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It surprised no one who knew him, or even anyone who knew much of him, to learn that Townes Van Zandt -- a man who by all accounts lived the Troubled Troubadour Genius myth to the verge of cliche -- had died on New Year's Day at age 52. As Keith Case, Van Zandt's booking agent in the early 1970s and again for the past ten years, noted, "Townes had been getting especially frail for the past couple of years." And another longtime friend, Galveston's Rex Bell, noted that the six-foot-two-inch Van Zandt weighed only 135 pounds in recent times.
The only real surprises were that Van Zandt's increasing frailty had carried him this far, and that his life, which he had lived largely out of a suitcase, had ended peacefully in his own bed. And perhaps there is some final irony in the fact that, having once dropped off the fourth floor of an apartment building unharmed, Van Zandt should have finally succumbed to complications resulting from a simple, stumbling fall.
According to the accounts patched together last week, here's what happened: Van Zandt had recently returned to Tennessee, his home base of the past decade, following another of the small European tours that had occupied much of his time for the last two and a half years. On a recording trip to a Memphis studio where he was cutting demos of new material, Van Zandt fell and, he thought, pulled a muscle in his back. Two weeks later in Nashville, friends coaxed an unhealed Van Zandt to a doctor, who discovered that the fall had in fact broken the songwriter's hip. The discovery led to a brief hospital stay and surgery to set the bone.
Van Zandt was released from the hospital at about 5 p.m. on January 1, whereupon he returned to his home in Smyrna, a small town just outside Nashville. There, in the presence of Jeanene -- his ex-wife by legal convenience -- their son Will and daughter Katie Bell, he fell asleep in his own bed. He died in his sleep around 10 p.m., reportedly of heart failure or a blood clot. At press time an autopsy was pending, but Van Zandt's friends in Houston and elsewhere aren't terribly concerned to see the results. They know, ultimately, what killed Townes Van Zandt: He lived too hard not to die. Contacted for comment, each old friend echoed some variation of the words spoken by Linda Lowe, a Houston singer/songwriter and longtime friend of Van Zandt's: "Everyone knows he's been dying for 20 years."
In the pages of For the Sake of the Song, a limited edition 1977 book of Townes Van Zandt's lyrics, the preeminent songwriter of his generation recalled his days at the University of Colorado, when he was in the habit of locking himself in his apartment for a week at a time, "taking my phone off the hook, being drunk all the time, drinking Bali Hai wine, playing the guitar, listening to Lightning Hopkins and Hank Williams and early Bob Dylan ... Then I'd come out at the end of a week of this and throw a giant party. I lived on the fourth story of this apartment building, and at one point during one of those parties, I went out and sat on the edge of the balcony and started leaning backwards. I decided I was gonna lean over and just see what it felt like all the way up to when you lost control and you were falling. I realized that to do it I'd have to fall. But I said I'm going to do it anyway. So I started leaning back really slow, and really paying attention I fell. Fell over backwards, and landed four stories down flat on my back. I remember the impact and exactly what it felt like and all the people screaming. I had a bottle of wine, and I stood up. Hadn't spilled any wine. Felt no ill effects whatsoever. Meanwhile all the people jammed onto the elevator, and when the doors opened, they knocked me over coming out. And it hurt more being knocked over than falling four stories."
It's one hell of a Van Zandt story -- and one of many that were possibly apocryphal, just as likely true, and combined all the classic Van Zandt themes: solitude, alcohol, music and almost inhuman extremity in the name of finding out just what it -- human extremity -- actually feels like.
The story also illustrates a now-pointed Van Zandt truth, which is that he should, by all rights, have died a hundred times before this New Year's Day.
He lived hard, a lifelong alcoholic whose uncounted bouts with detox could not compete with his disease, or with the attacks of debilitating depression that seized him throughout his life, or with the idolatrous fans for whom no autograph could ever compare with the reflected glory of having tossed back a fifth or three with their hero.
He was born John Townes Van Zandt in Fort Worth on March 7, 1944, to a wealthy Texas family, and about his early days he's been quoted as saying that "I lived in Fort Worth till I was eight; Midland till nine; Billings, Montana till 12; Boulder, Colorado till 14; Chicago till 15; Minnesota till 17; then back to Chicago till 19; Houston till 21. And then I started traveling."
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