TOWNES VAN ZANDT: March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997
Originally published March 7, 2014.
I remember reading a 'zine review of a Townes Van Zandt show that lasted less than three minutes. Van Zandt arrived at a small bar/restaurant late, and in front of a crowd of maybe two dozen, with no soundcheck and just an acoustic guitar, Townes plugged in, stared at the ground, dropped the guitar from his lap and began weeping. In the review, nobody moved to help him. The moment was awkward, and Van Zandt was a bad drunk and drug abuser with some clear signs of mental illness and for a small group of fans, nobody quite knew what to do. So one of the people in the crowd offered him some pizza. In a moment of great emotional upheaval, sometimes all you can do is offer a token of kindness, and let a person know that you recognize their pain. Van Zandt eventually apologized a number of times, and then left. Normally, this is the kind of life-defining moment in an artist's career, the moment where the emotions are too great and the feelings too raw and the emotional collapse comes in the most open and vulnerable moments. These are the moments went artists either find their strength, or wither in die. Except in Townes Van Zandt's case, it was a fairly standard show from the late 80s. I've heard a number of similar stories, and the time I saw Townes lives was anything but enthralling. He was drunk and seemed fairly uninterested in what he was doing. Not uncaring, just preoccupied. I'd discovered Townes in high school after hearing Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's recording of his song "Pancho & Lefty", and something grabbed me in his lyrics. This was odd, considering I was a high school kid in a respectably-middle class suburban Chicago neighborhood in the '80s, long before country music was considered hip or cool. And yet, Townes Van Zandt's songs spoke to me at a very early age. Songs of drunkenness and spousal abuse and heartbreak and robbery and drug abuse somehow resonated with a kid who -from the outside - had no worries bigger than which car he would drive to the junior prom. But the dark parts of Townes lyrics spoke to the part of me that had already given up my belief in humanity. For years, Townes music would act as part of the soundtrack to my own self-destruction. As I would fall deeper and deeper into loneliness and depression and isolation and self-destruction, Townes songs made more and more sense, and gave credence to the degradation I was feeling. Like the narrators of Townes' song, the actions of my life may have been sad and stupid and self-destructive, but as he said in the first song he ever wrote, "Sometimes, it's easier than just waitin' around to die."