[9 March 2006]
Sometimes I don’t know where
This dirty road is taking me
Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why
I guess I keep a-gamblin’
Lots of booze and lots of ramblin’
It’s easier than just waitin’ around to die
—“Waitin’ Around To Die”
Sorrow and solitude
These are the precious things
And the only words
That are worth rememberin’
A film about the legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me is a poetic and often devastatingly beautiful cinematic achievement. A troubled and complicated man, Van Zandt, who died aged 52 in 1997 from heart failure after years of alcohol and drug misuse, is one of the true greats of American song. His songs inspire a devotion and obsession from his fans that belie his relatively small public profile, and his standing amongst peers such as Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Bob Dylan is untouchable.
Born into wealth, Townes Van Zandt lived a short and restless life haunted by depression, addiction and sacrifice. A songwriter who in his own words realised that to follow his dream and his music “takes blowing off everything, family money, security [and] happiness”. A teenage outsider, Van Zandt soon started on the road of alcohol and drug use that he would follow throughout his turbulent life. He spent a harrowing three months in Galveston hospital undergoing shock therapy for his apparent manic depression which left his memory without any images of childhood. It was a time that Van Zandt’s sister remarks here, “cost Townes a lot of who he was”.
His life was that of a nomadic troubadour, leaving the stability of his home, his wives and children, to chase the music that came through him. His idea of making it was always too hazy and unfocused to lead to the sort of mainstream success that his talent should have assured him. Even when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took Van Zandt’s most famous composition “Pancho and Lefty” into the charts, his fleeting moment in the glittery limelight was uncomfortable. At the very pinnacle of his career, Townes Van Zandt remained the outsider. So many artists proclaim from the hills that they are “in it for the music”, but with Townes, you felt there was no bluster or fakery in his complete disregard and wilful disruption of his commercial fortunes.
That this documentary not only serves his memory, but takes a place alongside his revered legacy, is down to filmmaker Margaret Brown’s remarkable handling of her subject, displaying a respect but also a sense of wistfulness that is bound to a genuine affinity with Van Zandt’s music. It is to her credit that the movie never threatens to descend into a behind-the-music-esque run through of excess and myth. Instead, she has created an arresting piece of cinema that is immersed in beautiful music. Indeed, Van Zandt and his songs are always there, with the images that sift through the screen instinctively married to the drifting, enigmatic spirit of the man. Footage of night-time streets and dusty Texan back yards stretch out to the sound of Van Zandt’s simple, longing songs; and back porch stories are recounted frankly, emotionally and always with a great deal of affection.
Whilst the perfection Van Zandt strained for in his music was frequently realized, as a man he was filled with contradictions and flaws. He could be a tender, selfish, tragic and impossibly funny man, something that comes out in the many interviews in Brown’s movie. Conversations with his family are the most illuminating and indeed heartbreaking, with conflicting feelings of love and resentment displacing the myth of Townes Van Zandt the country outlaw and revealing a startling humanity. There is a real sense of regret and loss in the interviews with Van Zandt’s children in particular. For most of his life, Townes Van Zandt eschewed family life for writing songs and chasing them wherever they took him. It was this stark choice that made him imperfect as a man, a father and a husband, but meant he was able to articulate such perfect sadness and delicate, aching moments of musical clarity.
For most of his life, there was only his art, and he suffered for it. There are times here when he recounts the tragedy of his drug abuse with a ghostly smirk, masking a sadness that must have pursued him like a black dog. Van Zandt needed his stable home life but couldn’t betray his muse long enough to stick around. There is something of the doomed troubadour about the man who remarked “I never thought I would live a long life” that is harrowing, but guiltily, exhilarating for the listener who is hooked on rock and roll folklore.
Despite the sadness and addictions prominent his life, the film does not serve to glorify the tiresome myth of the fucked up genius. We are never allowed to forget that Townes Van Zandt was a complicated, enthralling and deeply funny man. There is an empathy and humour that sits alongside the naked sadness in the recollections of those who knew him best, and central to the film, there is always the music. The most poignant scene in the movie is footage of Van Zandt playing the chilling “Waitin’ Around to Die” at home (incredibly it was written as a newly married man in his early 20s) to an old, red eyed man in the corner of the room who is fighting to hold back the tears streaming down his face. It’s a dazzling reminder of the moments of power and beauty that are so often present in his music.
Belonging to the ragged Texas country tradition with his roots in something deeper and timeless, Townes Van Zandt’s poetic narratives and haunting melodies came from the dusty side of the road, from the motels and trailer parks rather than glossy Nashville studios. Four years in the making, Be Here to Love Me captures this brilliantly and is an essential and thrilling portrait of one of the great-lost songwriters of his generation. Most music DVD releases are either shameless cash-ins or pristine documents of stage-managed live performances. Be Here to Love Me strives to be something more original and unique, and ultimately it succeeds. For fans of Townes Van Zandt it is vital, for non-fans and newcomers it could be a revelation. Margaret Brown’s film should help to ensure that Van Zandt’s music continues to be heard and his reputation continues to crawl from the desolate highways and Texas bars, to reach a far wider audience. Be Here to Love Me is a triumph, both as a defining moment in music filmmaking and as an evocation of one of the most breathtaking talents in American music history.