Townes Van Zandt - Biography
by Charles Reece
Townes Van Zandt was an unrepentant idealist who believed in the revolutionary potential of folk music after hearing Bob Dylan. For Van Zandt, our connection with traditional American music is elemental; it connects the body with the land, from which the music developed. He often used the textures of nature as allusions to the difficulties people have in connecting with one another. The musical traditions originating from the United States, such as country and blues, came out of depressed environments, where people had to struggle to subsist. Suffering was inherent to that music and the music gave meaning to the suffering. If he were going to make an authentic contribution to those traditions, he would have to rid himself of his privileged background, and live as impoverished blues musicians did. Thus, with an acolyte’s zeal, he cast off friends, family and money when he felt it might add a bit of truth to his songwriting. He lived through his songs while shunning his own well-being. He was in a double bind where depression inspired his songs, but focusing on his songs only fed into his depression. At some point, the depression had to win out, but not until he had created one of the most perspicacious and consummately crafted collection of songs in the 20th century. As Van Zandt said, he designed his life that way.
John Townes Van Zandt was born on Mar 7, 1944 in Fort Worth, Texas, into old money lineage. Both his parents, Harris Williams and Dorothy Van Zandt, came from Southern nobility. On his mother’s side, for example, was her grandfather, the great judge and legal theorist, John Charles Townes, after whom the main law building at the University of Texas at Austin and Townes were named. His father was a fourth generation oilman from a prominent Texan family. Townes’ paternal great-great-grandfather, Isaac Van Zandt, played a pivotal role under Sam Houston in the annexation of Texas. Van Zandt County in East Texas was named after Isaac. By all accounts, Townes’ parents were loving and generous people. He spent his first eight years in Fort Worth, after which he and his siblings, Donna and Bill, were regularly uprooted due to the demands of their father’s oil business. They moved from Texas to Chicago, Illinois, to Billings, Montana. Through his father’s radio, Van Zandt acquired an early appreciation for country stars like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. His dreams of becoming a musician were ignited, however, when he saw Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. His father gave him his first guitar at age 12, provided he learn to play the folk traditional, “Fraulein” — a song to which he would regularly return over the years. His mother was a part-time poet who instilled within him a lifelong love of literature.
Van Zandt was a smart, highly literate boy, just one who tended to resist academic settings. Thus, his parents enrolled him into the prestigious Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota for his final two years of high school. While there, he proved adroit at sports, but — most importantly for his future vocation — became increasingly occupied with the blues, particularly the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. It was Hopkins’ style of percussive finger picking on the guitar that would have the greatest influence on Van Zandt’s own playing (cf. the latter’s “Brand New Companion”). In 1962, Van Zandt enrolled at the University of Colorado, Boulder, as an economics major. It was during his sophomore year that his struggle with depression began to emerge, which would shape a tragic course for his life. As Van Zandt remembered it, he would often spend days on end in his room obsessively listening to Hopkins’ music, only to emerge for a party. It was at one such party that he decided to get the feel for falling backwards by actually letting himself drop off a fourth floor balcony. Upon learning of this incident, his parents placed him in a mental institution, where he received three months of insulin shock treatment. Shortly afterwards, he made one last attempt at following family tradition by enrolling in pre-law at the University of Houston (where his attempts at being in a fraternity would later be satirized in the song, “Fraternity Blues”). He soon dropped out to become a full-time musician, playing around town at folk venues such as The Old Quarter and Sand Mountain Café.
After seeing Van Zandt play live in Houston, local legend Mickey Newbury helped him secure some time in a studio where he recorded a demo for “Tecumseh Valley.” Newbury introduced him to producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, with whom Van Zandt recorded a series of demos in Houston (some of which have now been released as In The Beginning, 2003 Compadre Records). Clement played the early recording of “Tecumseh Valley” to his friend, Kevin Eggers, who was in Nashville at the time trying to set up a new label, Poppy Records (later rechristened Tomato Records). Eggers recognized the song’s brilliance and signed Van Zandt on the spot. With Clement producing, Van Zandt’s first album, For the Sake of the Song (1968), became the label’s inaugural release.
For the Sake of the Song’s production has been controversial ever since the record was released. Rather than the direct, plaintive style fans heard live, Van Zandt’s vocals were drenched in reverb, often backed by too much instrumentation and schmaltzy backing vocals. All of which de-emphasized his lyrics and caused his voice to sound distant. The problems become most apparent when comparing this album’s version of “Tecumseh Valley” to that which appears on Van Zandt’s second album, Our Mother the Mountain (1969 Poppy). The song tells of Caroline, a girl whose mining father sends her to Tecumseh Valley when there are no jobs at home. Before saving enough money to return home, she learns of her father’s death, leaving her hopeless, with prostitution as her sole source of income. Due to Clement having concerns over Nashville’s conservatism, the verse about “whoring” was changed to the vague “walking around.” With a galloping conga drum and a polished backing chorus, this initial version sounds more like one of those ballads that play over the credits in old Hollywood Westerns than a song about a girl dying from desperation. Hating the sound of his first album, Van Zandt would recut nearly half of its songs over the course of his next few albums. Production aside, however, For the Sake of the Song remains a strong first effort, containing many of his most memorable songs.
