Townes Van Zandt: Singer of sad songs
It would be dishonest not to place an appreciation of Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt in 2016 in the context of recently deceased colleagues Leonard Cohen and Guy Clark, not to mention the Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan. It’s been a long time since the literary quality of song lyrics has been so much in the spotlight of the feuilletons. And when people talk about the really, really, really prime songwriters, the songwriter’s songwriters, the name Townes comes up.
The chicken-and-egg problem: What comes first in song, what is more important, what is the sine qua non, music or lyrics, or interpretation, or even reception practice in the social context of technical reproduction – after all, we’re talking about 20th-century pop phenomena in blues, folk, country, and rock? But do we really? Even in ancient times, texts were performed to instrumental accompaniment (the lyre, hence lyric poetry), a performance practice that extends through the church song, the folk song, the minnelied of the Middle Ages, the art song of the Romantic period, to the rapped hip-hop derivatives of the most contemporary poetry slams. Where there is a stage, men and women stand and sing, arias, ballads and drinking songs, they report as troubadours from distant lands, tell tall stories about rulers and lovers, gods and murderers, and of their kind, the vagabonds.
The genre in which singer-songwriters are at home requires them to be as skilled in the craft of poets as they are in the craft of composers and stage actors. They must build exciting stories, shape strong characters, and do it all in poetic, memorable language. But to be as widely received in their own time and beyond their lifetimes as those mentioned at the beginning requires even more: they must provide a surface for identification for many individuals in a globalized world across generations.
This is about the song lyrics
This is about the lyricist Townes Van Zandt. We will skip the composer and the performer. If I do so here, it is because, after thirty years of intensive study of his work, I am sure that his song structures and melodies, the instrumentation and production and cover design of the studio and live recordings, as well as the choreography and iconography of his concerts, have played a huge part in his success, but that it is the literary quality of his lyrics that has lifted him out of the mass of his competitors and into the Olympus.
How is quality measured? Art theory approaches works from many perspectives, biographical and close reading, socio-historical and discourse analysis, looking for the author’s intention, postcritique and new sincerity and many more.
The first contact with Townes, as the scene calls him, never Van Zandt, simply Townes, usually happens in the form of an initiation rite, thus well prepared: an already initiated person hands down purposefully chosen introductory songs (such as “To Live Is To Fly” or “Nothin”). My thesis would be that during the first contact with the work of Townes Van Zandt, a person halfway equipped with aesthetic and emotional sensorium develops an astonished familiarity, which evolves into an admiring bewilderment during repeated encounters with his songs, whether played by himself or by others, whether heard as a song or read as a text.
The power of Townes’ lyrics is reflected in their power over the recipients. From the first-time listener to the most severe critic, I have not yet experienced anyone, by the way, and quite deliberately this must be mentioned, nor any female listener or critic, who has not been fascinated by his oeuvre. But his impact is strongest on his colleagues. There is hardly a songwriter from whom so many songs have been covered so often. As early as 2013, a relevant website listed exactly 6,648 cover versions of his only sixty or so songs, including over a thousand versions of his biggest hit “Pancho and Lefty” and around 500 of “If I Needed You” alone. Today, about twenty covers are added every 24 hours on pages such as YouTube or Bandcamp.
His songs are never written for effect, never formulaic. Townes would never have written a Christmas song, a birthday song, or an anthem for a demonstration. Townes never wanted to be Woody Guthrie, not Hank Williams, not Elvis, not Sinatra, not even Dylan. He’s a songwriter without cause. Despite three detailed biographies and an excellent movie about him (“Be Here To Love Me”), only rarely a personal inducement can be identified. On the contrary, these are extremely open texts whose meaning cannot be ultimately deciphered. Even in the seemingly simplest songs made into hits by others, which might pass for love songs or story songs, there remain considerable blanks: The fact that “Loop and Lil agree” may refer to two real-life alliteratively named parrots doesn’t help us much to understand their presence in the third verse of “If I Needed You”. And the notion of a person who “wears skin like iron, and breath as hard as kerosene” will remain breathtaking for many listeners of “Pancho and Lefty.”
Texts that never wear out
The familiarity in his poetry is found – as countless Twitter posts or YouTube comments prove – by soulful listeners of gospel-heavy bluegrass music as well as death-wish metal disciples. Punks and grunge slackers are fine with Townes, too. The bewilderment surprises even knowledgeable connoisseurs of Texas folk music when, after years of singing along, familiar lines of lyrics suddenly puzzle or dissolve into new meaning. These are lyrics that never wear out. Very rarely are they rooted in the time in which they were written. Almost all of them are timeless, staying close to nature and even the human body. Let’s take the example of “Rake.” Here are the nouns from this song: moon, rake, man, lovers, flowers, wounds, laughter, devil, sun, day, nightfall, stars, wine, guitars, fire, body, air, outrage, companion, women, time, water, sea, night, day, cursing, eyes, ravings, lies, tricks, brains, lover, women, tongues, pride, pleasures, laughter, eyes, friend, wedding, face, night, day, air, fire, skin, moonlight. Other examples would be “Lungs” or “Be Here To Love Me.”
