Townes Van Zandt: Sunshine Boy – The Unheard Studio Sessions

Townes Van Zandt
Sunshine Boy - The Unheard Studio Sessions

When Townes Van Zandt was pledging Sigma Nu in college, he decided to crash a big dance, kill everyone’s vibe. He and a buddy strolled in barefoot, and Townes was shirtless too, exposing that lanky, rail-thin body that’d later become iconic on his record covers. They walked over to the punch table, got some punch, hung out for around five minutes, then left. The Sigma Nu brothers were furious. How dare they, mere pledges, ruin a college function? After getting yelled at for a little while afterwards, Townes took off his shirt again. He pulled out his pledge pin and stuck it into his chest. Blood trickling down, he walked over to one of the brothers, got in his face, and just stared at him for a few minutes. Then he left.

That story, told in the documentary Be Here to Love Me, gets to the soul of Van Zandt’s music as much as anything. When people refer to songs as autobiographical, they usually mean to say, the songs are based on specific incidents that happened in the singer’s life. Van Zandt’s songs are cloudy mythologies, you’d be hard pressed to find a single thing in them that was factually accurate. But they’re emotionally autobiographical, they shadow the spirit of the type of man who would sign up for a fraternity and then stick a pin through his skin to get out of it, neither move made to prove any particular point—combustible, vulnerable, dangerous, teetering between emotion and self-destruction. Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos captures the raw power of his songbook as well as any collection before it, and likely several more thereafter.

The time period these recordings come from, 1971-72, has previously been known as Van Zandt’s peak, creatively. In those two years he’d come out with Delta Momma Blues and High, Low, and in Between (stories about a third album, 7 Comes 11, sidelined by a managerial financial dispute, would persist for decades until it was released in 1993 as Nashville Sessions). For Townes, Colin Escott notes in the liner notes, it was also the ten-year anniversary of Van Zandt’s brutal insulin shock therapy at the hands of University of Texas doctors treating him for manic depression. Both depression and the treatments stayed with Van Zandt his entire life, the latter causing serious long-term memory loss, and both leading to a life filled with drugs of every sort—at different times in his life, Van Zandt was notorious among his friends for weed, heroin, sniffing glue, drinking (enough to shock the grunge rockers he’d hang out with later in life), and shooting bourbon directly into his veins. In the early 70’s, Van Zandt was shaving years off his life and throwing his own pain into the stars, arranging them next Paul Bunyun and Pecos Bill.

Big words for an album whose opening lyrics are, “There’s T’s for Texas, and there’s ‘T’s for Tennessee”, and is followed up “Who Do You Love?”. Sunshine Boy shows Van Zandt’s happier side in equal measure. Moments of light escape dot the two discs, and there’s often a black humor in Van Zandt’s music in general—the only joke that fails on all of Sunshine Boy is that misplaced piece of humor about a 15-year old girl coming onto Van Zandt at the end of “No Deal” (“No deal, I’ll send you back to Tennessee”, he tells her).

But if you’ve heard Van Zandt’s music before, you don’t need me to explain “No Deal” to you, or the deep sense of peace within “You Are Not Needed Now””, the joy transferred onto the gospel in “Two Hands”, the transfixing mystery of “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”, a somewhat metaphorical story so complex that keeping a pencil or SongMeanings close by is recommended, at least at first, to keep track of who’s up and who’s down in a game of poker/existential justice. The songs sound crisp and clear, qualities that won’t surprise anyone with Omnivore Recordings previous reissues—they were also behind the gorgeous Alex Chilton reissues from last year, and know how to make sparse sounds that are decades old feel like downright neighborly. One wonders why Chilton got the royal vinyl treatment and Van Zandt is stuck with CDs, but like all those few grey federales say, that’s just the way it goes.

The first disc is mainly comprised of alternate records, and is pretty similar to what you’ve heard before. There aren’t any backup singers on “Two Hands”, there’s an in-studio version of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” (you’ve heard him sing it at the end of The Big Lebowski). “Who Do You Love?” isn’t exactly raucous, but it stirs up a nice little racket. Little things like that. In the liner notes, Escott describes the first disc as “seeing a friend in a new light,” a polite way of saying we’re seeing the same thing, barely changed. The first disc of Sunshine Boy serves the two corners of the fan spectrum very nicely—the alternates will make sure the completist is complete, and the song choices here function as a pretty good overview of some of the best work of his career, making it a great introduction.

