“You know when Robert Johnson said ‘you gotta move’ — I figured that out. It’s like, you’re happily floating through nothing– you know, nothingness. All of a sudden, a big giant fish, they way I picture it… grabs you and… puts you in a form, and slams you on the face of this veil of tears, and says– You’ve gotta move! “
For the first 14-15 years of his life Townes Van Zandt was a happy, healthy, athletic young man from a prestigious background. As Guy Clark put it–
’He was being bred to be Governor of Texas– seriously, it was that kind of family.’
In his mid to late teens he started to develop a bi-polar disorder and was diagnosed ‘manic depressive with schizophrenic tendencies’. By the age of 19 he was thought to be a danger to himself, a suicide/OD waiting to happen, and his adoring parents took the hard decision to have their eldest son hospitalised and treated. They used the best doctors, the most advanced therapy in the leading facility in the country .
The combination of electricity and chemicals helped temporarily to alleviate Townes symptoms, possibly saved his life,but they also wiped out most of his childhood memory, and his subsequent attempts to settle down were constantly derailed by his depression and the addictions that accompanied it.
Five years, one album, a marriage and a little boy later, the blues having taken hold for good, Townes hit the road. He spent the next 30 years self medicating with drugs, firewater and a dark sense of humour, to somehow survive long enough to create a collection of the greatest contemporary folk songs America has produced.
‘How close can you cut it to your own bone? Did you break your own heart? Did you scare the shit out of yourself? That’s what matters. Townes went for the passion not a bunch of clever bullshit. He sounded like himself.’
‘Everything is not enough
Nothing is too much to bear
Where you been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there.’
‘Time shes a fast old train
Shes here then shes gone
And she won’t come again
Won’t you take my hand’
‘When will she see
That to gain
Is only to lose
All that she offers me
Are her chains,
I got to refuse’
‘Lay down your head poor boy
Feel how the ground does move
Hear how them drivers sing
What now my darling one
Go find a little fun
You are not needed now’
‘My days they are the highway kind
They only come to leave
But the leavin’ I don’t mind
It’s the comin’ that I crave.
Pour the sun upon the ground
Stand to throw a shadow
Watch it grow into a night
And fill the spinnin sky’
‘Ride the blue wind high and free
She’ll lead you down through misery
Leave you low come time to go
Alone and low as low can be’
‘Tomorrow the mountains will be sleeping
Silently the blanket green and blue
And I shall hear the silence they are keeping
I’ll bring all their promises to you’
‘Chained upon the face of time
Feelin’ full of foolish rhymne
There ain’t no dark till something shines
I’m bound to leave this dark behind’
‘Goodbye to all my friends
It’s time to go again
Think of all the poetry
And the pickin’ down the line’
“I used to wake, and run with the moon, and live like a rake and a young man…”…wonderful post…
This blog is awesome! How is it that every day you zero in on another of my very favorite things, people, etc. in this world? Great post on a great, great songwriter. In the documentary “Be Here to Love Me,” Steve Earle says, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world. And I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” I think he had it right. Townes was a genius songwriter.
Shucks, thanks man. Townes is a legend.
I always loved ‘If I Needed You’, especially the intro at THe Old Quarter…’Oh. uh, Loop and Lill were parakeets…’ And he was a good lookin’ man, to boot.
Townes came through when I was doing college radio, probably 1980. He came up to the station and settled in, played a pile of songs, and what began as an interview became… a long, on-air conversation, punctuated by the greatest songs I may ever hear, played right there in front of me by one of the world’s most gracious, patient and brilliant songwriters. A was grateful I was willing (hell, thrilled) to spend my whole show with him… I tagged along with him, went to his (great) show, and said farewell never having an idea that he was troubled in any way. He gave away no hint of ego, nor desperation, “demons,” etc. He somehow made me feel that I was important to him, for a brief, fascinating afternoon.
Almost two years ago, I played a gig at Austin’s Cactus Café when I was touring with Shannon McNally. Townes had played there 70+ times, and his spirit haunts the room. His son JT was there (and he looks uncannily like Townes, although he’s a more athletic, robust doppleganger), he came up after the show and thanked us for singing No Place To Fall… his girlfriend whispered to Shannon that it was the most beautiful version she’d ever heard. More graciousness, more humility, more disarming, look-you-in-the-eye generosity of spirit.
I wish, of course, that I’d recorded the interview/conversation that I shared with Townes. Then again, it ain’t like I’ll ever forget the way that day was. God rest his gentle soul.
Great stories, man.
Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for putting this up on my birthday.
Listening to Townes this time of year tends to bring on a comfortable seasonal depression that makes me want to drink alone and just wander off. I went to see Townes at the Cactus but by the time I got there he had already dissapeared because he was too far gone to remember the words of his songs. GREAT POST.
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If you like this guy, you might also be into Doug Sahm. Check him out! http://www.bilbohiria.com/web/wp-content/uploads/sahm_doug.jpg
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Brilliant website. A place where people appreciate not only motorycle design but actually know who Townes was.
I asked Townes about his touring in London in April 1994, he was drinking cheap whiskey at The Union Chapel and tuning his guitar.
‘Is it a demanding life?’ I’d asked.
‘Oh yeah. Sure’ he’d replied with a sudden authority. ‘But then again: somethin’s killin’ everybody ..’ he stared out the window, then at me and laughed.
He played quite a set that night..
Thanks JP for this great Blog. Beautifully arranged, insightful and an array of Townes photos I have never seen.