THERE are some striking parallels between Britain’s Nick Drake, whose profile I concluded last week, and the American Townes Van Zandt. Both were born into wealthy families in the 1940s and enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Both turned their back on education to pursue a life in music. Both were slaves to substance abuse which would eventually kill them. Both spent much of their time living in squalor to the horror of their relatives. Both were rejected by the armed forces. Both came to have their qualities recognised widely by the public only when they were dead and gone. And both were consummate songwriters whose work will never be forgotten.
John Townes Van Zandt was born on March 3 1944 in Fort Worth, Texas. His father Harris was a corporate lawyer descended from Isaac Van Zandt, a political leader in the Republic of Texas who had a county named after him.
In October 1956, at the age of 12, Townes saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show and was captivated. ‘I just thought that Elvis had all the money in the world, all the Cadillacs and all the girls, and all he did was play the guitar and sing,’ he said. ‘That made a big impression on me.’ Not surprisingly, Santa brought the boy a guitar that Christmas and he played it non-stop.
Tests suggested a genius-level IQ and Townes’s parents were confident he would become a lawyer and eventually a senator. In 1962 he enrolled at the University of Boulder in Colorado and discovered drink and drugs in a big way. Concerned at his bingeing, his parents arrived and took him back home. He was admitted to Texas University Hospital in Galveston where he was diagnosed with manic depression. Insulin shock therapy was suggested and his parents agreed, mother Dorothy later saying that this was the biggest regret of her life. Three months of treatment wiped out much of Townes’s long-term memory and did nothing to improve his condition. He tried to join the US Air Force but was turned down after a doctor diagnosed him as ‘an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life’.
Despite his problems he was accepted in 1965 as a law student at the University of Houston. However he had discovered Bob Dylan, and the 1964 LP The Times They Are A-Changin’ altered his whole outlook on life. He began to perform on stage at clubs in the city for $10 a night and met musicians including Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. TVZ’s act comprised mainly cover versions of songs by Hopkins and Dylan but he realised he should be writing material of his own. He quit school in 1967 determined on a career in music and turned his back on family and wealth.
The following year he was at a low ebb, reduced to sleeping rough and eating dog food, when he met the musician and songwriter Mickey Newbury in a coffee shop. Newbury, whose most famous work An American Trilogy was recorded by Elvis, was so impressed by the young chap four years his junior that he took him to Nashville and introduced him to ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, who had learned his stuff working as an engineer with the legendary Sam Phillips in Memphis and produced Jerry Lee Lewis’s version of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.
Clement assembled some of Nashville’s top session men to play on Van Zandt’s debut album, For The Sake Of The Song. It contains some of his most enduring songs, including Tecumseh Valley, which is somewhat marred by the insensitive clip-clop percussion, the title track, I’ll Be Here In The Morning and the first song he ever wrote, Waitin’ Around To Die.
His first wife, Fran, said he came up with it while sitting in a walk-in wardrobe he had converted into a mini-studio. ‘I was twenty years old – a newly-wed – and Waitin’ Around to Die wasn’t exactly . . . I was expecting a love ballad or something.’ The somewhat overproduced album contains much more instrumentation and percussion than its successors and Townes wasn’t entirely satisfied. ‘I like it, but I had to re-record about four of the songs, because I was just totally taken off guard. I was surrounded by ten of the best musicians in the world. Boy, and I’m a hick from Texas, you know? I’m a cowboy hippie from Texas and all of a sudden I’m playing these songs and I was just showing ’em how they went and just playing. And then I realised toward the end of the record that that’s not how the song goes. That’s not how it was written, so on the next record I had veto power and listened and took equal charge.’
Tecumseh Valley returned in stripped-down form as simply Tecumseh on his next LP, 1969’s Our Mother The Mountain. This time Townes takes it much more slowly; too slowly in fact. It was one of many songs which would be picked up by other artists. Nanci Griffith, who got the speed just right on her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, said of Van Zandt: ‘Some of us songwriters are just lyricists but he was definitely a poet.’ Other standout cuts are the title track and Be Here To Love Me.
Shortly after its release Townes found himself lost in Lubbock, Texas. A motorist stopped to give him a lift and to say thanks Van Zandt handed over a copy of his album. The driver turned out to be the singer-songwriter Joe Ely. He took the record round to the home of fellow musician Jimmie Dale Gilmour. ‘He said, “You’ve gotta hear this”,’ said Gilmour. ‘I think what affected us most was the intelligence of it. And I guess you could say that was the catalyst for a lifelong friendship and appreciation of his music.’
