Travels with Townes Van Zandt
photo courtesy of Jeanene Van Zandt and Townes Van Zandt Blue Sky page
by Steve HawleyThe last time I saw Townes was in the '70's, but he's always been stuck in my mind. There have been a lot of performers out there who have played the role of "the Lonesome Drifter," but Townes is the only one I know who was the genuine article. He was like a man from another time and, if I hadn't known him, I would have been likely to label him a pretender. The truth was, the guy you saw on stage was exactly who Townes was off stage. The life he described in his songs was the life he led.
To this day, I still sing his songs when I pick up the guitar. And, today, as back then, his songs aren't for everybody. I'd say that nine out of ten people find his songs uninteresting at best. But that tenth person hears something exceptional in Townes. People who hear him are divided into two camps - devotees and those who couldn't care less. Over the years, I've noticed that those who are drawn to his songs are likely to be very down-to-earth and introspective. They tend to have a penchant for simplicity. If you're drawn to his songs, in time, you develop an attachment for them like you might for a old coat that, even though it's threadbare, you can't bring yourself to throw it out because it's been so many miles with you. For every ten people, there's nine who hear some boring hillbilly crying in his beer, and one who can't believe that any one human being could possibly write so many truly wonderful songs.
Townes came out of Texas. He admired Hank Williams and became a songwriter because Hank had been one - but Townes' songs came out very different from Hank's and, at first, there wasn't much of an audience for them. He traveled around awhile playing on the folk circuit until he met a guy named Kevin Eggers, who was starting his own record company, "Poppy." Kevin became a big Townes fan and the first Poppy release was Townes' first album. After that, the gigs were sometimes in better places, but not a whole lot. For Townes' second album, Our Mother the Mountain, Kevin got a new distrubutor, RCA, and more people got to hear Townes this time. By the time of the third album, he had a real following and was becoming a minor legend in the eyes of his fans. He was still a non-entity to everyone else.
I first met Townes around this time and by the time of his third album, we were traveling from town to town. We had just left New York, where Kevin Eggers had given him a new car as a present. It was a hideous pea-green Ford Torino. That car would later meet its demise when Townes would be driving out on the highway in Texas with a skinful of tequila. The road took a bend, but the car didn't and it went through the front wall of a roadhouse bar. It came to rest in the middle of the floor. At first, nobody moved. They just stared with their mouths open at the new customer who had made an unusually attention-getting entrance. Then Townes got out and sat on a stool and ordered a margarita. He was still there when the cops arrived.
On the cover of that first album, there was a watercolor of Townes wearing an odd-looking, narrow-brimmed suede Stetson. It was a style that had gone out of popularity decades before, but Townes had liked it, as he had seen a picture of Hank Williams wearing a similar hat. It made Townes look like he was from another time. After he got it, it went with him everywhere and he was wearing it again when his picture was taken for the cover of Our Mother the Mountain.
We were someplace in upstate New York, driving between gigs in the Torino and I looked at the hat on the back seat. It was pretty beat up by this time and I picked it up and straightened the crooked brim. I said absent-mindedly, "This is a good hat." He said, "It's lookin' a little tired now." I said, "No, it's just got more character than it had when it was new." He laughed and said, "Try it on." I did, and he said, "It looks better on you than it does on me. You'd better keep it."
I got really attached to that hat. But it had a funny effect on people. For years, if I met somebody new, they'd either really love it or really hate it. I came to notice after a while that those who loved it were generally pretty down-to-earth people and those who hated it were not. It sounds like a gross generalization, but it was true. I've never seen something as simple as a hat bring that out in people. Eventually, it occurred to me that that hat brought out the same reactions in people that Townes did.
