In the 15 years since his death on New Year's Day in 1997, the now truly late and always great Townes Van Zandt is as extensively documented as any Texas musician has ever been. There's been a documentary film — Be Here to Love Me — and two biographies: John Kruth's To Live's to Fly (2007) and Robert Earl Hardy's A Deeper Blue (2008). There is Steve Earle's Grammy-winning 2009 tribute album Townes. Add to those the out-of-print songbook For the Sake of the Song and the documentary Heartworn Highways, both of which emerged in the troubadour's lifetime, and Van Zandt's discography, which has exploded exponentially since his death, and you can't help but wonder what's left to be said about the man that hasn't been said somewhere before.
Not a whole lot, but there are a few stories left untold, and a few points about his life that are worth repeating and emphasizing. Brian T. Atkinson's new book I'll Be Here in the Morning is proof-positive of that. Whereas the Hardy and Kruth books are linear accounts of Van Zandt's life, Atkinson is more of an appreciatory assessment of Van Zandt's work, as belied by the book's subtitle: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt. Atkinson also takes more of a Studs Terkel approach, allowing his 41 musical interviewees to speak, often at great length, about what Townes's songs and life meant to them.
Atkinson says the book has been nine years in the making. "I always intended it to be an oral biography," he says over the phone from his home in Austin, where he lives and works as a freelance writer. "I didn't necessarily intend from the beginning for it to be about his songwriting legacy, but it evolved into that along the way because that was better than focusing on the more fucked-up aspects of his life. I wanted to put as little of my own editorializing in it as possible and get as much as I could straight from the source."
The 15th Anniversary Townes Van Zandt
Sunday, January 1, at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, 413 20th Street, Galveston, 409-762-9199 or www.oldquarteracousticcafe.com.
There are a few you'd expect to find in here: Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, James McMurtry, David Olney, Lucinda Williams and Billy Joe Shaver, to name a few, and a few surprises — most notably, Jim James of My Morning Jacket. (Also surprising: Steve Earle is not included in the book. Atkinson says he wanted him in there but they never could get their timing down for the interview.)
In the book, Guy Clark retells the tale that he believed was the key to understanding Van Zandt's psyche. Townes told Clark he had a philosophical epiphany in the third grade when his teacher told him that the sun and all the stars would burn out some day. "It froze in his mind," Clark remembers. "He said, 'You telling me the sun's burning out? Are you serious? The fucking sun's burning out? Why do I have to be here on time and shine my shoes, comb my hair, and sit up straight?' He said from that moment on he lived his life like that."
In Kevin Russell's chapter, the Gourds front man says, correctly, that Van Zandt's finest album is Live at the Old Quarter — as it captures Van Zandt at the peak of his vocal and instrumental powers and is utterly shorn of schmaltz. Russell then goes a little too far when he says it's the only Townes you'll ever need. Yes, the old studio albums were overproduced, but there are quite a few great songs on them nonetheless, many of which are not on the Old Quarter album: "Sad Cinderella," "Colorado Girl," "Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria," to name but three he recorded before the Old Quarter taping, and gems like "Flyin' Shoes," "Snowin' on Raton" and "Marie" that came later. All of that said, if you've never listened to Old Quarter, you've cheated yourself of a chance to truly appreciate Townes. And that goes double if you've been suckered into buying one of the many, almost always ghoulish, posthumous live albums.
Atkinson's book is prefaced with a 2003 scene from the annual New Year's Day Townes wake at old running buddy Wrecks Bell's Galveston reincarnation of Houston's Old Quarter. He relates seeing Hayes Carll for the first time, as the lanky, sleepy-eyed Townes acolyte stepped out from behind the bar to wail "Greensboro Woman" and "Loretta."
Carll may or may not be there again in 2012, at Bell's 15th annual wake. But the scene will be much as he described it to Atkinson in the book: "You have this collection of people that could not be more different, everything from suburbanite Yuppie kids who are aspiring singer-songwriters to old prostitutes who were friends with Townes to old drug addicts who knew him in the day to legitimate, successful singer-songwriters to accountants from North Dakota, but it's this collection of people who are there for one reason and from all walks of life."
Atkinson says he will be there, so pick up a copy of his book and get it signed. And in the meantime, here are a few stories we collected to whet your whistle.
The Death of Moe
As a good friend of the late Townes Van Zandt and a decades-long friend of (and former longtime roadie for) Steve Earle, my former stepfather Chip Phillips has plenty of good tales from the old days, such as this one from about 1978 that he told me in 2009.
Back then Townes was living in the hills outside of Nashville in an unheated country shack with no running water at the end of two dirt roads. He shared this retreat with his red-haired teenage bride Cindy, his hyper-intelligent wolf-dog Geraldine, a cat, the hens Eenie, Meenie and Miney and the rooster Moe. Not to mention whatever guests would crash there on any given night.
Often enough it was Steve and Chip, as it was on the night this crazed tale took place. In the wee small hours, Townes made a grave announcement.
"Y'all are gonna have to shoot Moe," he told Chip and Steve. "He crows before dawn. I just can't take it any more."
"Townes, I can't do that, man," Chip said. "Plus, I know Cindy loves Moe."
