He’s been covered by one-namers Dylan, Doc, Lyle, Emmylou, and Willie & Merle. In more recent years, Lucinda, Gillian, Norah, and Devendra have sung both his songs and his praises. Kris Kristofferson called him a “songwriter’s songwriter.” Yet, until 2007—10 years after his death—there was no book about Townes Van Zandt, the legend behind some legendary songs.
Enter John Kruth’s To Live’s To Fly. Through in-depth interviews with Van Zandt’s friends, family and fellow musicians, this 300-page biography unearths the stories, explores the myths, and plums the depths of some of the most plainspoken truths to have ever become lyrics. It reveals the grand irony of Van Zandt’s 52 years: that he lived as if he were purposefully creating—both in song and in deed—a storied, tragicomic life. This is a songwriter who, with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, titled a non-posthumous album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt.
To Live’s To Fly contains enough tales of tomfoolery and tragedy to engage a casual fan and an abundance of minutiae for Townes completists. (Always wondered about his parakeets Loop & Lil? See page 68.) Van Zandt came from a wealthy Texan family, and Kruth reveals a hellraising-yet-brilliant student who applied himself only when necessary. The witty prankster was also an athlete who attended a military academy and then, discontent and attempting to “live straight,” dropped out of college and enlisted in the military. The Air Force deemed him “an acute manic depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life.” His subsequent diagnosis as an acute schizophrenic led him, in his then-wife’s opinion, to “begin to act it out.” Shock therapy ensued.
Knuth has talked to key people in Van Zandt’s life, and he knows when to get out of the way and let their respectful observations paint a fuller picture of his subject. These collective recollections depict Van Zandt’s struggles with booze and women and, most importantly, his devotion to his songs. As a curmudgeonly Guy Clark says, “Townes went for the passion, not a bunch of clever bullshit,” and that “nobody cuts it [so] close to the bone.” Nanci Griffith says that he “sacrificed everything for his art” and that he “had the courage as a writer to go places, physically ... to physically be there and feel it, so the rest of us wouldn’t have to.” Eric Andersen notes that Van Zandt “had a lot of sympathy for the human condition. He wasn’t interested in tryin’ to get rich or make money. He just wanted to play.”
Knuth is more than simply a well-researched Townes devotee, he’s also a songwriter. Perhaps this is what drives him to so thoroughly detail the storied origins of several of Townes’ best-known songs. “If I Needed You” apparently came from a dream, for example, while “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” supposedly flowed from Van Zandt’s pen after a long night of drinking and partying. A good bit of text is rightfully devoted to Van Zandt’s renowned “Pancho and Lefty,” including the reasons why he claimed that it was co-written by Billy Graham and Guru Maharajji. Knuth also shares several direct quotes from Van Zandt in which he consistently maintains that he was simply a medium for songs.
Some of the most memorable stories in the book are also some of the most sensationalist—Van Zandt riding a horse into a Colorado bar; Van Zandt scaring a young and puckish Steve Earle with a round of Russian Roulette; Van Zandt giving a perfect haircut to Eric Andersen with a Swiss Army knife. Moreover, who knew that Van Zandt and Roky Erickson (the wild and eccentric leader of the 13th Floor Elevators) were roommates? Knuth highlights Van Zandt’s propensity to destroy fiddles and his penchant for betting the clothes off of his friends’—and girlfriends’—backs. And he recalls the first meeting between Van Zandt and Doc Watson. The blind Watson identified Van Zandt presence from across a crowded room. “The mixture of vodka and cheap cologne [Old Spice] was unmistakable.”
Knuth clearly has good material to work with, and there are only a few times when you wish he had done things differently. I wish he had accepted Guy Clark’s offer of a pre-noon drink. Perhaps then Clark—who describes Van Zandt as “my best friend ever”—would have been more open towards Knuth instead of deriding him as a “Yankee journalist.” Second, as Knuth describes Van Zandt’s studio albums, he seems overly preoccupied with the fact that they are overproduced. It becomes tiresome. While the albums certainly are overproduced, the strength of Van Zandt’s songs can’t be diminished by studio sheen. As Wrecks Bell says, “I don’t even hear all that stuff. All I hear is Townes.” Clark suggests that Van Zandt was likely “too busy and drinkin’ and shootin’ dice” to mix the albums.
Fat Possum recently reissued several of his early studio albums, and the 2005 documentary Be Here To Love Me provides a visual memory of Van Zandt’s life. To Live’s to Fly helps solidify the songwriter’s legend and legacy, and readers won’t be disappointed with the highs, lows, and in betweens that it examines.