Producer Clements began to temper his Nashville Sound-inclinations on Our Mother the Mountain, which began Van Zandt’s classic period of recordings. As with the remade “Tecumseh Valley,” the tempo tends to be slower than on the first album and Van Zandt’s guitar and bedraggled voice are accompanied by sparse instrumentation (often including a wind instrument, such as a flute on “Be Here To Love Me” or a recorder on “Why She’s Acting This Way”). When strings appear (as on “Kathleen”), they merely accentuate the troubadour style, rather than bury it, and the background chorus is gone. However, many diehard fans tend to not like any of the production sweetening done on Van Zandt’s studio records, preferring the denuded live versions. In 2002, Dualtone Records released A Gentle Evening At Carnegie Hall, where he can be heard playing in top form shortly after the release of his second album. With nothing but his guitar, Van Zandt plays some of the songs that would become staples of his repertoire. As was his wont when playing live, he interjects the melancholia with some jokes and humorous talking blues songs (of which, “Talking KKK Blues” makes its only appearance on this album).
Perhaps due to Eggers’ taking over primary production duties, the third album, Townes Van Zandt (1970 Poppy Records), comes closest of all the early studio recordings to the live performances. Most accompanying instruments other than a second guitar or an occasional dobro tend to be minimized, such as the distant harmonica on the remade “I’ll Be Here In The Morning.” Furthermore, Van Zandt rerecorded three other songs from his first album, “(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria,” “For The Sake Of The Song” and “Waitin’ ‘Round To Die.” While all four songs are well served by the removal of vocal reverb and excessive instrumentation, the last is the most significantly altered. The first song he ever wrote — just after getting married in 1965 to his first wife, Fran — “Waitin’ ‘Round To Die” tells the story of a man who by dint of giving into temptation charts out his own moribund conclusion with codeine. Given Van Zandt’s lifetime of addiction and depression, the song is one of his most representative and all too prescient. The palpable bleakness coming through the later version was at odds with the earlier one’s driving drums and backing female voice, both of which sounded like they came from an Ennio Morricone score for Sergio Leone. It was largely because of drug addiction that Fran divorced Van Zandt in 1970, a year after their son, J. T. (John Townes II), was born. Townes overdosed on heroin two years later.
Whatever his struggles with alcohol and drugs, Van Zandt remained prolific through the first half of the 1970's, while sustaining a quality that was greatly admired by his fellow country singer-songwriters if not the general listening audience. Among many others, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker and Mickey Newbury all considered him one of the best songwriters of their generation. Van Zandt was spending a good portion of this period in New York, which is where he recorded his fourth album, Delta Momma Blues (1971 Poppy). The title track is his second codeine-inspired song, referring to a nickname he had for the cold syrup Robitussin DM, a quarter-pint of which Van Zandt downed on a daily basis back then. His failed marriage was weighing heavily on his mind, as he detailed his difficulties with commitment in “Only Him Or Me,” “Tower Song” and “Come Tomorrow.” As suggested by his earlier song “Our Mother The Mountain,” Van Zandt had a literary interest in the supernatural, which he explores here in the haunting tale of a vampiric young man, “The Rake.” The album also features some excellent examples of what would come to be called country rock: “Turnstyled, Junkpiled” and “Where I Lead Me.”
His next two albums have become something of a line in the sand for his fan base. Although not as raucous as when Bob Dylan plugged in, the folk purists tend to be dismissive of the country rock approach Van Zandt took on High, Low and In Between (1972 Poppy). Regardless, the songs themselves are hard to deny, containing what Van Zandt himself considered his best one, “To Live’s To Fly.” In addition to the rock-oriented tracks like “You Are Not Needed Now,” he tried his hand at Southern gospel with “Two Hands.” His foray into religion was likely inspired by his girlfriend being stabbed to death in Los Angeles, where he and Eggers were recording the album. His following release (with a title inspired by his recent overdose), The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (1973 Poppy), drifted further away from the early 1960s’ folk revivalism, reaching back to the classic country of the 1940's and 50's. It was recorded in Nashville with Jack Clements returning as producer, featuring Van Zandt’s take on honky-tonk (“No Lonesome Tune” and Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’”) and the country traditional (“Fraulein”). The album has become his most popular album due in no small part to the major commercial success other performers would have with two of its songs on the country chart: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version of “Pancho And Lefty” (#1, 1983) following Emmylou Harris and Don Williams’ version of “If I Needed You” (#3, 1981). Those are Van Zandt’s only charting singles.
