cry too many tears for yesterday” is a pretty decent example, but the examples are many.

The striking wisdom of these lines seems to sit in their utter transparency. This is to say, the lines can mean almost anything, and, in each context they ring equally true. Here is one test of a great song (not merely a good one): It can stand up to a multitude of interpretations, arrangements, settings etc.

I will not soon forget my first meeting with Townes (nor my second). On the aforementioned tour, Townes and I rode together from town to town in a rented van driven by a Van Zandt road veteran named Luke who later became my harmonica player. I had little knowledge of Townes’ history and habits, and so was quite taken aback when he wanted me to make a wager against him upon the occasion of our first stop on the highway. We had stopped for gasoline and Townes wanted me to stake 10 Dutch guilders onwhether the pump would stop on an odd or even number. I am ashamed to admit that the paltry sum of 10 guilders (about $6.50) was at that time, I decided, too much to risk on such frivolity. Townes reacted with the sort of gentle contempt which one associates with Buddhists and parole officers.

On that 1990 tour I discovered the joys of all that is hidden in the world of Mr. Van Zandt. The obscure songs, the sloppy covers, the failures that enshrine the successes. I heard “Lungs” and “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” and I began to develop a philosophy about self-sacrifice being the essence of art. Townes began to embody a character I had been trying to write about, a golem, a mythical clay creature brought to life by magic and prayer. In my story the golem himself was a sculptor whose workhad to be fashioned from the substance of his own body. In other words, the golem would pull off one of his own arms and use the clay to make a little statue of an animal, or whatever. I abandoned the attempt to finish this story when I discovered Townes, because trying to write it seemed almost redundant. Townes and his gift would (and will) always be better than the character that I would have been able to create. The magic and prayers that made Townes a living, breathing artist are potent indeed.

The inner confidence and strength of purpose needed to put together a body of work like Townes has is beyond the abilities of most of us mortals. Whatever is to be said about the disciplinary weakness of “artists,” certainly it is just more victimization to deny praise and affection to one of those artists when they have truly created a masterpiece. Townes Van Zandt has written and sung many.

The second time I ran into Townes I was walking in downtown Austin, and I was surprised he even remembered me, as I had made an impression on our earlier tour only as a coward afraid to bet seven bucks. Townes had told my man Luke, the harp player, that he “only had one more album” in him, (the songs that turned into “No Deeper Blue”)and that claim was very much on my mind, as I was nearly obsessed with his work at that time. I had about an hour to kill before my SXSW show, and I was trying to kill it when I heard a raw voice calling out my name. The voice seemed to be coming from across Sixth Street out of the throat of some guy who looked like Townes Van Zandt.

When I approached him and said hello, he grabbed my right arm and thrust my hand down into the crotch area of his blue jeans where I felt … a pint of vodka! “OK,” I thought, “the hero is showing cracks,” but that was before I realized (some time later) that the cracks that appear in an otherwise flawless piece of marble are what distinguishes that particular piece.

People talk a lot these days about “heroes” and “role models,” very often with little regard to what qualities actually inspire strength and goodness in those who are thought to be watching. Cultural figures, in this view, are supposed to be clean and white, and, above all, quiet. Townes Van Zandt reminds me of a Texan Lou Reed for a lot of reasons, but mainly because he doesn’t seem to give a good damn what anyone thinks of him. He is not very clean and not very white. He is my hero, though, because his honesty to himself and to you and to me, has been paid in full at an awful price, a price that you or me could never afford. Like many great artists, Townes has, in effect, died for our sins. This is not meant to sound fawning, but only to acknowledge that in this crazy world we must take our heroes where we can find them.

Townes Van Zandt is a hero to me because he is still here, because his forthrightness hurts my shoulders, and because his lyrics make me cry.

Paul Kopasz, who passed away from throat cancer in 2020, led the Kentucky-based Paul K. and the Weathermen.

Townes photo by Ken Hoge

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