The numerous “highways”, “railroads” and “rivers” are always to be understood as metaphors for the path of life, which is in some places also clearly religiously connoted, just as “sun,” “moon,” “stars,” “day” and “night” mark a pronounced awareness of transience and eternal return: “The moments do somersaults, into eternity” (“She Came And She Touched Me”). “Days, up and down they come, like rain on a conga drum, forget most, remember some, but don’t turn none away” (“To Live Is To Fly”). “It’s strange how many tortured mornings, fell upon us with no warning, looking for a smile to beg and borrow, it’s over now, there is no returning, a thousand bridges sadly burning” (“Come Tomorrow”).
Numerous allusions to the world of gamblers ensure that all this should not be taken too seriously. Not only in an obvious card player anthem like “Mr Mudd And Mr Gold”, but also where this is not immediately evident, as in the numerous mentions of the number seven, which is considered a lucky number in the dice game craps.
Hardly any songwriter will have written as much about illnesses, doctors and clinics (“Sanitarium Blues,” “No Deal,” “Lungs”) as Townes, who was hospitalized for a long time, and the alcohol and drug references are of course legion (“White Freightliner,” “Loretta,” “Brand New Companion”).
It would certainly be worth a doctoral thesis to examine the deixis in Townes’ songs, the movement along the highways and railroads on the surface of the earth, the sinking into the underground, into caves and graves, the rising into the air and sky. What is “down,” where is “high,” where does one locate oneself: “High, Low And In Between” or “So close and yet so far away” (as in “Tower Song”)? The metaphor that holds it all together is flying, from “To Live Is To Fly” to “Flyin’ Shoes” to “Two Girls.”
In the fabric of all the existentialist imagery (“Legs to walk and thoughts to fly, eyes to laugh and lips to cry, a restless tongue to classify, all born to grow and grown to die” from “Rex’s Blues”), all the dark settings (“Don’t go sneakin’ ’round no holes, there just might be something down there, wants to gobble up your soul” from “The Hole”) and inexplicable incidents (“Two lonesome dudes on an ugly horse, passed by not long ago, they asked me where the action was, I said I did not know” from “Two Girls”) there are enough lines to stylize Townes as a singer of sad songs.
He is the master of denial and the repeater of the dictionary of despair: “No words of comfort, no words of advice, nothin’ to offer a stranger” (“A Song For”). “The end is coming soon, it’s plain, a warm bed just ain’t worth the pain” (“Tower Song”). “It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today, but I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway, maybe I’ll go insane, I got to stop the pain” (“Kathleen”). “Your back ain’t strong enough, for burdens double fold, they’d crush you down, down into nothin” (“Nothin”).
Townes vs. Dylan
Steve Earle has coined the oft-quoted phrase: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole wide world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and say that.” Would Townes have been the more worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Of course not. The impact of Dylan is unmatched. Dylan marks a caesura, and even a Townes Van Zandt was only made possible by him.
Only very few people ever have been guest to one of the houses of Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, the man who is better known as Robert Allen Zimmerman and who is the main impersonator for the animated character Bob Dylan. The reason why Earle’s quote became so popular is that everybody knows that there never was such a thing as a Bob Dylan’s coffee table. Earle’s statement underscored the biggest difference between them: A Dylan never did live, never drank coffee, will never die, it is a picture, a story, a graphic novel, a serial, it will live on forever as a symbol, a concept, a god. Earle’s quote emphasized the humanity of Townes, not the quality of his writing. Townes’ response, “I’ve met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don’t think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table,” argues in the same vein: To mention bodyguards stresses that the thing we’re talking about here is not a normal person, someone like us, but an otherworldly, untouchable character, valuables, a treasure, gold, taboo. Townes in contrast was a real person, flesh and blood, living, many met him, talked to him, touched him, a terribly ill man, he even died, a human.
Townes’ song lyrics will endure. Because they are context-free, timeless. Their poetic openness, their suggestive impact, their existential relentlessness will grip people. In Townes’ songs, they will find words for their own sadness, loneliness, for their longing. Someone will play or read “Be Here To Love Me” to someone, and they will understand.