Editor’s note: More than 40 musicians have contributed essays to a new book, I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt, by Brian T. Atkinson. The following excerpt was written by Jack Ingram.
Townes was opening for Guy Clark at Rockefeller’s in Houston. By the time Townes’s set was over, he was just crying. He wasn’t even playing music anymore. Guy had to come out and help him off the stage. It was just really sad.
That’s what gets lost in translation in the mythical folklore about Townes, and especially in how much he’s grown in mythical stature — the real harsh reality about alcoholism. The idea that someone as big as Townes Van Zandt gets reduced to being helped off the stage by an old friend takes some of the fun out of it. Having seen that, for me it’s like the cold, hard light of day. It gets to the heart of the matter that drinking songs are about pain. That night I saw Townes was before I was playing music out, when I was young, like seventeen or nineteen.
Townes is a Christ-like figure in Texas. He’s the one. I think that guys like Guy and others he ran with have lifted him up to that stature. They’re still around to talk about him. For guys like me coming up, Guy Clark was probably better known around the scene. Townes was never a mainstream character in the whole Texas music scene, for my generation anyway. I heard more mainstream guys like Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson always talking about Townes Van Zandt in these reverential tones. But, as they say, the music business is kind on the dead, but hard on the living. Couple that with these guys who are still alive and are legends in their own time talking about Townes in such reverential tones after his death. He’s become the songwriter, the poet from Texas.
For me, Townes was one of those guys I’d always heard about but had never listened to very much. Somewhere along the line I heard Guy Clark or Jerry Jeff Walker mention his name in interviews and liner notes, and at some point I went out and got a record, his greatest hits maybe. I took a night, and put it on the headphones, but I listened to Townes Van Zandt for a long time before I got it, before I understood what everyone was talking about.
It wasn’t until I was probably twenty-five years old, driving in a van after playing a gig that I got it. We were playing at the state fair in Oregon, and we had a thirty-three-hour drive to Minneapolis. I had the post-gig driving shift from 3:00 a.m. until daylight, and I put in Townes Van Zandt. It was the same kind of mind-altering moment as when I finally got Bob Dylan’s stuff. Everybody’s supposed to love Bob Dylan, so you get a Dylan record and you listen to an eight-minute song with all verses and somewhere you get lost. You just kind of pretend to get it, until you have a moment of clarity with that kind of music.
I was driving in Montana and put on one of Townes’s records. I put it in and the sun was coming up and I was going eighty-five miles an hour, and a light bulb came on. It was like, “Okay, I get it. This is more than music, this is more than words and melody, this is the real stuff. This is as big a message as any writer can have.” I don’t know what it is. It isn’t any single line that gets you. You just know that this guy has a connection with a deeper place. I don’t put in Townes to listen to a song; I put it in to listen to him.
Did Townes have an effect on me as a songwriter? F**k yeah. I don’t pretend to understand to know exactly where he’s coming from, but I do understand that he opened himself up to writing. He opened himself up to being led by something else to write the music. And that’s what I got from him — to open up, and to write. To let things come out and say things in a poetic way. To not be afraid to use the language that I have.
I think a lot of people don’t allow themselves to write in the kind of language that Townes allowed himself to write in. He didn’t try to dumb down the language that he had the ability to use. That’s part of what separates him. You can tell he’s a poet. He’s writing in this other structure, this other kind of poetry. He’s melding poetry and folk music, which creates an interesting mix.
“Pancho and Lefty,” that’s easy to understand. I’m sure you can look at it and find the true poetry in it, but for me that’s the simplest song that he has, language-wise. If the majority of his work was as simple and easy to hum along to and understand on a surface level, I bet Townes would be a lot better known. I’m a huge fan of music and I’m very open to all kinds of it, and it took me seven years of listening to him to finally feel like, at whatever I can understand music and poetry, I can say, “Oh, my god, okay. I get it.” Trying to understand it, trying to be a student of the music, it took me that long to get a grasp of what he was doing. That complexity and drinking all the time is probably what kept him from being better known during his lifetime.
I’m not a spokesperson for the evils of alcohol addiction, but I think people can have fantastic periods of inspiration doing whatever they have to do to get it. You do wonder what would happen with a guy like Townes if you’d get him in the studio with a clear mind to do more recording. What if he took himself more seriously as a recording artist? I’m sure the drinking was part of the creativity on one hand, but I’m also sure that he could have gotten over that. I don’t believe for a second that a mind like his, an artist like that, needs anything to get to an artistic level that Townes had. And I think that anyone who would say that is just scared.
It’s quite possible Townes was scared of success. There’s nothing wrong with that. Looking at it that way, it maybe wasn’t the alcohol that stunted his being more famous or well known or prolific; maybe alcohol was just a symptom of what was really behind it — being scared. I haven’t had time with him on the couch, so I don’t know. You can only speculate.
But guys like Townes influence the great songwriters. A guy like me is going to listen to Townes and be influenced by him. A guy like Dylan and like Townes and like Kristofferson — they permeate the fabric of what happens years and years and years from now in the songwriting culture. So, it doesn’t matter if his name is remembered and well-known 1,500 years from now. It’s the fact that what he did is going to be a part of what happens later on. Townes Van Zandt has had a major influence on every songwriter that has picked up a guitar in Texas or Nashville for the last thirty years.
We all want to be remembered by name, but imagine if you could get past that and be remembered instead by deed. Maybe Townes was selfless about that, and that’s why he didn’t achieve the kind of success that other people look to as watermarks for that. Maybe he really, truly didn’t care about that, and maybe that also goes into why he could write the way he did, why he wrote songs that people had to listen to hard to understand. He was writing on another plane. What if we could get over wanting to write a hit, and songwriters could write a song, as Townes said, for the sake of it, if they didn’t give a shit about somebody knowing their name?
I see guys today that are great songwriters, but I don’t see anyone else writing like Townes. Hayes Carll comes close, and he will get closer. I do think of Hayes as a guy who understands songwriting, understands where you should try to get to write about real, honest emotions. At least in my head, I didn’t feel the kind of emotion Townes and Guy and the real songwriters — Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Kristofferson, Dylan — write about until I was turning thirty.
It’s hard for me to say blanket statements about Townes. I have mixed emotions about him, his songwriting and his legacy. I know what his legacy is for me, and I think he’s influenced the American culture. Think of bands like Wilco or Son Volt or guys like [Bright Eyes’] Conor Oberst, people who are songwriters’ songwriters, they’ll never mention Townes’s name, but you know they’ve been influenced by him.
I think his legacy as a songwriter will be much bigger than anything I could ever talk about. On a human approach, I think it’s sad that he died at such a young age, and basically by his own doing. I think that’s a real tragedy. I don’t know how you get his mythical status as a songwriter separated from his mythical status of this bullshit that alcoholism fueled his fire. I don’t know how you separate those two with a broad stroke so people remember his legacy as this one thing. It’s confusing for me, but he’s one of the true ones. He’s one that will last.
Excerpt From: I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt, published by Texas A&M University Press.