When I got a call the other morning telling me Townes Van Zandt had died, my first thoughts were on a story he'd told me the last time I'd seen him. He'd been in Berlin for a concert, accompanied by his friend and manager Harold Eggers, who had some business to talk over with me. They'd been sightseeing with their friend and mine, Wolfgang Doebeling, whose radio show frequently plays Van Zandt's recordings, and who owns a label that had put out a live album by him, when Doebeling called to say they were ready to get together. I suggested a cafe/restaurant up the street from me, and walked up to meet them.
Van Zandt wasn't in such great shape. An icy shot-glass of vodka stood before him, as well as a basket of bread and butter. Doebeling was trying to get him to eat something, and told me that Van Zandt had been real shaky on the sightseeing tour, having to sit down every few minutes because he was so weak.
My business was with his manager, but Van Zandt really wanted to talk. First, he told me a hilarious story about how his habit of stealing Bibles from hotel rooms had come to an end, and then he questioned me at length about what it took to live, legally, in Germany. He pulled a small bottle of vodka from his pocket and surreptitiously refilled the shot-glass, and then, out of nowhere, he started telling me another story:
"I was going through a real bad depression once, and it was like I couldn't get out of bed. I drank some, but that didn't help, and I listened to some Hank, and even that didn't help. I mean, it was real bad.
"So I'd been like this for most of a week, just lying around, and it got to where I had to take the garbage out. My dog was just rarin' to go out. She hadn't been out in a while, and so when I went to the door with the trash, she was right there. I opened the door, and right there, in front of the door, was this little bunny. The dog, she shot out of the door, and I thought, `Oh, no.' See, she's been taught that the squirrels and the bunnies are our friends, and she's not to mess with them, but I guess she'd just been cooped up inside with me so long that something wild got the better of her, and before I could do anything, she was out the door, and that poor bunny didn't have a chance.
"Well, I pulled her off of it, and it was still alive, so I yelled at her good and sent her back into the house, and she knew, she just knew she'd done something wrong. I dumped the trash, and went back to the bunny, and it was holding on. So I carefully picked it up and put it somewhere it would be out of harm's way, and got something warm to put on top of it, and went back into the house.
"The next morning, I decided I had to see how that bunny was doing, and I went out there, and, well, I guess I should have guessed, or known, but it was dead. So I got some newspapers and picked it up, and walked over to the trash with that little body, and I just felt so bad, you know. I couldn't blame my dog; she's only a dog. And I couldn't blame myself. It had just happened, that's all.
"And I went back into the house, and I just couldn't get that bunny out of my mind. And all of a sudden, I had this realization. `Townes,' I said to myself, `you are one sorry son of a bitch. Here you are moping around the house for days, feeling sorry for yourself, but what about that bunny?' You know, I was all wrapped up in my own troubles, but that was nothing next to what had happened to that bunny. And all those sorry feelings I had for myself just lifted off of me like a big stone."
I have no idea why Van Zandt needed to tell that story, but I could see, as it unfolded, that the need was a powerful one. He shook a bit after he told it, and repeated "What about that bunny" a couple of times. And, after I'd gone back home, I couldn't get the story out of my head, either, because I'd seen the effect it had had on the man who told it. I wanted to go back and tell him that the next time he got hit with a depression like that, there were things he could do about it that might lift him out of it without pills or dead rabbits. But I couldn't make the show that night, and I never saw him again.
Van Zandt's insight was a lot like the ones that, I think, attracted some people to his songs and his shows, and that makes me as sad as anything. There was a morbidity to some of his songs that was obviously one by-product of depressions like this, and people could watch him on stage, struggling to tell the story -- wondering if just this once the genius would break through, or it would all collapse again -- and they could think "At least it's not me." Towards the end, he'd lose the light as often as not. All those of us who cared about him can hope for is that although, like the bunny, he met his peace in an awful way, he did, at least, find it.