Townes Van Zandt

TrackAlbum
Waiting ‘'Round To DieFor The Sake Of The Song
KathleenOur Mother The Mountain
Tecumseh ValleyOur Mother The Mountain
For The Sake Of The SongTownes Van Zandt
RakeDelta Momma Blues
High, Low And In BetweenHigh, Low And In Between
Pancho And LeftyThe Late Great Townes Van Zandt
If I Needed YouThe Late Great Townes Van Zandt
Rex'’s BluesFlying Shoes
A Song ForNo Deeper Blue

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Contributor: Kasper Nijsen

This list should perhaps come with an antidepressant prescription. For Townes Van Zandt was (mildly put) not the most upbeat of singer-songwriters. Yet his songs, carved out of the darkness of despair and addiction, are not easily forgotten by those who have fallen under the spell of his gritty voice and hard-boiled poetry.

Townes wrote one of his first songs just after his first wedding. His wife was somewhat upset when, expecting a love song, she found instead the words of Waitin’ Around To Die. It’s a bleak, harrowing tale of man’s misfortunes and final resignation in the face of death. The rambling singer is cursed by a violent father, cleaned out by his girlfriend, betrayed by a fellow outlaw and sent to jail. When free at last, knowing that home, love and friendship cannot offer the comfort he needs, he turns to a friend that ‘don’t drink or steal or cheat or lie’: the pain-killing drug codeine.

Among similar depressing stories such as Tecumseh Valley, his second album Our Mother The Mountain (1968) also contained Kathleen. It’s a short song, only three brief verses, that leaves a devastating impression. ‘Maybe I’ll go insane,’ Townes sings, ‘I’ve got to stop the pain. Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.’ It’s never quite clear whether Kathleen is a woman, a drug, or the coldly alluring face of death, but as the singer intones the final words he seems both comforted and frightened at the prospect of his date: ‘Soon I’m gonna see my sweet Kathleen.’

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Moving on to his third album, Townes Van Zandt (1969), we discover its opening track For The Sake Of The Song, a song that also appeared on his first album. It’s a gentle meditation on a love turned sour, set to a flowing melody that brings Leonard Cohen’s early records to mind. ‘All she offers me are her chains, and I got to refuse,’ Townes sings with only the faintest hint of bitterness and regret.

Rake, off Delta Momma Blues (1971), is darker material again, worthy of comparison to Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. It’s the disturbing tale of a reckless man who lives at night, covering his lovers ‘with flowers and wounds,’ laughing the devil into a fright, and commanding his kneeling lovers. But in the final verse he is cruelly punished for his pride and recklessness and remorselessly left in a Hell of his own making.

Glossing over the beautiful, philosophic piano ballad High, Low And In Between, we arrive at the Old West tale that remains one of Townes’s most beloved songs, Pancho And Lefty. Its opening two lines stunned me, and no doubt many other listeners, into immediate admiration. ‘Living on the road my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean.’ The eternal promise of freedom and youth, but then the realism of age: ‘Now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath’s hard as kerosene.’ It’s a miracle of hard-earned insight, wisdom, and poetry, expressed with razor-sharp precision.

Also on The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972) are If I Needed You, the ballad covered by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, and Snow Don’t Fall. The latter is a haunting piano tune, written to commemorate the death of Townes’s girl friend Leslie Jo, who was brutally stabbed to death while hitch-hiking. ‘My love lies ‘neath frozen skies, and waits in sweet repose for me’: the words are comforting, the vocals among Townes’s best performances, but there is no solace in the music itself.

Rex’s Blues finds the songwriter again in a philosophic mood. It’s a beautiful, gently finger-picked melody with haunting lyrics: ‘It’s legs to walk and thoughts to fly. Eyes to laugh and lips to cry. A restless tongue to classify. All born to grow and born to die.’ Yet the final verse ends on a lighter note. ‘There ain’t no dark till something shines,’ Townes declares as he’s ‘bound to leave this dark behind.’

But he never left the darkness wholly behind. When Townes’s one-time girlfriend found the hand-written lyrics of A Song For she tearfully told him what a beautiful song it was. ‘Hell, that ain’t a song,’ he replied, ‘that’s a suicide note.’ Townes chose this slow but steady waltz into death and nothingness as the opening song of his final album No Deeper Blue (1994). All words of wisdom have vanished: ‘no words of comfort, no words of advice’ – leaving behind only a lonely voice that sings amid the darkness.

In songs like these, Townes comes close to the conclusion of Nashville-born poet Randall Jarrell that ‘Pain comes from the darkness. And we call it wisdom. It is pain.’ While often far from uplifting, hopeful or reassuring, Townes’s music expresses a side of living that’s as real and important as the light-hearted joy of so much of popular music. In his power to shape even the stuff despair is made of into song, no matter how hopeless, Townes Van Zandt shows the enduring strength of the human spirit – his own and ours – to salvage beauty and wisdom from a wrecked life and a world gone wrong.

Townes Van Zandt website

Townes Van Zandt biography (iTunes)

The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1944-97). His first seven studio albums are available in a nice-price 4 CD box set, Texas Troubadour – recommended. “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Steve Earle

TopperPost #104

4 Comments

  1. David Powell
    Oct 23, 2013

    I would add to the essential listening list “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston Texas,” a double live album recorded in 1973. It features Townes in his prime, stark naked alone with just his guitar, performing exquisite renditions that achieve an emotional level often far beyond his studio recordings.

    • Kasper Nijsen
      Oct 24, 2013

      Agreed about Live at the Old Quarter, which might be my favourite Van Zandt record when all’s said and done, as well as one of my favourite live albums by any songwriter.

  2. Delvin Ahde
    Oct 23, 2013

    Steve Earles’ tribute album “Townes” is such a treat; a great artist doing justice to a cherished friend and fellow.

  3. Merric Davidson
    Oct 23, 2013

    Great stuff, top list – really good selection, and fine critique. I’d take all ten but I’d have to make it twelve in order to include St John The Gambler and Snake Mountain Blues from the genius second album, Our Mother The Mountain.

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