Tensions between Van Zandt, Eggers and Clements reached a head in 1974 over the recording of what was to be his seventh studio album, 7 Come 11. Eggers and Clements’ relationship dissolved over the latter not being paid for his production on the album, and both had had about enough of Van Zandt’s increasingly erratic behavior brought on by his heroin addiction (about which he wrote “White Freight Liner Blues” for the album). For reasons never made clear, Eggers shelved the recordings until they were finally released as The Nashville Sessions in 1993 on Tomato Records. By then, most of the album’s best tunes had already appeared in acoustic form on Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (1977), his debut for Eggers recently formed Tomato Records. Most fans and critics consider this 1973 recording his masterpiece, containing the essential versions of all its 20-plus songs, as they were pared down to Van Zandt and his guitar. He was particularly lucid that night and kept the packed house so enthralled that the album often sounds as if it were recorded in a studio.
Before making amends with Eggers, Van Zandt had spent the past two years failing to get a stable record deal and suffering from prolonged bouts of writer’s block, as addiction and depression were taking their toll. What his life was like at the time can be seen in James Szalapski’s documentary, Heartworn Highways (1981), about the alternative country scene that had developed primarily in Texas during the 1970's. Szalapski filmed Van Zandt in 1976 at his ramshackle trailer on the outskirts of Austin as the singer got increasingly drunk, played with a BB gun, sang some songs for friends and hung out with his young girlfriend, Cindy (who would become his second wife in 1978). Shortly afterwards, the couple moved to a rustic cabin in Franklin, Tennessee, where they had no running water and Van Zandt could spend time hunting while he completed the songs for his next studio album. It was during this period that Steve Earle witnessed his friend put a loaded revolver to his head, pulling the trigger three times.
While inner turmoil had slowed his productivity, it did not hurt the quality of what he managed to write. Flyin’ Shoes (1978 Tomato) is the final album from his classic period and was his last studio effort for 10 years. It is a equal mixture of songs that had appeared on Live at the Old Quarter (e.g., “Loretta,” “No Place to Fall”) and ones he had written afterwards (e.g., “Flyin’ Shoes,” “When She Don’t Need Me”), plus one cover (a country-funk rendition of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”). When Van Zandt, riding shotgun, broke his arm in a drunken collision with a tree, complicating a planned tour supporting the album as the opening act for his hero, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Eggers severed professional ties. The two recorded together only once more on a planned box set of duets that was to be three discs of Van Zandt singing his songs with a roster of varied guests. So far, only a single disc has appeared, as Texas Rain: The Texas Hill Country Recordings (2001 Tomato), featuring Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Doug Sahm, among others. Eggers still plans to finish the set by having future guests (citing Bono as one) contribute their vocals to what Van Zandt recorded in the early 1990's.
Van Zandt recorded only three more studio albums: At My Window (1987 Sugar Hill Records), No Deeper Blue (1994 Sugar Hill), and the posthumously released, A Far Cry From Dead (1999 Arista Records). The years of smoking and drinking can be heard in his voice, which dropped to a lower register and had become somewhat enervated, giving him a permanent drunken drawl. With the exception of yet another version of “For The Sake Of The Song,” the two Sugar Hill releases consist new material (e.g., “Marie,” “Still Lookin’ For You”) mixed with older songs, which had not yet been recorded in a studio (e.g., “At My Window,” “Buckskin Stallion Blues”). Mostly updated songs from his repertoire, A Far Cry From Dead is most notable for “Sanitarium Blues,” about Van Zandt’s time in the psychiatric ward.
An extensive catalogue of Van Zandt’s live performances over his last twenty years was recorded by his road manager Harold Eggers (Kevin’s younger brother). It is of varying quality relative to Van Zandt’s level of inebriation and general weariness. He had earned a reputation as a performer who would blow shows by forgetting his lyrics, falling down drunk, or letting his backing band take over. However, within the deluge of live releases, many are quite good and considered essential documents of his later years, such as Live and Obscure (1987 Heartland Records), The Highway Kind (1997 Sugar Hill), Rearview Mirror (1993 Sundown Records) and Road Songs (1994 Sugar Hill). Road Songs, a set of covers recorded on tour through the mid-1970's to early 1980's, received wide exposure when Van Zandt’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” was featured on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski (1998).
Van Zandt divorced Cindy in February of 1983 and married his third and final wife, Jeanene, a month later. The couple had a son, William Vincent, born two weeks after the marriage, and a daughter, Katie Belle, born in 1992. Although divorced in 1994, Townes and Jeanene remained close for the rest of his life. As executrix of his estate, Jeanene fought a lengthy court battle with the brothers Eggers over the control of Van Zandt’s catalog. It was finally settled in 2007 with Fat Possum Records now re-releasing the classic studio albums and the estate’s TVZ Records being in control of the majority of live recordings. At the end of 1996, heavy drinking to kill the pain from an unrepaired broken hip rendered Van Zandt incapable of completing even one song for the album he was making with Sonic Youth’s drummer, Steve Shelley, serving as producer. After returning to his home in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, after much needed surgery, Van Zandt died of a blood clot in the lungs or heart attack on New Year’s Day, 1997. Margaret Brown’s documentary about his life, Be Here To Love Me, was released in 2004 to much critical acclaim.