Around '69 or '70, we were on the road doing a tour for Poppy. A band called the Mandrake Memorial were also on the tour. The tour began in New York, traveling to every state in the eastern half of the US., playing colleges. Most towns were one-nighters and we were on our way again the next day. We finally got three days off in a row in Memphis. Most everybody was eager to get out and find good restaurants and good guitar shops. Quite a few guitars were bought while we were there. But Townes spent most of his time at the hotel, working on a new song. At night he'd come down and go to the bar, but that was about it for his socializing.
I didn't spend too much time with him during the day while we were in Memphis. Anybody who knew Townes would tell you that he wasn't the most conversational guy in the world. You could spend hours with him and he might not say a word. But if he was working on a new song, it was best to leave him to himself. It wasn't that he was anti-social, it's just that he was wrapped up in what he was doing. For those three days, we didn't talk much, but by the time we left Memphis, the song was done. I wish I could say that I had spent more time with him while he was writing it, because it became one of my favorites of his. I still play it almost every time I pick up the guitar. The next night, we were in Nashville and he played it for an audience for the first time. He got a polite, but not-exceptional response from the crowd. When he got off stage, he asked me, "What'd you think of "Pancho and Lefty"? Doesn't sound like it went over too good." I said, "It's a great song." He said, "Well... thanks," but he didn't look like he believed me.
Townes never got the luxury of standing ovations when he came out with a new song. His songs are like new shoes. You have to wear them a while before they really feel like they belong to you.
Most every night, before going on stage, Townes would ask me if there was a song I wanted him to do. I'd often ask him to do "Second Lover's Song, because it was a good song and he didn't play it often unless he was asked to. He'd always do it if I asked for it, but I could see he was a little tired of it. After Nashville I started asking for "Pancho and Lefty."
People were always telling Townes he needed to lighten up in his performances, that he was too dreary. Two of his earliest songs were talkin' blues songs that were really good and he'd usually put one of the other in every set to lighten things up. He also tried to tell jokes, which he wasn't too good at. His best one was about a cop who sees a drunk walking down the street. He says, "Hey, Buddy, you're a little loaded, you aught to go get some coffee". The guy says, "Man, I sure am glad I ran into you officer. See, somebody just stole my car." The cop says, "Where was the car when you last saw it?" The guy says, "Right on the end of this key." The cop looks at the key and says, "Well, go two blocks down to Station House #4 and report it to the desk sergeant." The guy says, "Thanks, officer. You been a big help. I'm headed that way right now." The cop looks down at the guys pants and says, "Hey buddy, before you go, you better zip up your fly." The guy looks down at his pants and says, "Aw man, they got my girl too."
I've been telling that joke for 30 years and I'm still not tired of it. But Townes also sometimes broke up his set by telling a story about his uncle. He'd always start by saying, "Well, I guess I'll tell this story," and the audience would be expecting a joke. Townes would then tell a true story about his uncle, who had fallen off a harvester on his farm and had his arm ripped off by the machine. They took him back to the farmhouse and called the doctor and somebody buried the arm in the field. After a while his uncle started complaining that his arm was cramped - the one he had just lost. After days of this, somebody went out and dug up the arm and straightened it out and reburied it. After that, the uncle said, "Thanks, that's much better." The audience would stare blankly at Townes. They knew he was an understated guy. Was this some kind of subliminal joke that they just didn't get? Townes never bothered to explain this story or why he had told it and he'd be halfway through the next song and people in the audience would still be saying to each other, "I don't get it." I don't know how many times I told him that he ought to drop the story or at least give it an introduction that would help to make sense out of it for the audience. Each time, he'd drop it but it would creep back into his set a few shows down the line.
Townes wasn't exactly a trendy guy. If anything about him changed, it happened slowly. In fact, I can only remember one occasion on which he actually physically moved fast. We were in Philadelphia, following a tour. We were on the third floor of somebody's town house playing poker. It was summer and the window next to Townes was open. Our friend, Sugar Bear, had gotten bored with the game, went down to the corner bar and put down a $5 bill. He said, bring me a bottle of tequila and a shot glass. He gulped the first shot then set the glass down and said, "Another." After five shots, his money was gone, but a guy next to him said, "Wait a minute, give him one for me." Sugar Bear kept drinking the shots and pretty soon everybody in the bar was paying for his shots to see how much he could drink.
