Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Monday, July 19, 2010

“A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt”, by Robert Earl Hardy (University of North Texas Press)

Buried deep within my memory banks is an unfortunately vague recollection of a Songwriters’ Special episode of “Austin City Limits”, which featured a number of writers, gathered around swapping songs and stories. (I don’t believe this was the heralded Townes Van Zandt tribute, but it was back in the 1990’s, so I can’t be positive at this late date.) Someone – I want to say Guy Clark, but perhaps it wasn’t – made a statement to the effect that Townes Van Zandt had such an enormous impact on his fellow Texas songwriters that it was almost impossible for a Texan NOT to write like Townes.

The exact statement – and certainly there’s a bit of hyperbole involved here - the person who said it, and the televised circumstances may have lost itself in my over-crowded brain, but the underlying truth behind the assertion remains. The distinctive features that distinguish Texas country/folk singer-songwriters from those who hail from other backgrounds were first set into motion in the late 1960’s by Townes Van Zandt. Certainly, there have been developments, refinements, and personal innovations by a number of artists through the intervening years. But Townes is inarguably the origin point.

Even so, there are many people for whom the name Townes Van Zandt does not resonate, just as there is a smaller group of people for whom Townes has become a touchstone, a standard against whom others are judged, an icon. Townes Van Zandt virtually defines the term “cult figure”, someone who has taken on a near-god-like character among many of his followers, but who remains virtually unknown to the public-at-large. The sad fact of the matter is that there was virtually nothing god-like about Townes Van Zandt the person, regardless of how high in the pantheon of great songwriters his body of work places him.

For an idea of how non-god-like Townes Van Zandt the person was, one need only turn to Robert Earl Hardy’s biography of Townes, “A Deeper Blue”. Certainly, the basic thrust of Townes’ sorrowful tale of degradation and dissipated potential will come as no surprise to his followers, regardless of their opinion of his songs. It has never been a secret that he suffered from extreme depression exacerbated by severe alcoholism and rampant drug abuse (including, but hardly limited to, heroin addiction). Hardy meticulously traces the fall from grace of this intelligent, seemingly well-raised scion of a family whose involvement in Texas business and politics dates back to the days when Texas was an independent republic. Indeed, Hardy may be a bit too meticulous. As the book progresses, the reader begins to weary of reading about yet another alcoholic episode, yet another forced attempt at rehab, yet another ghastly drug incident, yet another example of Townes letting down the people who loved him and continued to forgive him (and thus continued to enable him) no matter how low he continued to sink, until the inevitable tragic ending.

But Hardy is a conscientious biographer, who will not ignore important parts of the Van Zandt saga, however redundant their accumulation may seem to the reader, since these continuing self-inflicted wounds play an important role in the development and roller-coaster instability of Townes’ career, with its long gaps in between fertile periods of transcendent activity. His addictions and the turbulence of his personal life are reflected in the poetic brilliance of his best song lyrics, and help to account for the early burn-out of his muse and its subsequent occasional reappearances. To know what makes Townes Van Zandt’s finest songs so special, it is necessary to understand the up-and-down curves of his life.

Townes poses particular problems for a biographer. For one thing, the shock treatments he received at a mental health facility during his late teenaged years wiped out his memories of what was, by all accounts, a mostly-happy childhood. Any knowledge of his youth that he may have shared with interviewers over the years came second-hand, through what his family and friends told him. Even more confusing is the simple truth that Van Zandt altered many of the “recollections” of his subsequent years from interview to interview. For example, he told multiple stories of how he came to write his most famous songs, “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You”, in fabrications which would often bear little resemblance to the memories of people who were around him when the songs came into being. Hardy is careful to quote as many sources as possible to try to construct truthful accounts of the incidents he writes about, rather than falling into the all-too-common journalistic trap of believing whatever an interviewee wants you to believe.

Hardy also offers brief analyses of several of Townes’ best songs, mostly early ones, along with brief discussions of the circumstances of their writing, and occasional interpretations of some of the more obscure lyrics. One wishes there would have been more of this sort of thing, but the door is left open for future critical examination of Van Zandt’s total body of work. Another area with potential for future biographers is additional research into Townes’ first forays into Europe and the international scene. His performances in Texas, Nashville, and on tour in the US and Canada are dealt with at some length, but it would be interesting to know how this quintessentially Texan performer was regarded overseas, and how he behaved on these early jaunts. (The response was obviously quite positive, as he was asked back several times, and even recorded an album in Ireland.) Certainly there must be many people who were involved with these first foreign tours who have interesting stories to share.

The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes, not just about Townes, his family and friends, but also many of the musicians in his circle, such as Guy Clark, the ill-fated Blaze Foley, Mickey White, among others. There are also amazing tales of woe courtesy of his three wives and a few girlfriends, plus his three official children. Hardy successfully captures the ethos of the Houston, Austin and alternative-Nashville scenes during the periods relevant to his story.

There is much here to recommend to anyone who loves Townes Van Zandt, the singer, the finger-picking guitar master, the awesomely gifted songwriter, the spellbinding performer. As much as I find myself shaking my head aghast at the travails of Townes the man, I still admire Townes the artist. But one can only wonder if Hardy, by being honest and open in recounting these harrowing details of wretched excess, might scare away people who have yet to make the acquaintance of Townes’ music.

This may well be the saddest book I have ever read, but so far as I am aware, it tells the truth.

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