Tower Songs: Townes Van Zandt

The 1st of January 2012 marked the 15th anniversary of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s death. By most accounts, Van Zandt’s final days were hard ones, as his years of substance abuse wore him down before exacting their final price. Unsurprisingly, this only added to the legend of Van Zandt, even though he was already regarded as one of the best songwriters to ever come out of Texas. Like Hank Williams before him (who also died from addictions of his own on the same day in 1953), Van Zandt’s hard death only seemed to romanticize the circumstances of his life.

If you’ve watched the excellent documentary Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, and heard Van Zandt’s contemporaries talking about his off-and-on battles with addiction, you know that they often do so with an honest, rueful shake of the head but also with a wide-eyed sense of wonderment at just what Van Zandt was able to get away with. And then, of course, there’s the music, which they couldn’t help but celebrate, that deep-from-the-pit-of-sorrow music that made the term “old soul” seem trite and inadequate.

Brian Atkinson’s book I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt continues in the vein of Be Here to Love Me, going to many of his contemporaries for their memories of Van Zandt. Atkinson, who’s written for publications like Relix, No Depression, and American Songwriters, interviewed as many songwriters — both contemporaries of Van Zandt’s and younger songwriters who know him only by his music — in an attempt get at what the actual music meant to them past the stories of Van Zandt’s excesses. To that end, he prefaces each interview with an introduction to each artist, to provide context for what they have to say.

Townes Van Zandt, “Tower Song”

You can’t really get away from the excesses, though, as they were seemingly woven together with Van Zandt’s reportedly charming personality. So you have Guy Clark, who’s made it a habit of including Van Zandt songs on his recent albums, talking about the chaos that Van Zandt brought with him, and about how the two made total asses of themselves in front of Lightning Hopkins. But Clark also talks about how they’d read each other their new songs over the phone, critiquing things like word choices.

Ray Wylie Hubbard talks about touring with Van Zandt right there at the end of Van Zandt’s life, but he also notes that Van Zandt’s music pushed Hubbard to “write with quality” and raise his game. That’s how it is with many of the old-timers in the book, and they alternate between the belief that Van Zandt wanted his songs to be heard, and believing that Van Zandt used his self-destruction as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that would ensure that he and his work would never be as well-known as someone like Bob Dylan.

Many of the younger songwriters don’t have those personal associations to draw on, so their chapters lack the spinnin’-tales style of humor that comes from tales of Van Zandt gambling the night away, stealing girlfriends, or thinking it was the funniest thing in the world to act like a bloodthirsty psychopath. But it seems to be the younger songwriters who seem to grapple more with the timelessness of Van Zandt’s music.

Josh Ritter and Scott Avett praise the elliptical nature of Van Zandt’s lyrics (whereas many others praise its plainspoken nature), while My Morning Jacket’s Jim James admits that he resisted Van Zandt for a long time before giving into the inevitable epiphany that comes from feeling the “way Townes’ sad music uplifts.” Hayes Carll (held up by many in the book as one of Van Zandt’s few true songwriting descendents), tells of playing “Flyin’ Shoes” when he was twenty-two and having a lady at the bar tell him it was cute, and realizing that he didn’t have the life experience necessary to fill a song like that.

One of the most perceptive interviews comes from Jack Ingram, who talks of seeing Van Zandt near the end, and how he disagrees with the whole romanticism that surrounds drinking yourself to death. He also confesses to mixed emotions about Van Zandt’s legacy, and he’s one of the few to wonder “What if?” when it comes to thinking about the possibilities of Van Zandt living a long, productive life. For much of the book, for all its sad tone at a talent lost, it seems to be accepted that “That was just Townes, and that’s just the way it was.”

If there’s any criticism of the interviews found in I’ll Be Here in the Morning, it’s that some of them aren’t as long as you’d like, or that some of them don’t delve as deeply into the art of songwriting as you’d like. That’s naturally, very subjective. Some people seem reticent to talk about Van Zandt’s excesses, while some seem a little too eager, while yet others seem to realize that you can’t talk about one without the other. This reader wishes there had been more talk about songs and the songwriting process, but I suppose when you’re talking about an artist who called some of his songs “sky songs” (songs that just came out of the sky), that’s to be expected.

It’s a bit of a grab-bag, as you’d expect with so many artists (over 40) contributing. In the end, though, I’ll Be Here in the Morning stands as an affectionate look at Van Zandt that doesn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing the reason he needs to be remembered posthumously in the first place.