I once saw Townes Van Zandt perform when I was seventeen. I had some older friends, the kind of friends that liked to expose art to us younger folks. They took me and my friend Tamala, who was the same age as me, to see a revue done by Peter Case and Victoria Williams at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. All that folky shit was foreign to me, so naturally, I wanted to go to the show. The show was an old fashion folk revue. Each artist did a few songs on their own before coming all together to perform. First up was Victoria Williams, with her southern charm and squeaky voice. Former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn followed her. I remember thinking Steve Wynn was boring, but that was a few years before I heard The Days Of Wine And Roses, which is one of L.A.’s finest albums and a personal favorite of mine much later in life. Actor Harry Dean Stanton followed and played a few songs, including a haunting version of "Cancion Mixteca," a song from the movie, Paris, Texas. It tripped me out that the actor was singing in Spanish. Of course, a few years later when I actually saw the movie Paris, Texas, I thought that the song, the soundtrack, the movie and Harry Dean Stanton were all brilliant.
After a brief set by Peter Case, everyone started performing songs together. Then Peter Case announced that he had a big surprise. As the rest of the musicians left the stage, he introduced Townes Van Zandt . Townes came on stage with his guitar and a suitcase. He had a show the next night at the same place and the promoters had just picked him up from the airport. I, of course, did not know who he was, but my older friends were about the crap in their pants.
Townes seemed to be out of sorts. It seemed like he just came by to check out the show and suddenly was thrown on stage. He grinned that famous grin and said, “I don’t know what to play!” Everyone in the audience shouted various songs. He said he had a new one called "Talking Thunderbird Blues." He started finger picking the opening chord on his guitar and he went into the song:
Among the strangest things I ever heard
Was when a friend of mine said man, let's get some thunderbird
I said whats that? he just started to grin
Slobbered on his shirt, his eyes got dim
He said you got fifty-nine cents?
I said yeah, I got a dollar, but don't be a smart-aleck
I ain't gonna spend it on no indian relic
And he said thunderbird's not an old indian trinket,
Its a wine, man, you take it home and drink it.
I said it sure don't sound like wine to me
And he said he'd bet me the change from my dollar
We hustled on down to the nearest u-tate-um
The guy wanted my id, I whipped her out and showed him
He got a green bottle from the freezing vault
My friend started doing backward somersaults
Through the cottage cheese
Took it back to his house, started drinkin
Pretty soon I set in to thinkin
Man, this thunderbird tastes yummy, yummy, yummy
And I know it's doing good things to my tummy, tum..., t...
It's so you reason when you're on that crap
Got a few more bottles, chugged them down
I pulled myself up off the ground
Decided I go see my dearest sweet wife
Who met me at the door with a carving knife
Said get them damn grape peel from between your teeth.
I could see were gonna have a little misunderstanding
I said dear, I better get in touch with you later
She said forget it, man, you're never touchin me again!
Now I've seen the light and heard the word
And I'm staying away from that ol dirty thunderbird
A message come from heaven radiant, and fine,
All I drink now is communion wine
Six days a week
After the last line, everyone laughed and cheered. He then got up and left the stage. It was a great show all around. At the end, the whole revue, including Townes, shook everyone's hand and thanked each of us personally for coming to the show as we exited the venue. I remember thinking that gesture was pretty cool. It made me feel special, like I was invited over their house and they thanked me for coming over.
I felt that evening that Townes stole the show, even with just that one song. Although I didn’t know who he was till much later in life, I could tell then he was something special. I now know that I was fortunate to see him perform that one song because there are legions of his newer fans that never got the chance to see him perform and that's too bad. He was what everyone said he was, a legend.
In retrospect I wished I went to see Townes Van Zandt perform the next day, but who knows what I did the next day. Drank beers at Sunken City? Smoked pot in my parent’s garage? Yeah, I was a dumb kid, yet I was lucky to have smarter older friends.