December 14, 2005

Z is for Townes van Zandt

I've been procrastinating on this, I guess, not wanting my series to come to an end. But I will go out with one more songwriter:

is for Townes van Zandt.

There is a distrinctive Texas style of music, not quite folk, not quite country, not quite blues, but at the intersection of all of them. Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, and Nancy Griffith are probably its most famous practitioners. Willie Nelson dips into it often, and you can hear it from Marsha Ball, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, and others, but Townes van Zandt is surely one of its main architects. Last Saturday, I was in a bar and I was surprised to hear a Townes song playing in the background. I realized soon that it was actually Willie Nelson's cover of Pancho and Lefty, which made its presence in the bar a little less unlikely. For a guy so many people haven't heard of, he's been covered by a lot of people: Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Norah Jones, Nancy Griffith for a few. Like Richard Thompson, he's a musician's musician, with not quite as much recognition as he deserves, but fanaticism from a lot of those who know him.

The most famous quote on him is from Steve Earle: "Townes Van Zandt's the best songwriter in the world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that!" (Townes' response reportedly was, "It makes me nervous. I've met Bob Dylan's bodyguards and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table, he's sadly mistaken.")

Van Zandt was a self-destructive type, with a lot of genius and a lot of problems. He gets compared to Hank Williams a lot. He believed that songs just came to him, but that to get them he had to let go everything but his guitar: family, money, whatever. Between that and some psychiatric problems, he had a hard life and not a long one. But he left a whole lot of music behind. He was capable of writing absolutely spare music and lyrics, saying nothing at all more than what needed to be said:

If I Needed You

If I needed you
Would you come to me,
Would you come to me,
And ease my pain?
If you needed me
I would come to you
I'd swim the seas
For to ease your pain

In the night forlorn
The mornings born
And the morning shines
With the lights of love
You will miss sunrise
If you close your eyes
That would break
My heart in two

The lady's with me now
Since I showed her how
To lay her lily
Hand in mine
Loop and Lil agree
She's a sight to see
And a treasure for
The poor to find

Bob Dylan was one of his big influences. He said so himslf, and I think the echoes show:

from Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud

The wicked king of clubs awoke
it was to his queen turned
his lips were laughing as they spoke
his eyes like bullets burned
the sun's upon a gambling day
his queen smiled low and blissfully
let's make some wretched fool to play
plain it was she did agree

And, since he wrote when he did, I think there may also have been some influence from Tolkien, at least in this song:

from The Silver Ships of Andilar

Perhaps this shall reach Andilar
although I know not how it can
For once again he's hurled his wind
upon the silver prow
But if it should my words are these
arise young men fine ships to build
And set them north for Valinor
'neath standards proud as fire

But most of his songs reflected the experieces of his own life, or of the people he met along the way. The ballad Pancho and Lefty is probablky his best known:

Pancho And Lefty

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath's as hard as kerosene
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That's the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can't sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty's mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain't nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
So the story ends we're told
Pancho needs your prayers it's true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he's growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

He traveled a lot, wrote a lot of songs, met a lot of people, drank a lot, did a lot of drugs, and fought a lot of demons. ANd he played a hell of a lot of music. I think this one summarizes a lot of his life:

Highway kind

My days, they are the highway kind
they only come to leave
but the leavin' I don't mind
it's the comin' that I crave.
Pour the sun upon the ground
stand to throw a shadow
watch it grow into a night
and fill the spinnin' sky.

Time among the pine trees
it felt like breath of air
usually I just walk these streets
and tell myself to care.
Sometimes I believe me
and sometimes I don't hear.
Sometimes the shape I'm in
won't let me go.

Well, I don't know too much for true
but my heart knows how to pound
my legs know how to love someone
my voice knows how to sound.
Shame that it's not enough
shame that it is a shame.
Follow the circle down
where would you be?

You're the only one I want now
I never heard your name.
Let's hope we meet some day
if we don't it's all the same.
I'll meet the ones between us,
and be thinkin' 'bout you
and all the places I have seen
and why you where not there.

Posted by dichroic at December 14, 2005 02:39 PM
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