Saturday, April 24, 2010

No Easy Answers

I watched the fine Margaret Brown documentary on Townes Van Zandt, "Be Here to Love Me," last night. There's a lot there to think about, and you might want to own this one and muse on it from time to time. It is a lucky thing there's so much off-stage footage of Townes even available. I guess it shows how compelling train wrecks and shooting stars can really be. People were drawn to him, including people with cameras, even when he was living in rotting trailers. He seems, at least in all the footage, to have always maintained a sweet charm. It attracted three good women to him. His kids all love him still, and cry for his loss.

Part of the attraction is surely the songs. What a writer he was. But the dark pool of sadness in his heart was as deep as the universe. A friend tells that when he was in grammar school a teacher lectured one day on the truth that all stars burn out, including the sun. Townes is said to have remarked, incredulously--"The sun's burning out? Well hell with this school work stuff, then." He lived along those lines, from start to finish. Another witness in "Be Here" says "the only thing keeping him here was his music, and sometimes it was so intense I would wish he'd cut that last connection." But lordy, those songs.

The most poignant bit in the movie is probably Townes youngest child, his daughter by his third wife, singing along with one of his beautiful, sad songs--one that's much much older than she is, even though she's lost him, and that's aged her beyond her years, which is probably at most twelve. He died when she was little more than a baby. People who are self-destructive probably don't entirely realize how big a hole they can leave. Or maybe that just shows you how big depression and self-destruction can really be.

I've been around that--probably we all have, if we've lived long enough. In some cases it leaves a lot of anger behind, as the survivors have to deal endlessly with the broken glass, the smoldering embers and twisted roofing tin and melted pipe, the rubble on the ground that cuts your boots to shreds. Townes understood that too I think, and stood apart from himself in some bemusement. He talks, in the movie, about writing a song so perfect that he can't understand it at all. And there's a video on Youtube of him explaining his wonderful song "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold," how it came to him in a vision, so fast that he couldn't write fast enough to get it down. Guy Clark, on the other hand, stresses how much a song craftsman he was, and that's certainly true too. One of the most impressive things for me is that minor chord in "Flyin' Shoes." That's how he understood the melancholy, how he expressed it to us. And he wrote that one very early.

Good biographies like this remind us that real life is much harder than fiction. I was happy to see Townes' oldest son singing in the movie, and singing one of his songs at that. He tells the camera that this one is as true to Townes as any. He sees Townes in a brighter, desert light, as a son who loves him, who lived with the hard parts as well as the beautiful sad boy on stage. The chorus of the song has a line at its end that cuts to the bone: "I'm not on anything." But a lot of sons would have thrown that guitar against the nearest wall. This son is playing one. The thing Townes didn't do, as a dad as well as a writer, was to hide himself. His children know who they love.

If you look up Townes at Youtube, you'll find a good number of very earnest young songsters covering his songs. A lot of times these videos are made in their homes. There's a keyboard in the background, or it's a living room or something. They do a good job of his songs. But it feels like there's been this big change now, from when Townes was alive and particularly when he was young and burning up, writing, drinking and drugging, riding the roads from gig to gig to gig. I saw him once in Chapel Hill, at the Star Point joint that had music for a while back in the late '70s maybe, before it turned into a massage parlor and then a used computer store. I was in my own world that night, maybe looking for someone who wasn't there. I can't remember really. I know I was at the back of the room, watched for a relatively few minutes, and left. There's one little clip of Townes at the Down Home Pickin' Parlor in Johnson City. I've played that stage many times. In this clip, Townes is at his very worst--drunk and burned out. He does something Jimmy Martin did too, on occasion--buy the house a drink. These earnest boys, singing his songs--I'm not quite sure what they're seeing. It's too romantic. But then his third wife fell in love with him in the '80s, and had two sweet children with him, and tended to him, and found him in the bathroom, dead of heart failure at 52. How romantic is that? I'm not being ironic when I ask that question.

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