Codeine Country

Houston was the city of syrup long before DJ Screw came on the scene

On Sunday, April 17, the centerpiece story in the Arts and Entertainment section of The New York Times was a story about how, via the Slim Thug/Mike Jones/Paul Wall hit single "Still Tippin'," Houston's homegrown screw music was poised to take over the hip-hop nation. Screw -- the slowed-down hip-hop invented by DJ Screw as music for people to enjoy while high on codeine cough syrup -- was presented as something new, weird and uniquely Houstonian.

All of which it indubitably is -- at least for hip-hop. But it's mostly forgotten today that Screw was really the second Houston codeine aficionado to revolutionize a local scene. Back in the late '60s and early '70s, Townes Van Zandt turned Houston's folk and country/Americana music on its head, thanks in no small part to his appreciation for the drug that is today called lean.

I told former Houstonian and Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark about screw music -- which he had never heard of -- and here is what he had to say: "Some things never change. You can always count on Houston's codeine heads."

In the Times article, UGK's Bun B. was quoted as saying that he could never impress New Yorkers with the originality of Houston rap until DJ Screw came along. Like DJ Screw, Van Zandt forever altered a local scene and brought it to national attention.

Likewise, before Van Zandt, our local folksingers were like those everywhere else: Kingston Trio knock-offs or rote copiers of hoary old tunes from the British, Irish, Scottish and Appalachian songbooks. After Van Zandt, local folksingers wrote original tunes about their own lives and the lives of others around them, or hell, whatever else took their fancy. What's more, Van Zandt raised the bar exponentially for original songwriters, and his tough love for his contemporaries separated the wheat -- people like Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle -- from the forgotten chaff.

And for a time, anyway, he wrote about codeine almost as much as any member of the Screwed Up Click. Take these lines from "Waitin' Around to Die," the first serious song Van Zandt ever wrote: "Now I'm out of prison / I got me a friend at last / He don't steal or cheat or lie / His name's codeine, he's the nicest thing I've seen / An' together we're gonna wait around and die."

Van Zandt penned that tune when he was about 24 years old, and you could write those lines off as youthful bravado. You could, but then you would be wrong, for Van Zandt pretty much meant everything he said.

A persistent legend floats around that Van Zandt once lived above a pharmacy. He is said to have knocked a hole in the floor over the back room and used a fishing rod to angle for codeine. Son J.T. Van Zandt remembers that in the mid-'70s, his dad was knocking back about a quarter-pint bottle a day of the stuff. "If they weren't drinking it, they were looking for it," he says. (And this writer can personally attest to that: My late mother was a good friend of Van Zandt's, and I spent many hours in the back of Mama's VW van as we drove from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of a druggist with a corrupt, or generous, heart, whereupon often as not we would head out to Van Zandt's ramshackle cabin in the hills outside Nashville.)

Van Zandt's codeine use also showed up elsewhere in his music. His cover of Merle Travis's "Nine Pound Hammer" presaged DJ Screw's slow-it-down credo by two decades: Travis's original is a greased-lightning-fast bluegrass tune; in Van Zandt's hands the tempo is slowed down to a codeine-drenched crawl. The same could be said (to a lesser extent) of his cover of Hank Williams's "Honky Tonkin'."

Then there are Van Zandt's originals. Before he wrote "Waitin' Around to Die," Van Zandt was in a band called the Delta Mama Boys, and their theme song was a humorous little ditty called "Delta Mama Blues," which years later Van Zandt would record as the title track to one of his albums. The chorus of that tune -- which was one of Van Zandt's rare co-writes -- goes like this: "Ah, come away with me / my little delta boy / I wanna be your delta mama for a while / And if you stay you'll see / that I'll bring you lots of joy / I'll turn those little teardrops to a smile."

Confused? Who is this "Delta Mama"? The answer sounds like an urban legend on the order of the "'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is a reference to LSD" variety, but it's documented fact: "Delta Mama" was Van Zandt's nickname for Robitussin DM cough syrup.

More fatefully, Van Zandt wrote "If I Needed You," his second-biggest hit, while under the influence. Van Zandt was staying at Guy and Susanna Clark's house near Nashville, and all three of them had the flu. A bottle of codeine was produced, which they drank, and then all three of them went to bed. In an excerpt from Rain on a Conga Drum, his upcoming biography of Van Zandt, author John Kruth picks up the tale:

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