31 Jan 1997 18:22:38 -0600
        "Roy Kasten" 


I thought you might like to add this to the Blue Sky Home page.  It's from the
Texas observer, I believe the Jan. 30 issue, though I'll have to check on the
exact date.  (Oh, and I'm quoted, briefly.)


To: Lou Dubose, The Texas Observer
From: Naomi Shihab Nye

We Needed Him

        In 1977 Townes Van Zandt asked me to hold his guitar for a minute while he
took a break from singing at a northside San Antonio music bar. We didn't
know one another -- I just happened to be sitting up close to the microphone,
off to one side. The crowd milled and chattered between sets. He had just
sung his unforgettably pure song, "If I needed you, would you come to me? /
Would you come to me and ease my pain?" A few listeners, including myself,
remained lost in the hypnotic state a strong set of Van Zandt songs could
plunge one into -- deep longing, a velvety melodious melancholy.        
        Well, he disappeared for a very long time. The talk grew louder. Beer
traveled around in giant pitchers. I sat alone, firmly holding the guitar by
its neck, wondering where he had hidden his guitar case.  I asked a man to see
 if he might have fainted in the bathroom or something (profoundly thin, Van
Zandt had muttered, "I never eat" when someone offered him food) but he
wasn't there. 
        Before that evening, I'd been listening nearly nonstop to the brilliant
double album, "Townes Van Zandt/Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas,"
(Tomato Records, 1977) -- even taping it so I could listen to it in my car
immediately after listening to it in my house. I stared at the pegs on the
guitar, wondering if these were the same pegs you could hear him tuning on
that album between songs.
        Finally he materialized from the shadows, retrieved his instrument and
         "Where did you go ?" I asked, and he leaned forward conspiratorially,
grinning.   "Aw, sometimes a man's just got to get away." 
        Now, twenty years later, he's really gone and gotten, farther than any of us
would have wanted him to go so soon. Though dying was a recurrent image in
his lyrics and one of his early songs was "Waiting 'Round to Die," his death
of heart failure shortly after hip surgery at the age of 52 on New Year's Day
1997, came as a terrible shock.  The Texas-born Van Zandt who sang wryly of
the world's love for "mingling," whose legendary lines penetrated the minds
of two generations of songwriters and listeners, and whose songs were, in
that odd music business way, bigger "hits" for others (Willie Nelson, Emmylou
Harris) than for himself, has left us.  
        But not. When a singer/songwriter dies, leaving the intimate gift of voice
behind, there's a sense we'll be listening even harder now, for clues and for
comfort.  "There ain't no dark till something shines/I'm bound to leave this
dark behind" (from "Rex's Blues") or "Everything is not enough/Nothing is too
much to bear" (from "To Live's to Fly") or ""Being born is going blind and
bowing down a thousand times" (which I once regrettably misquoted as "biting
 down a thousand times" in an epigraph to a poem)  shimmer within our own
days, glittering.  With the songwriter's absence, the songs take on doubled
lives. And keep widening.
        I have yet to meet a halfhearted Van Zandt fan. People who loved his soulful
music and distinctive voice really  loved them-- gung-ho, with gusto. His
voice made other voices seem sallow in comparison. It penetrated the bones
and stayed there. His good performances attained legendary status on the
spot. They were generous. His heart was in his words. Even his infamous
joke-telling between songs--he enthusiastically told some of the same jokes
for decades--banded his fans together. I've heard people mutter one-half line
of a Van Zandt joke and slap their hands together--password!    
        But how easy is it to be an "icon" -- as San Antonio Express-News  Arts
Writer Jim Beal identified him in a prominent front section obituary?  How
easy to write one's classic songs at a very young age, then go on singing
them year after year?  To be sure, Van Zandt continued to write and publish
new music --his CDs "At My Window" and "No Deeper Blue" were recent
recordings, containing both new songs and new versions of the old. But my
guess is this veteran troubador achieving wide cult status in Europe at the
time of his death may have had to sing his "Pancho and Lefty" -- famously
recorded by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson-- a few more times than he might
have liked to. But we still loved it. 
        His childhood in Fort Worth, which he called "nice" but claimed to have
"forgotten," apparently had little in common with the roving, more raggedy
life he favored later. Born to a prominent oil family, his ancestors were
among the founding families of Texas. Van Zandt County, named for them,
features statues of his great-great-grandparents at its courthouse. Rumors
said the law school's main building at the University of Texas, Townes Hall,
also linked to his clan.  
        He attended the University of Colorado, where he once fell four stories from
a building, "really paying attention,"  to "see what it felt like." He wasn't
hurt.  In For the Sake of the Song, his 1977 songbook, Van Zandt said he
"began playing guitar at 15 and learned his second chord at 21." (Published
