Townes Van Zandt

I figured there was heaven, purgatory, hell and the blues. I’m trying to crawl up from the blues. Purgatory would be home, sweet home.

                                                       -Townes Van Zandt

The intent of this forum was not to be depressing, but the more I dig into the topics I intended to cover, I’m realizing more and more that for every great song(s), there’s a sad story about a life that ended too soon, or one that saw too many near-fatal/suffering moments. There are a lot of martyrs in the history of music. You may not think they died for noble causes, but their stories matter.

I just finished watching a great film about Townes Van Zandt’s life called Be Here To Love Me. As the story progressed, it become more apparent that the guy never really got “his due.” He never got “his due” in terms of fame and fortune, as if those are the only things that matter. I think he liked not having them. But his story and his songs are more deserving of (at least) fame than most of the “famous” material out there.

Townes Van Zandt was one of the most obscure and under-appreciated songwriters in modern time. He has influenced (and continues to) artists from Willie Nelson to Sonic Youth to Robert Plant to Norah Jones. Townes died 44 years to the day after Hank Williams Sr. had. Hank was one of his biggest songwriting influences. Alcohol and drugs were a recurrent and major issue throughout Townes’ life. His death was labeled “natural” cardiac arrhythmia.

In 2004’s The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, Paul Evans writes,

“Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard scored a country hit [#1 in 1983 on the Billboard Country Music chart] with his “Poncho and Lefty,” a song with pervasive, dark nostalgia that encapsulates Van Zandt’s approach. A deft finger-picking guitarist and a careful lyricist, he delivered work that stands the test of time.”

Townes Van Zandt spent some time in a mental hospital during his college years. He received insulin shock treatments to help deal with what the doctors deemed manic depression. 

In the film Be Here To Love Me, Van Zandt’s sister, Donna Spence, shares about the treatments.

“Imagine just having huge blocks of who you are, wiped out…I told you my mom had a real gift for taking things the way they were. But the year she died, she told me if she could change one thing in her life, she would not have given permission for Townes to have those treatments. And I know they regretted it, and I know it cost Townes a lot of who he was.”

From Townes’ song, “Waitin’ Around To Die”:

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 on gamblin’, lots of booze and lots of ramblin’

It’s easier than just a-waitin’ ’round to die

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