When Townes Van Zandt died of "fast living, slow suicide" on New Year's Day, 1997, he left behind a body of work and a legend. The legend -- a son of Texas wealth forsakes a life of privilege to wander the country, writing songs of astounding beauty while fighting the demons that eventually overtake him -- is a compelling one, and it seems to be basically true. The music, though, stands on its own, and as with many of music's more tragic figures, sometimes the legend threatens to overshadow the work.
Since his death, the Americana market has been glutted with posthumous releases, mostly of live shows made towards the end of his life. "Absolutely Nothing" is one more of these, and the first 12 songs are culled from an early '90s live performance in Europe, where Townes was and remains more popular than in his native land. Following these songs, however, are four more, the inclusion of which I find deeply questionable for both artistic and ethical reasons. But let's start with the first twelve
It's a good show, and a good recording: his voice is weathered and he doesn't attempt much fingerpicking, but he's still on his game, inhabiting his remarkable songs with his trademark melancholy, humble and funny when addressing the crowd. There is an off-the-cuff looseness to his strumming which, while probably due to the effects of a lifetime of alcohol abuse on his nerves, is still steady enough to pass for an artistic choice. One of the newer songs, "The Hole", is especially masterful and chilling. Over two forlorn minor chords, Townes tells a story in which he -- or, if you insist, "the narrator" -- falls down a "hole" in the woods and find himself in the lair of "the old woman" with a "smile just like the grave". The song can be taken literally as a dark fairy tale, but begs to be seen as a metaphor, for addiction, perhaps, or mental illness, or simply bad choices -- any number of things that can isolate you from what's important in life.
Finding himself trapped with "the old woman," he tries argument after argument to gain his release; she rejects each one with cynical finality. The exchange is a masterstroke of songwriting. One verse runs:
"I'll miss," I said, "a girl I know --
I can't just leave her there to pine."
"She's still got plenty of men to go.
I'm sure she'll do just fine."
Most frightening, especially if the metaphor is kept in mind, is when the increasingly desperate protagonist brings up his child in a last-ditch bid for sympathy:
"What about my little boy?"
She said, "He's just like you.
Let a few short years roll by,
he'll end up down here too."
Towards the end, the narrator manages to escape. Townes is at his sensual, detailed best in his description of the getaway:
I hurled myself against the wall.
I ripped and clawed my way
through the stinking, clinging loam
back to the light of day.
I crawled back into the wind again
with the sky upon my face.
I heard the earth sigh patiently
as it slid back into place.
It's a tour de force of a song, and the slightly weathered performance only helps us believe that Townes really has been down in that hole. Whether he ever got out is another matter entirely.
The four songs that follow the live show are studio cuts of Townes and his guitar, made just weeks before the long decades of self-mortification finally caught up with him. They are not for the faint of heart. Townes, just in his fifties, is clearly dying, and it's a painful and disturbing thing to hear. He starts with two original blues, his fingers trembling on the fretboard, his voice a pained gasp. It's the sound of a musician whose body is giving out on him, whose ability to do what he loves has escaped him. The most harrowing moment comes when he gets to "Nothin'", already perhaps his bleakest song. Little bursts of the once beautiful finger-picked melody occur here and there, but he can't sustain it: the tune is shattered, in pieces. In a way, it's the one song that works, but not necessarily in a good way: the experience of hearing Townes attempt such a devastating song in a state of such profound devastation is frightening, to say the least. By the end, he sounds near collapse. He quits playing guitar, and silence descends in the studio. You think for a moment that the song's over, but the silence is loaded with his presence. What the hell is he doing? Why the dead air? His voice returns from nowhere, unaccompanied, to spit out these words in a voice too weary for the world:
Being born is going blind
And bowing down a thousand times.
What are we to make of the release of these songs, showcasing a beloved artist in such a state? Some, surely, will see it as something like "outsider art", art on the extremes or margins of the human condition. Some will classify it with post-acid Syd Barrett or post-asylum Skip Spence, and take the condition of the singer, wracked with the shakes, as proof of the "authenticity" of the songs.
Well, he was always authentic. But what I hear is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time in ruin, and I don't know that it needed to be heard. Those who haven't heard him before will come away from these songs with a grievously inaccurate impression, and those of us who have been touched by the power and beauty of his music will be distressed by what can only be described as the fetishization of his pain.
Hardcore Townes fans will want this, and should get it, and most of the album is pretty damn good. But unless you're a glutton for other people's pain, be prepared for those four songs.