by Wings Press, a few first editions of this classic item are still available
from Bryce Milligan for $15 plus $2 postage, 627 E. Guenther, San Antonio,
Texas 78210). 
        Because of his reticence regarding autobiography, it seemed particularly
haunting when a foray into the Internet produced not only a startling
abundance of Van Zandt data from around the world, but family photos of
himself in Smyrna, Tennessee, with his wife Jeanene and their beautiful
children, details of his dying day, and his own young photo which his mother
kept in her drawer until her death in 1993. (It scares me to speak in codes,
but our in-house technological wizard, age 10, called all this up by punching
in" -- good luck.)
        The day after Van Zandt's death, St. Louis music critic Roy Kasten wrote, 
'His songs are about our homelessness and about always being home; it's not
really a contradiction. Townes was a poet because he believed in the
abracadabra of words, that their magic was as primary to being human as love
and death and kindness and cruelty. . . Townes' music is a tonic. . . Townes
was a relentless traveler, somehow too gentle and philosophical a man for the
life he chose. But he believed in his vocation, took it seriously. Music
wasn't really entertainment for him; it was trying to find that one note,
that "one bit of light" that would change an audience. . . Townes played out
the widest scale of existence, from birth to death, both uncommon kindness
and unbearable loneliness, in a language carefully whittled, yet always of an
intense, first-hand quality, as if just pouring from him." Kasten described
Van Zandt's voice as "unbridled and smoked-out," among other things.  
        Hearing that voice made one feel marked, enlarged. Maybe that's what legends
do. They strike a true note, like a tuning pitch, pervading the air. It's
said by many that Townes Van Zandt influenced almost every current beloved
Texas singer. The number of musicians who spoke or sang at his first memorial
service in Nashville suggest that.  Country music writer Wiley Alexander
calls him "a great talent, spectacular as a writer and singer. . .hard to
replace."       Others said he helped give Austin its reputation as a solid music
center when he lived there. Some said his influence in Nashville was just as
great. Did this mean he made as much money as everyone else? Nope. Were his
early, infinitely listenable albums always easy to obtain? Nope. That's the
way it is with legends. (Even in San Antonio, only alternative station KSYM
can be thanked for playing him.) 
        Nanci Griffith paid homage to Van Zandt in a packed Seattle stadium last
fall. I wondered how many packed stadiums he played, or even if he liked
them. Van Zandt's own frequent venues here and abroad included packed, dimly
lit pubs and cafes. Austin attorney Amon Burton says, " I've never listened
to any songwriter who made me feel so vulnerable. I always walked away from
The Cactus after hearing Townes Van Zandt with a deep sense of how fragile we
all are." I can't recall ever hearing Van Zandt act arrogant -- his
understated humility, his true brew of melancholy humor, accompanied him from
the Kerrville Folk Festival to Toronto to Norway.  When asked by Detroit
interviewer Matt Watroba how he came to write "Pancho and Lefty," he said he
wrote it sitting in a chair and "if you'd been sitting in that chair, you'd a
written that song. "  Well - maybe.    
        Everyone knew he drank a lot and drinking could complicate his appearances.
It hurts to consider how it may have complicated the rest of his life. Though
admirers often feel fierce protective urges toward their admired ones, who
can say exactly what elements enhance or threaten a creative person's
sensibility and where the delicate line is drawn?  It is good to know he died
at home, surrounded by his family.  
         The Good Vibrations Record Store in San Antonio sponsored a Jan. 11
memorial gathering to remember Townes Van Zandt. We lit candles under a
stunning new mural of his head painted just days before in 6 hours by a
talented artist named Carlos who happened by.  He managed well to catch the
glint in Van Zandt's eye.  
        Musicians Melissa Javors, Dow Patterson, and Bruce Gladwin, among others,
sang Van Zandt songs. A few people sang their own, saying they could never do
a Townes' song justice.  A  saxophonist named Michael O'Dowd said, "Townes
was the truth  and sometimes the truth is not pretty."  C.J. Berkman told
about Townes taking guitar lessons in Houston way-back-when from Lightnin'
Hopkins. He said Townes never even got a driver's license.  Master of
ceremonies Joe X. Horn of the Third Coast Music Network made gracious toasts
to Townes and his life, as little cups of Thunderbird wine were passed
        Stories abounded from musicians about behind-the-scenes drinking antics and
gambling, but I found my mind drifting off  -- drinking stories aren't very
interesting in retrospect. I'm not sure they're terribly interesting even if
you're there.  Anyway, they aren't what was indelible  about Townes Van
Zandt.  What satisfied, twenty years after first hearing him live, were tapes
of his recent performance at San Antonio's Cibolo Creek Country Club, when
the resonant voice of the man whom Dublin critic Nick Kelly called, "the Lone
Star State's lonest star," filled the room.  A giant hush.
        We will miss him very much.