Muddy Waters and Mozart: On the Late Great Townes Van Zandt


Aretha Sills in the LA Review of Books:

What I remember most about the AP obituary that ran fifteen years ago tomorrow was its brevity — given that it was written for one of the most influential songwriters of our time — and a quote from Katie Belle, Townes Van Zandt’s five-year-old daughter who was with him: “Daddy’s having a fight with his heart.”

When he died at age 52 on New Year’s Day 1997, fans of the legendary Texas singer-songwriter were saddened but not surprised. He had, after all, named his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt — possibly a joke about his perpetual obscurity, or possibly because he and everyone who knew him thought he would die young like Hank Williams (who also died on January 1st). As his friend Guy Clark said at the memorial, “I booked this gig thirty-something years ago.” Townes’s seemingly brief turn on this plane was characterized by staggeringly self-annihilating behavior — behavior that had in many ways defined that turn, and has often overshadowed the powerful and transcendent body of work he left behind.

If I had a nickel I’d find a game.
If I won a dollar I’d make it rain.
If it rained an ocean I’d drink it dry

And lay me down dissatisfied.

— from “Rex’s Blues”

Townes’s obituary offered just enough room to recap a few basic facts: that his songs were recorded by singers more famous than he would ever be, including Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson; that though he sang about prostitutes and bums and emulated Lightnin’ Hopkins, he was the scion of a prominent Texas oil family; and, the often-told tale, that Steve Earle once threatened to jump on Bob Dylan’s coffee table to proclaim just who was the better songwriter. The obituary politely left it to Van Zandt’s lyrics (from “A Song For”) to hint at his lifelong struggles with mental illness and addiction: “There’s nowhere left in this world where to go. My arms, my legs they’re a tremblin’. Thoughts both clouded and blue as the sky, not even worth the rememberin’.”

The day after New Year’s 1997, I was working at Streetlight Records in San Francisco. A co-worker gingerly handed me the newspaper, fearing I’d be crushed.