I first heard Townes Van Zandt on his live double album, which I borrowed from my sister’s erstwhile boyfriend, Kevin, who turned me on to a wide range of music I might otherwise have missed in the early 1980s: Public Image Limited’s Flowers of Romance, Rachel Sweet’s Protect the Innocent, the Cramps “Goo Goo Muck,” Johnny Rivers’ …and I Know You Wanna Dance (my introduction to Mose Allison’s songwriting), and Townes’s Live at the Old Quarter. If memory serves, I was first attracted to that one because Townes did Van Ronk’s version of Cocaine Blues, and then by the low-key, down-beat feel of the performance — including the jokes, which over the years I would hear pretty much every time I saw him. The same couple of jokes, decade after decade, which shouldn’t have worked, but Townes was an unusual performer and his shows were reliably riveting.
He was not barrel of laughs, though I recall him on a bill with Eric Anderson and another singer-songwriter referring to himself as “the comic relief.” As far as I could tell, he meant it, but his affect was so blank that a lot of us figured he’d burnt himself out and was pretty much brain-dead at that point, recycling the same songs and jokes in a monotone, with no clue that the mind that had produced those songs was still in his body. Then, the next year, he came back through with a bunch of new songs that were just as good as the old ones, written by that mind, which clearly was very much still present, somewhere in there.
I think that may have been the year I went to see him with Bill Morrissey at Passim Coffeehouse, and we both sat, fascinated and devastated by the quality of his writing and the hypnotic power of his quietly mournful performance — and, later, Steve Morse, my editor at the Globe, told me about interviewing him back in the dressing room, with Townes apologizing as he spat blood into a paper cup. He’d been mythically killing himself since day one — Kevin spent an evening with him back when I borrowed that first album and reported Townes was drinking Pernod with Ouzo chasers, apparently because he liked watching the alcohol get cloudy as he poured water into it. At Passim he had a new joke: he’d been playing a Unitarian Church coffeehouse and the minister offering him a glass of sacramental wine, and he responded, “Father, I’m from Texas, and in Texas we don’t drink in church.”
I learned a bunch of Townes’s songs, and tried several of them out onstage, and mostly they didn’t work for me. When he sang “Kathleen,” the first verse was devastating:
It’s plain to see the sun won’t shine today,
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway.
Maybe I’ll go insane, I’ve got to stop the pain,
Or maybe I’ll go down and see Kathleen.
When I sang that first couplet, the couple of times I tried it, people giggled. Not everybody, but enough to throw me off and convince me I couldn’t make it work. Same with “Waiting Round to Die,” and with age and hindsight I’m beginning to think they were right, not only about me but about the song and that whole Baudelaire-Bukowski drunken depressed death trip, which seems so romantic to a lot of us when we’re 18 or 23.
And yet… Townes always made me believe, and not just me, but everyone in the room. I particularly remember seeing him on the main stage at the Vancouver Folk Festival, with Monte Jones, a close friend who will be suitably acknowledged in later chapters. Monte was an Indian ex-rodeo rider from the wilds of Calgary and Northern British Columbia, and Townes devastated him. He said Townes had to be half Indian, was obviously alcoholic and dying, looked just like his father, and part way through the show he had to leave because it was too painful.
There’s a smart, powerful documentary about Townes, Be Here to Love Me, and an earlier documentary about Texas songwriters, Heartworn Highways, in which he sings this one and explains that it was the first song he wrote. They’re both worth watching, and I still sing this sometimes for myself, though I haven’t tried it onstage since the early 1980s. I recorded Townes’s “Mister Mudd and Mister Gold,” which is fast and wordy and optimistic. I used to sing “Pancho and Lefty” with Monte, me singing Pancho’s part and him singing Lefty’s. The last time was at what was supposed to be our last gig, but he was too weak to play, so I just sang it for him. Great song, and I’ll put it up here when I get to that part of the story.
Meanwhile, here’s this one, as best I can do it. If it makes you giggle, I understand. I’m not Townes, and I don’t think anyone would want to be. But I sure wish I could see him do another show.