Rethinking Townes

Strange things can happen after death swoops down and pulls someone away. Since absence no doubt makes the heart grow fonder, there is a postmortem tendency to gloss over the shortcomings of the departed -- an impulse, natural or otherwise, to find nobility in their flaws, to excuse their faults, if only to make the taste of death a little more palatable.

I know this is true because I've been doing just that for the better part of the two months following the January death of Townes Van Zandt, a singer-songwriter who, over a 30-year career, developed a rabid if moderately sized audience that never included me. I've known his work for years, and in that time sidled up close to a song or two, but when he died (of a heart attack at age 52) I wasn't really moved one way or another. His death was by no means unexpected; Van Zandt, a chronic alcoholic, had a self-destructive streak about as long as those highways Hank Williams used to sing about. And since his faults have been amply documented on the passel of haphazard albums he left behind, I felt no need to apologize for his imperfect artistry, nor was I compelled to revisit those albums. In an obituary published in these pages a week or so after his death, I wrote that Van Zandt never quite lived up to his reputation or his potential, and that more than a few of his acolytes actually bettered the work of their hero. Thinking the job was done, with necessary respects fully paid, I left it pretty much at that.

Two new Townes Van Zandt albums arrived in the mail, though, just days after he died, and they've been taking up more of my time than I would have ever imagined. Both are live sets issued on the folk and bluegrass label Sugar Hill, recorded over the last few years prior to his death. Both are more or less career retrospectives, which like his death is no surprise, since Van Zandt's drinking seriously hampered his writing over the last ten or so years. Rear View Mirror -- originally issued in 1993 on a tiny Austin independent label -- rounds up many of Van Zandt's best-known and acclaimed songs, including "Pancho and Lefty" (a duet hit for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson when they covered it in 1982). The Highway Kind is slanted more toward obscure originals and covers that range from a pair of Hank Senior weepers ("Lost Highway," "Lonesome Whistle") to "Dublin Blues," written by Van Zandt's contemporary and drinking buddy Guy Clark. The songs on each collection are cast in spare settings, mostly just Townes and his guitar and voice, with flourishes here and there of fiddle, Dobro, and the occasional second guitar.

Because Van Zandt was never much of a bandleader, and because his approach in the studio didn't vary much from his approach on-stage, live albums like these have always been the best way to sample his art. I don't know how his hard-core faithful would rank them (and cults can be notoriously off-base when judging their idols' work), but to these ears The Highway Kind and Rear View Mirror sound like definitive documents -- places where the peculiarities and nuances in his singing and writing are at last tangible for more than a mere moment or two.

That doesn't mean Van Zandt's shortcomings are any less obvious here than on his other fifteen or so albums. "Pancho and Lefty" may be Van Zandt's signature song, but it has always sounded to me like so much pseudo-Western macho blather, the kind of stuff doled out all too often by the self-absorbed singer-songwriters that spilled out of Texas back in the Seventies. "Lungs" stumbles over the pretensions of Van Zandt's poetry ("Salvation sat and crossed herself and called the Devil partner" indeed), while "If I Needed You" remains a banal plea from a troubled but ultimately stereotypical doomed romantic. And a not very likable one at that.

Nevertheless I've been drawn to The Highway Kind and Rear View Mirror by the sense of death and dread that hangs over each set like the stale-beer stench of an empty bar. And on both, Van Zandt's craggy, ragged voice -- which in the past I've found to be almost unbearable -- somehow manages to underscore the despair and forlornness in these songs of, well, death and dread. As he croaks and strains to hit the right notes in Hank Williams's "Lost Highway," you can almost see Van Zandt standing on that loser's path, resigned to his bitter, unstoppable fate. And when he mutters on "Still Lookin' for You" that "fast living is slow suicide," he's talking to himself, ruminating on the conflicting impulses that fueled his best work, compelled to kill the pain by dying a drunkard's slow death but dogged by the inherent need to find the good in life, with any luck before his abusive lifestyle claimed him.

Obviously it's too late for Van Zandt, whose life was one of pained introspection and deliberate self-annihilation. A chronic fatalist well acquainted with misery, Van Zandt looked hard at the reality of life (most explicitly in the masterful "Tower Song," found in its finest reading on Rear View Mirror), but he also tried at times to temper his pessimism with hope, however transient. "There ain't no dark till something shines/I'm bound to leave this dark behind," he observed in "Rex's Blues," among Van Zandt's oldest and greatest songs. It's one that I've been associating for the last two years with Jay Farrar, the dark-voiced singer-songwriter of Son Volt who in 1995 cut a mournful, dirgelike version of "Rex's Blues" as a duet with Kelly Willis. Like most vocalists who've tackled Van Zandt's songs, Farrar could sing rings around him, but on Rear View Mirror Van Zandt reclaims his creation and tells this tale of facing death in a bright, confident, and relaxed voice. There's no terror here, none of the fear that Mississippi bluesman Bukka White brought to the thematically related "Fixin' to Die," or that Robert Johnson brought to the equally grim "Hell Hound on My Trail." Instead Van Zandt sounds like he's glad the end is finally here, as if he's been waiting for it long enough. The effect couldn't be more chilling if he had blown his brains out as the song faded to a close.

Maybe Townes Van Zandt's death is too fresh for me to approach Rear View Mirror and The Highway Kind with the right kind of perspective: Am I finding new and greater meaning in his songs simply because he's no longer here to sing them? I don't think so. The performances on those early albums are weak, marred by Van Zandt's inability to conceptualize his music in the studio and his tendency to turn the tragedy of his life into the stuff of beautiful, romantic losers. Throughout these posthumous collections, however, there is an air of doom that would most likely be there had Van Zandt lived another 50 years. These tragic tales of life and death are performed with conviction and, more so, finality, as though Van Zandt knew he was putting them on tape for the last time, that they would have to stand as his parting words. And for the first time in his troubled life, he finally got them right.

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