Townes Van Zandt, the Texas troubadour, realized the epitaph he gave himself on an album -- "the late great" -- much sooner than anyone could have anticipated. That fatalistic tag was evidence of an irreverent sense of humor, which he incorporated into his songwriting and performing for more than 20 years.
Van Zandt, who died Jan. 2 of an apparent heart attack, was only 52, but his work had long been preoccupied with death. Back in the mid-1970s, when he joined the national folk music scene, Townes used to play regularly at The Last Resort, along with others on the circuit such as Gamble Rogers, Elizabeth, Odetta and Tom Waits. On one visit to Athens, he talked to my arts journalism class about the incident that inspired that "late great" title. He had been recording a new album, he confessed to the enrapt students, when he almost died from an overdose of drugs and booze. Miraculously, he was saved by his long-time friend and fellow derelict Jerry Jeff Walker, who just happened to find him in a comatose state.
That close call may have scared Townes briefly, but it didn't reform him permanently. He was a restless man and a driven artist who toured almost constantly, playing clubs like Blind Willie's in Atlanta and the Bottom Line in New York. He reveled in a life of dissipation, as one of his early songs proclaimed: "gambling and rambling was easier than waiting around to die."
On stage, Townes had a world-weary demeanor and mournful voice. His bouts with depression were well-known. Atlanta writer Bill Hedgepath once tried to fathom out Townes' philosophic and creative bent by observing that there is a difference between being a desperado and being desperate.
"Being a desperado on the lam is nowadays considered rather romantic and heroic," he wrote. "Being desperate -- from knowing that ultimately there is no law or order -- is and always has been a painful and terrifying experience. Townes carries the terror and the sorrow of a sensitive man who has looked into the abyss and seen... the abyss."
The root of what Townes called his spells of "total loss of meaning and motivation" was unclear. He was born into a privileged Fort Worth family, yet said his teenage years were full of torment. As an adult, he tried family life (there were three marriages and three children), but the allure of life on the road and of his fans' applause was always dominant. His alienation, in fact, was a strange attractor for some devotees.
Despite tireless touring, composing and recording, big-time success eluded Van Zandt. In all, he put out more than 10 albums on the Poppy and Tomato labels, but none rose above cult status. His major claim to fame was the ballad "Pancho and Lefty," which Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made a hit in 1983. Emmy Lou Harris also had success with that tune.
Townes' prodigious songwriting put him in a class with other Texas troubadours, namely Guy Clark, Joe Ely and more recently Lyle Lovett. His lyrics were full of poetic images and melancholy. For example, in "Snow Don't Fall," he plaintively sings, "My love I need not see/ To know she casts her glance at me." Sometimes his work reflected the honky tonkin' country influence of Hank Williams, and his bottleneck slide guitar echoed the legendary Houston bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. Many of his songs were full of brooding, bleakness and tragedy.
Yet his distinctive wit and sense of irony made him an original. In one wry song, he sang about a lonely woman who had German mustard between her teeth. In "Heavenly Houseboat Blues," he lamented building a houseboat in heaven only to have it -- blub, blub, blub -- sink!
Townes would no doubt have been pleasantly surprised that he garnered a major obituary (with photo) in The New York Times in which pop music critic Neil Strauss wrote that his "powerfully written songs and spare, haunting delivery influenced many country, folk and rock performers" and that he had virtually become a "beacon to a generation of songwriters." That assessment is a perfect tribute.
Curiously, at the time of his death. Townes had been working in Nashville on a boxed CD set of his work. Let's hope the recording company on that project, Sugar Hill, sees it to completion. "For the sake of the song," as Townes might have put it.
John W. English