"No, she's cool with it," Townes assured. "She's sick of getting woken up too. Plus, my cat just had kittens and I'm out of cat food. Moe will make a nice meal for her, and she needs one."
Chip and Steve agreed to take part in the murder of Moe, but only if Townes, who had one arm in a sling from a recent truck wreck, would be the actual triggerman.
"All right, here's what we'll do," Townes said. "Steve, you flush Moe out in the open. I'll prop the shotgun on the porch rail here and shoot him. Chip — you take this hatchet and give him the coup de grace."
Amazingly, the plan went off without a hitch, and soon enough, Moe was plucked and boiling in a pot on the wood-burning cook-stove.
Which is about when Cindy started to wake up, and Townes's trademark wicked, if hilarious, cruelty kicked in. He picked up one of Moe's claws, carried it over to the groggy Cindy and said, "Hey Cindy, Moe wants to say goodbye." He pulled Moe's tendons to make the gruesome claw look like it was waving.
Cindy shot awake, lunged for the shotgun at the side of the bed and chased the laughing Townes out into the gray dawn. Obviously, she hadn't been in on the plot after all.
Somehow, things calmed down a bit. Chip remembered that later that morning a journalist — he thinks it was Chet Flippo — had made the pilgrimage out to interview Townes. Townes was showing Flippo around his rural eden — "Here's my morning glories, here's the outhouse," and so on.
And then he comes to the henhouse. "We've got three hens — Eenie, Meenie and Miney," Townes said.
"Where's Moe?" asked the journalist.
"There ain't no Moe," Townes cracked.
"To this day," Chip insisted to me, "I think Townes concocted that whole horrible scene just to set that one-liner up."
Here's one from Houston freelance writer/man about town Igor Alexander. It took place at the West University Place home my uncle Joseph Lomax inherited from his parents John and Mimi Lomax. Townes was attending a party there:
"People were looking through Joseph's album collection and putting things on the turntable," recalls Alexander. "A lot of the albums were without their sleeves and covers. Finally, Townes knelt down on the floor and began to look through the albums, carefully selecting one and putting it reverently onto the turntable. My friend Hobart Taylor III was watching all of this with bated breath. What would the great man select for us to hear? The needle touched down onto the surface of the record and out through the speakers came — Zero Mostel's basso voice singing "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof."
Singing for Supper
And then there's this one from Jeff Liles, the manager of Dallas music/arts venue the Kessler Theater:
"Townes was very good friends with the late Roxy Gordon, an amazing poet and recording artist who lived on Oram Street in East Dallas during the mid-'80s. Roxy's house was at the corner of Oram and Matilda, right behind the old Poor David's Pub, a club where Townes would often perform. One evening my ex-girlfriend and I were walking home from dinner and we heard music coming from behind the screen door on Roxy's front porch. We were invited in for a beer, only to realize that it was Townes sitting in the corner doing the singing.
"It went on for a half hour or so, until Roxy got up and headed to the kitchen for more liquor. I seized that moment to jump up and follow him in there, then thank him profusely for letting us witness this impromptu concert happening in his living room. I will never forget the first words out of Roxy's mouth: 'Damn it, Jeff. Can you take him with you? He's been here a fuckin' week. He thinks all he has to do is sit there and sing every night and he can just stay here as long as he wants!'"
Better Be Good
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And there's this one from me. The last time I interacted with Townes personally was at a party to celebrate his return from rehab around Christmastime in 1994. He was then staying at Guy and Susanna Clark's lake house outside of Nashville, and Townes's ex-wife Jeanene was the hostess. Since Townes was (allegedly) newly sober, no alcohol was served at the party. Sadly the cure had not taken, and Townes had squirreled away a bottle of 100-proof schnapps in a tree somewhere on the grounds, so he and he alone was pretty lit.
He would always give me a hard time, try to scare me straight, teach me not to do how he had done. He asked me how I'd been and I told him I'd been well, that I wasn't the fuck-up dropout I was when I'd seen him last, a couple of years before. "Don't give me that shit, man," he replied. "You're full of crap. I know you've been carrying on like your mama and your old man," he snapped. "Do you know what I've just been through, Nova?" he went on. "I mean, do you have any idea what it's like in one of those places?" I was muttering, sniveling just a little, my eyes wide as tortillas. "You just can't imagine how awful it was. It was truly hell on Earth.
"Hey!" Townes exclaimed, abruptly cheerful. "You wanna see me walk on my hands?" I said sure. He stretched his arms behind his back, cleared his throat, looked around the room to make sure he had plenty of space, and then reached down and grabbed the soles of his boots and sort of crab-walked across the room on his hands, leaving me there dumbfounded. He spent much of the rest of the party seated on a wooden chair in the middle of the room in front of the TV, on which a holiday musical special was playing.
While the rest of us were uneasily shifting our weight from foot to foot on the fringes of the room and soberly nibbling servings of Stouffer's lasagna off paper plates, Townes was muttering to the TV, parsing the lyrics of the carols burbling out of the TV. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" came on, and Townes was transfixed. "Man, this song is a lot deeper than I ever knew," he suddenly enthused. "Think about it: 'Be good for goodness' sake.' That seems like a throwaway line, but it's really saying, 'Be good for the sake of goodness.' Wow. That's hip."