Townes Van Zandt – 4 Albums

Posted: May 28, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Townes Van Zandt has not only been one of my longtime favorite singer/songwriters, but also a man whose life I find to have been quite intriguing and undeniably sad. History has proven it rare to find a musical artist who is so effortlessly able to pour every last emotion into his songs in such a reserved, subtle way. Townes Van Zandt’s songs radiate the true pain and sadness of feeling alone in the world even when you are surrounded by people who love you. In contrast to the high-profile and glamour of his piers, Townes Van Zandt truly was the epitome of life imitating art; or perhaps vice versa.

Born in 1944 to a wealthy family in the oil industry hotbed of Fort Worth, Texas, Townes Van Zandt’s youth and teenage years were marked by educational and athletic success.Furthermore, it was recognized that he had a genius IQ.After spending his high school years in his family’s new home in Minnesota, he was accepted into the University of Boulder in Colorado. It was there his binge drinking began to draw the concern of his family. His parents decided to take Townes back to Houston, where they had recently resettled. It was at this time, he was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder ( now commonly known as bipolar disorder) and admitted to the University of Texas Health Center. During his three-month stay, Townes was subject to insulin shock treatment. Unknown for its effects at the time, this procedure all but erased his long-term memory. It was after this experience, Townes Van Zandt decided to end his academic tenure and began to write music.

Playing around in Houston area bars, Van Zandt began to meet and play with other now-legendary country and blues musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Doc Watson, and Guy Clark.In 1968 Van Zandt made the move from Texas to the music mecca of Nashville.That year he would record his first studio album, For The Sake Of The Song, released on producer Jack Clement’s Poppy label. Over the following 5 years, Townes Van Zandt would remain highly prolific, recording 5 albums; Our Mother The Mountain (1969), Townes Van Zandt (1969), Delta Momma Blues (1971), High Low and In between (1972), and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (1972). It was on these albums where Townes Van Zandt wrote songs that propelled him to near-legend regard in singer-songwriter circles around the world. Among the musicians who performed his songs were Emmylou Harris (If I Needed You 1981) and the Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duo (Poncho and Lefty 1983). Harris’s performance reached number 3 on the country charts while Nelson/Haggard hit number one.

In 1977 an album of live songs recorded at a 1973 show was released. Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas yielded the opportunity for Van Zandt’s songs to be showcased in a raw,stripped down , and intimate setting. The performance’s stage banter , which was before a very small crowd, allowed for the chance to observe the musician’s dry sense of humor which is featured subtly in so many of his songs.

Townes Van Zandt’s cult status was evident throughout the entire 1970’s. Prior to the release of his 1978 album, Flyin’ Shoes, his new manager set up a modestly advertised fan club for the artist. The fan club soon yielded hundreds of letters from fans around the world detailing how the songs have acted as a crutch for their personal depression. As for the artist himself, he spent the majority of the decade living outside of Nashville in a tin roof shack with no heat, plumbing, or phone.

Another Townes Van Zandt album wasn’t recorded again until what would become his final studio album, 1987’s At My Window. Though it has been nine years since the released of his previous album, At My Window, was received with high regard by critics and fans alike. Comparisons to the legend Hank Williams were offered in a review by the New York Times. After the release of that album, Van Zandt embarked on a two month tour with The Cowboy Junkies, exposing his music to a younger generation of fans.

The 1990’s saw Townes Van Zandt continue to write and play sporadically. However the life long on and off demons of heroin addiction and alcoholism began to take their toll.Although remaining close until his death, his third marriage , with wife and mother of his two children Jeanene, ended in 1994. It was during this time, Van Zandt’s addictions and mental illness began to rear their ugly heads for the last time. Friends of the artist noticed his increased frailty during this period.

In 1996, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley contacted Van Zandt with the interest of recording a new Townes Van Zandt album, funded by Geffen for Sonic Youth’s Ecstatic Peace Label. Shortly before the recording sessions were to begin , Van Zandt suffered a devastating fall outside of his home for which he refused medical treatment. The recording sessions proceeded as planned, only to be terminated almost immediately due to the musician’s drunken and erratic behavior. After this, Van Zandt finally agreed to hospitalization, which revealed a severe hip fracture requiring multiple surgeries. Against medical staff advice in regards to detoxing a “late-term alcoholic”, Van Zandt’s ex-wife Jeanene, checked Van Zandt out after surgery and began to take him home. Almost immediately, Van Zandt began to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. Jeanene gave him an emergency flash of vodka, followed by a constant flow of alcohol when they arrived home. This later lead to Van Zandt to a “lucid, really good mood” and calling friends. The following morning, he was found not breathing by his son Will. Despite CPR and revival attempts, Townes Van Zandt died on January 1, 1997 at the age of 52.

In 2006, a film about Van Zandt’s life and music was released. Be Here To Love Me chronicled the musician’s work, his relationship with his family, and his life long battle with depression and drug addiction. I would highly recommend the film for anyone who has a deep appreciation for Van Zandt’s personal and despondent songwriting legacy. Tapping into the demons and the inspirations of such a complex, yet simple, man is truly moving to watch.

For The Sake Of The Song (1968)

Our Mother The Mountain (1969)

Townes Van Zandt (1969)

High, Low, and In Between (1972)

Comments
  1. Charlie says:

    Hi
    New to the site, been digging through and enjoying your work
    Would you happen to have or have seen the cd that Jonell Mosser did of Townes tunes? Phenomenal disc, lost one long ago.
    ‘Preciate it
    Charlie

  2. alex_supertramp says:

    townes is AMAZING…as always, thanks for spreading the good word of groove

  3. Strawberry Ed says:

    Thanks for the Townes. It is greatly appreciated–

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