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Dead, Not Buried

Townes Van Zandt left behind great songs for people to fight over

In the same court is pending another suit Tomato has brought against EMI, which, since 1996, has been selling High, Low and in Between and The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt as a single CD. (In the liner notes, Eggers is inaccurately referred to as a "British impresario…whose Poppy and Tomato labels, both subsumed under United Artists, were short-lived ventures.") Tomato is claiming $1 million in damages, and Eggers says the case is close to being settled. An attorney for EMI says the company hasn't even been served and will not comment on the case. "I don't know what that bullshit is," Eggers says, when told of EMI's response.

"You know what the bug up Jeanene's ass is?" Eggers says of this long-standing dispute. "She thinks she's Townes Van Zandt in a dress. She wants to be Townes Van Zandt. She hated the guy's guts when he died, and she basically wants to be him now. What can I say?…You're getting me to tell ya stuff I shouldn't even say. I don't like to engage in this crap."

Eggers knows what others say about him, and it doesn't seem to bother him, because he insists he's done right by Van Zandt, giving him plenty of money over the years -- including, he says, a check for $400,000 that Townes drank, gambled and gave away over the course of a single weekend.

If Townes Van Zandt were alive today, even he might not know what belongs to him anymore.
Wood Newton
If Townes Van Zandt were alive today, even he might not know what belongs to him anymore.
Everyone says they're fighting for the sake of Van Zandt's songs. Are they really?
Wood Newton
Everyone says they're fighting for the sake of Van Zandt's songs. Are they really?

Eggers claims he could have bought everything from Van Zandt for $200, when he needed a heroin fix and had no money, but that he didn't because he didn't think it right. But Kevin's brother Harold did make a deal with Van Zandt for all of his live recordings, of which there are hundreds, because Harold recorded Van Zandt every single night. Harold has released many of them overseas -- some decent, most capturing a man who was dead but didn't yet admit it. (A Universal subsidiary is releasing one, the made-in-1995 Live at McCabe's, November 18.) Jeanene would also like to see those recordings taken off the market, as they serve only to dilute the legacy.

Kevin Eggers says he lost a fortune recording and promoting Van Zandt over the years, and says album sales will bear this out. Figures provided by Soundscan, which tallies album sales for the music-biz trade magazine Billboard, reveal that Van Zandt sells only a handful of discs each week. Last week, Tomato's 2002 best-of moved a mere 57 copies; Texas Rain, only 39. Most of the others are in single digits, some of them a big zero.

"They say I'm a villain, yeah," Eggers says. "But you know what? I'm the only one who bellied up to the bar. Fuckin' made the records, supported him for many years, was his friend. He died a friend of mine. He apologized to me for what he did to me. People like to get their names in print and shoot their mouths off, and I can't stop 'em. I can't stop the [journalists] who want to read into things about what's going on…It's a joke. Townes kept his legacy going, as far as just fucking things up."

There is one album everyone will admit has been a disaster: Poet, a 2001 tribute album put together by Freddy Fletcher that features Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and other singer-songwriter notables. Fletcher admits that even though the album has moved about 53,000 copies, the family has not received a single penny in royalties. He blames this on the now-defunct Cleveland-based label FreeFalls Entertainment, which released the disc. Fletcher says sales of Poet were used to pay off a debt with a distributor, and that Fletcher is working with Bug Music to take care of the money it owes to the Van Zandt estate.

"It's an unfortunate situation because our whole purpose in doing the record was for J.T. and Will and Katie Bell to be able to put money in their pockets," Fletcher says. "I contacted Bug to say we're getting a total release from FreeFalls and do something else and sign all the proceeds to the Van Zandts, which is appropriate. They rightfully deserve the money on the 50,000 records. That's theirs, no matter what happened."

In a story rife with ironies, it is perhaps most appropriate that the person who seems to care the least about all this fighting is the man in his late twenties named after Townes Van Zandt, a man who looks so much like his father: J.T. Van Zandt. He has pursued his own career as a musician and long ago tried to put this fighting behind him, lest it take him down the same ruinous path plowed by the old man he barely knew during his childhood. When he speaks of this situation, his quotes sound like his father's song lyrics -- like everyday words turned into elegant, angry poems about the mean things people do to each other in the pursuit of money and in the name of love.

Make no mistake: He wants whatever money's coming to him, Will and Katie Bell. But more than that, he wants the fight to go away -- and with it, those who brought it about in the first place.

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