Houston 101: Townes Van Zandt's Lost Houston
While Beyonce and Billy Gibbons (not to mention five or ten rappers) have undoubtedly sold more records, we're betting that neither of them have written anything that will endure as long as Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," "To Live's to Fly," or "If I Needed You," or any one of a dozen or so others. Nor are either known as much for their songs as they are for their singing and dancing and/or bandleading and guitar playing.
By those standards -- immortality and fame as a pure composer of music -- Van Zandt is easily Houston's most prominent songwriter.
What remains of the musical environment Van Zandt emerged from back in the '60s and '70s? The power of Google tells us more than we might want to know...
The Jester -- Corner of Mid Lane and Westheimer
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The first place Van Zandt made real money playing music, The Jester was an early home also to Guy Clark, Frank Davis & K.T. Oslin and Jerry Jeff Walker and one of the first white joints in town to host people like Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Close by to the sprawling, swingin' singles-laden apartment complexes on Mid known in the late '50s as "Sin Alley," The Jester had a Hefnerian, Mad Men vibe, and back then, folk was still cutting-edge and hip enough to provide the soundtrack.
A live recording -- Live at the Jester Lounge: Houston, Texas 1966 -- emerged five years ago; it finds Van Zandt reveling in his influences (Lightnin' Hopkins, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers) and showing off more of his sense of humor than the dread and gloom that commenced a couple of years later.
In Robert Earl Hardy's bio A Deeper Blue, Van Zandt's old friend Darryl Harris said Van Zandt's gift was not immediately obvious during the Jester era. He recalls that Van Zandt was very drunk the first time he saw him and says he was "pretty awful."
"The stuff he was playing made me kind of wonder. Sometimes you hear people play and you wonder how they could ever imagine it being possible to have any kind of career in music."
Van Zandt scrapped virtually all of the originals he performed on the set save for "Talkin' Thunderbird Blues," which he kept in his repertoire at least long enough to make the cut for the 1970s recording of Live at the Old Quarter.
Today, the site of the Jester is occupied by a branch bank.
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Sand Mountain Coffeehouse -- 1409 Richmond
A rival to the Jester, Sand Mountain was alcohol- and drug-free, a pure coffeehouse run by a mother and son named Carrick and geared for an all-ages crowd. Van Zandt often butted heads with Ma Carrick's abstemious policies. She also took issue with politically charged songs in his repertoire that mocked the Klan and took issue with the war in Vietnam. (Van Zandt would never again delve into politics so directly; instead, he chose to show the results of injustice, as in songs like "Marie.") Carrick told him he couldn't do those songs and Van Zandt told her he was through there. The next day she reconsidered, and not long after that Van Zandt and first wife Fran would go so far as to move in to an apartment upstairs from the club.
Van Zandt wrote "Tower Song" and several other classics while living there. Jerry Jeff Walker is said to have composed "Mr Bojangles" there too. It was also at Sand Mountain that Van Zandt first met long-time compadre Wrecks Bell, where they bonded over illicit wine.
Today, Sand Mountain is a parking lot in a Tenderloin-ish section of Lower Richmond.
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The Old Quarter -- Corner of Austin and Congress
Tired of the temperance at Sand Mountain, Wrecks Bell and early partner Cecil Slayton scraped together $1,300 in 1969 and bought a bar called the Old Quarter in northeastern downtown. (In a previous incarnation, the ramshackle two-story stucco blockhouse had housed a speakeasy called the Yellow Cab Club.) The club drew a mixed clientele of skid row types, hippies, and button-down professionals -- and by then Van Zandt was capable of winning all of them over. Dale Soffar would partner with Bell after Slayton pulled out, and eventually Soffar took over sole ownership when Bell left for Nashville after a disgruntled employee tried to burn the club down.
In 1973, the Old Quarter would be the site of the pinnacle of Van Zandt's recording career: Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. The album caught the troubadour at very near the height of his powers, and captured him, alone with his guitar, utterly mesmerizing a packed house. If you were to own only one Townes record, this would be the one to get, and it is certainly one of the top 25 albums in Texas history.
Happily the Old Quarter still stands, right there on the corner of Austin and Congress. For a time, it housed the law offices of criminal defense attorney David Mitcham, a veteran of the Sand Mountain-era folk scene and huge Van Zandt fan. Mitcham later helped lead a band called Death By Injection, which was composed of attorneys and other assorted courthouse types and that performed songs about the people they encountered in that grim hulk up by the Bayou.
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