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By Sonya Harvey
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J.T. Van Zandt remembers just about every detail of his first visit to his father's world. Townes and his mother Fran had divorced before he was a year old, and until he was nine, J.T. only saw his father when Townes came to Houston to see his own mother. This was J.T.'s first "unsupervised" trip to Nashville, and he would later call the hellish rite of passage "the first awakening of my adulthood."
In 1978, Townes was living in a tin-roofed, bare-boards shack in the low hills south of town. The shack was unheated and had no indoor plumbing. Townes shared the cabin with his beautiful, red-haired, teenage wife, Cindy, and Geraldine, a huge, keenly intelligent half-wolf, half-husky. A Cherokee named Michael Ewaugh lived in another shack nearby; he could be as wild as Townes.
Townes hid nothing from his son -- not the drinking, not the heroin. "He did his best to scare me to death," J.T. remembers. "It was pretty grotesque, a frightening eye-opener to the lifestyle of a songwriter to a suburban Houston kid."
Townes also badgered J.T. with unanswerable questions. "He was real confrontational with me. He would ask me questions about what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and there was no right answer."
One such was this dilemma: Did young J.T. want Townes to buy him a BB gun or a guitar? In a way, this simple question, which is probably answered more or less peaceably and undramatically thousands of times a day across America, defined the two generations of Van Zandts. Townes chose the guitar. J.T., so far anyway, has chosen the BB gun, though even now, more than 20 years later, he's still wavering.
Alone and low, as low can be -- "Rex's Blues"
It all happened the second day of J.T.'s visit. He woke up and walked out on the front porch and saw a drunken tableau down in the little hollow below. Townes and Ewaugh were trying to shoot a mourning dove off a wire with Ewaugh's BB gun. (Ewaugh flew hawks and he wanted the dove for his pet raptor's breakfast.) Townes would take a potshot at the dove, miss, and trade the rifle to Ewaugh for the fifth of vodka they were nipping on. "I sat there and watched them from the front porch, and I could see they were so far off that the bird wasn't even moving," J.T. remembers. "And they were standing right below the wire. So I walked up and after they took a few more shots and a few more swigs off the bottle I offered up my services.
"First shot, right through the head. In one eyeball and out through the top of its head. The bird just turned upside down and fell off the wire, the hawk comes and eats it, and all the rest of the day Townes is telling all his buddies how I'd done it. Townes was so proud! Instead of me being this nuisance, I had earned my way in to the circle."
That was when Townes gave his son the choice. "He said, 'Hey man, we'll go into town and hit a pawn shop. You can get a guitar or a BB gun, whichever one you want.' So it took me a while to decide. And finally I was like, 'Well, how about a BB gun? You've already got plenty of guitars around here.' The real answer was, after seeing the lifestyle of a guitar player, I was like no thanks. Where the BB gun would earn me that certain respect, the guitar would only make me as miserable as he looked."
Later that very day, J.T.'s brief bask in the glow of his father's approval would end. Especially with younger folk, Townes was very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. "So I took the BB gun and a little later we were at some folkie gathering place near downtown Nashville," J.T. says. "And I heard this bird singing, and I was till trying to ride out the good impression I had made on him earlier, so I go, 'What kind of bird was that?' And he goes, 'That's a mourning dove, you little idiot! Don't you know you shot its fuckin' soul mate?' He was all saliva and veins, off the deep end. I sat under the back steps at that place crying until he came out. It was before cell phones, so I didn't know how to call my mom. I had a bought ticket that was good for two weeks and here I am on the second day."
J.T.'s best friend on that trip proved to be the dog Geraldine. He always knew what to expect from her. "I would leave the house before they would get up and go play with Geraldine in the hills out there. It was snowy. I would build these little snowmen out there and she would just pounce on them and when they were all demolished she would still be looking around all frisky, seeing where it had gone. Just a total delight."
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