Sugar Bear was an old hand at tequila and he knew that it would all hit him all at once in about a half-hour. He kept his eye on the clock and after 25 minutes, he said, "That's it. I'm not thirsty any more." They tried to get him to stay, but he pushed past everybody and went out the door. He came back to the house and banged on the door. We let him in and he was about halfway up the stairs to the third floor living room when the tequila hit him. He ran the rest of the way up the stairs and began trashing the room. Everybody was chasing him around the room trying to control him, except Townes, who remained in his chair by the window. Then Sugar Bear saw the window and decided he could fly. He dove out the window, like somebody might dive into a lake. Townes jumped up and spun around in a blur, grabbing Sugar Bear's ankles, just as he flew out the window. There was a loud thud as Sugar Bear, now stopped in mid-flight, swung down and slammed against the outside wall of the house. We ran to the floor below and dragged him in the window and finally got him under control. When we got back upstairs, Townes had picked up the cards and was waiting patiently for the game to resume.
That same summer, Townes went into the studio to record his next album. For some reason, he didn't record "Pancho and Lefty" for that album. I never did ask him why. It came out on a later album, as I remember. For those sessions, Kevin Eggers had booked Century Sound. The producer was Ronnie Frangipane, a brash guy who was more interested in his own production work than whether it suited Townes' songs well. Or at least it seemed that way to me. The engineer was Brooks Arthur. Usually, the engineer has his hands on the mixing board throughout the recording, controlling the levels. Brooks had recently bumped into Jackie Onassis in the street. They were both hiding from the rain under a store canopy. Brooks spent the entire session describing his brief encounter with Jackie to whichever of us was in the control room and hardly touched the board. If it had been my record, I would have wanted people who at least were interested in my songs and, hopefully, felt some affinity to them. But Townes never seemed to be concerned. Although he had never worked with Ronnie or Brooks before, he took their approach in stride and seemed to feel that his job was to play the guitar and sing and the rest was somebody else's decision. If you listen to those old recordings now, he seems a bit disconnected, as though his voice and guitar are apart from the other instruments. Maybe that's part of why Townes is so enigmatic to people who listen to him. He always seemed to be alone, apart from the world; just him and his guitar.
The last time I saw Townes was in Cambridge, Massachusetts in '74. I was living in Cambridge and was getting ready to leave the U.S. for good. I was glad to see Townes, as I knew it would probably be the last time. He was playing at Passim in Harvard Square. I heard he was there and went down to see him. After his set, he suggested we go back to his hotel. We sat in his room, passing the guitar back and forth, singing a few songs. I kept noticing a violin case on the floor next to the bed, but he didn't mention it. Finally I pointed to it and he said, "I've had it about a year. I can't seem to get the hang of it." I had also been trying to learn the fiddle. My mother had given me the one she had learned on as a girl and I was determined to at least coax one passable song out of it. But I never was able to. To this day, it's the only instrument I've tried to play that I'm a total failure at. I wonder if Townes had better luck than me. I know he had more patience.
These days, if I hear someone mention Townes, or if I see his name somewhere, a picture pops into my head of him standing there in that old Stetson and his old suede coat. He has his guitar case in one hand and his old blue suitcase in the other. That suitcase had been missing its handle for years and it had been replaced with baling twine. Townes never got around to replacing the twine with something more comfortable or buying a whole new suitcase. It wasn't that he was trying to maintain the ragged image of the wandering troubador. It just never occurred to him that it was of any importance. His life was as simple and as uncomplicated as he could make it. And his songs sounded simple, but they were complicated enough to make you keep thinking about them forever.
Also see Steve Cooper's tribute to Townes
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