There’s only one hint of the truly unique on Sunshine Boy‘s first disc, and it portends things to come. You’d think there are enough versions of “Pancho and Lefty” in the world—when Pamela Anderson starts naming body parts after your song, it’s safe to assume exposure is at critical levels. But on Sunshine Boy, Van Zandt shows how everyone, including some of country’s biggest luminaries, got his song wrong. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version was always grandiose, occasionally tethered down by lines like “Living on the road, my friend / was gonna keep you free and clean / now you wear your skin like iron and you’re breath’s as hard as kerosene”, but it’s just a chance for Nelson and Haggard to hang out and be cowboys. Emmylou Harris’ version was better, striking a sense of sad empathy.

Van Zandt adored both of those versions, but his arrangement on Sunshine Boy—”Without Strings And Horns” we are told—brings out a an untold brilliance, breathing new life into the song. Both famous covers take their time saying each character’s name, getting each syllable right and making such their actions count, are more then themselves. Lefty’s turn is an epic betrayal, and the storyteller reminds us of Christian charity—say a few prayers for Lefty, too.

Sunshine Boy‘s version is simple, direct. Nothing is romantic—whoever it is the narrator is singing to in the beginning “slips into” their dreams like Walter Mitty—and presumably Van Zandt—would, like it was a part of everyday life. Rather than names, Van Zandt focuses on descriptions. That Pancho wears “his gun outside his pants / for all the honest world to feel” matters more than whoever Pancho actually is. For his whole life, Van Zandt would claim that he had no idea who the pair was supposed to be, at times making up bizarre stories to deal with the fact the personifications he had given his feelings—anger, hope, and above all, betrayal from the wealthy family that sent him into horrifying mental torture—received more attention than the feelings themselves. Of course, that’s just my interpretation. This raw version of “Pancho & Lefty” is a mirror, you can see what you want to in it.

The entire second disc functions like this. The demos are stripped down, nothing to distract from Van Zandt’s beautiful voice, so you can focus all your attention on the mysteries of his lyrics. Some are easy to figure out—”Diamon Heel Blues” is a fantastic stream-of-consciousness blues-picker, with topics ranging from Muhammad Ali (‘he’s the champion us longhairs love the most”) to driving cars into buildings. “Heavenly Houseboat Blues” and “When He Offers His Hand” are gorgeous paens to a religion whose rules he didn’t much care about, “To Live Is To Fly” is like a proto-“Always Remember to Wear Sunscreen”, but with truly useful life advice (“Days up and down they come / like rain on a conga drum / forget most remember some / but don’t turn none away”).

But soon enough you get to “Tower Song”. “Your fears have built a wall between / our lives and all that loving means / will have to go unfelt it seems / and that leaves only sorrow”. It’s a sad, honest breakup song, but never mean. Bob Dylan would have made this a mean song. Even as Van Zandt says, “You don’t hear me anymore / your pride’s just too demanding”, he’s not trying to rub it in anyone’s face.

Like Springsteen, Cat Power, Waxatachee and countless others who’d come after him, Van Zandt realized that depression and pain aren’t things to be ignored, stuffed in a bottle. No one likes feeling bad, obviously, no one romanticizes the days they can’t go a day without writing long, hateful letters to themselves or not eating or want to only drink and drink and do coke because their minds will self-destruct otherwise (some people will romanticize anything I guess, but they’re idiots). There have been other masters of personal pain before him—Joni Mitchell comes to mind. But even today, it can be taboo for men to honestly describe their hurt. Townes Van Zandt came to realize something that many a white man born rich (although he quickly ended up in a trailer after leaving their care) has missed: that these feelings are, for some, just part of the tapestry of life. They’ll consume everything you own at some points, they’ll give you perspective at others.

Some Van Zandt albums are nihilistic in pain. There’s sorrow here, but things don’t have to be bad. For an artist whose words are so venerated, Sunshine Boy ends with “Untitled”, a lovely little bit of guitar picking. You can practically hear the words to one of the masterpieces featured here, “You Are Not Needed Now”: “Hang on man, something’s wrong / Your blues do seem to be gone.”

RATING 9 / 10