For the next album, Townes Van Zandt, he went for a more stripped-down sound, a welcome contrast to its overproduced predecessors. He revisited four more songs from his debut, Waitin’ Around To Die (here covered by the Be Good Tanyas), For The Sake Of The Song, I’ll Be Here In The Morning and the lovely (Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria. Further highlights include Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel, Don’t You Take It Too Bad and None But The Rain.
In 1971 TVZ released Delta Momma Blues, featuring eight original songs plus covers of Jimmie Rodgers’s FFV and the title track written by the Delta Mama (sic) Boys. Unlike his previous LPs, all recorded in Nashville and heavily influenced by folk and country music, this was made in New York and is based more on the blues. Celebrated tracks include Rake, Nothin’ and the sorrowful Tower Song, of which Townes would later say: ‘When I wrote it I thought I was writing to someone else. Now I’m not sure I wasn’t writing it to me.’
To Los Angeles for the next album, 1972’s High, Low And In Between, which is rockier than its predecessors and features the ace session guitarist Larry Carlton, whose work would later adorn many a Steely Dan album. Standout track is To Live Is To Fly, which is many listeners’ favourite Van Zandt song and one of which he admitted being proud. Some of the more gloomy songs are taken to reflect the recent murder of his girlfriend Leslie Jo Richards, who was stabbed after being picked up while hitch-hiking back to Houston after attending a recording session. ‘He was devastated,’ said a friend. ‘It was a life-changing experience for him.’ Already an alcoholic, Townes rapidly developed a heroin habit and almost died of an overdose. Also on the album is a song about a game of poker, Mr Mudd and Mr Gold. A young Texan musician, Steve Earle, was playing to a near-empty club in Houston when a drunken Van Zandt plonked himself down in the front row and began heckling him and challenging him to play Wabash Cannonball, the song first popularised by Roy Acuff and later by Johnny Cash.
Earle confessed that he didn’t know it, and TVZ protested: ‘You call yourself a folk singer and you don’t know the Wabash Cannonball?’ Recognising his tormentor, Earle responded by playing Mr Mudd and Mr Gold.
Also in 1972 came The Late, Great Townes van Zandt, containing two of his most celebrated songs, Pancho and Lefty and If I Needed You, both of which would be covered by many artists. By now Townes was accepted in the music industry as a major songwriter but he still wasn’t selling records and his private life was a mess. For much of the decade he lived alone in a shack outside Nashville with no plumbing or electricity.
In 1975 he appeared in a superb country music documentary, Heartworn Highways, which showed him at a dilapidated trailer home in Austin, Texas, with his girlfriend Cindy and dawg Geraldine. Apart from performing Waitin’ Around To Die and Pancho and Lefty, he can be seen swigging whiskey from the bottle and playing with guns.
Live At the Old Quarter Texas was released in 1977, four years after it was recorded in a favourite bar with just his guitar for accompaniment. For many fans this stripped-down performance is Townes at his best. It includes the lovely song Loretta.
In 1978 came Flying Shoes, comprising mainly material written long before. It was recorded in Nashville with several top session men, which was a good job because a permanently soused Van Zandt turned up with a broken hand he suffered in a car wreck. The title track would be one of several TVZ tunes recorded by the excellent Lyle Lovett.
According to friends, Townes turned down several offers to write with Bob Dylan, who was a big fan and had all his records. The Texan was admitted to rehab more than a dozen times with doctors noting he ‘admits to hearing voices’ and adding: ‘Mood is sad, judgment and insight impaired.’ He continued performing into the 1990s but was shambolic and often forgot the words to his songs. He died of drug-induced cardiac arrythmia in the early hours of January 1, 1997, aged 52. By this time he had a healthy income thanks to royalties from cover versions but it was not until the early 21st century that he came to be acknowledged as one of the great American songwriters. He was the subject of adulatory movies, articles and biographies. There was an all-star tribute album including this John Prine version of Loretta and Steve Earle released a disc of cover versions called, simply, Townes.
Earle once said Van Zandt was ‘the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that’. Townes responded: ‘I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards and if Steve thinks he can stand on Dylan’s coffee table he’s sadly mistaken.’ In 2009, the New York Times quoted Earle as saying: ‘Did I ever believe that Townes was better than Bob Dylan? No.’ But he added: ‘As a songwriter, you won’t find anybody better.’