Week 5
2/8/00 and 2/9/00
Townes Van Zandt


First off, two things. I refer to Steve Earle in these posts as "Steve", and the few times I've talked to him, I also call him that, but don't get the impression we are on a first name basis or anything. I'm just really happy to be in this class and I have enormous respect for the man. Second, this week I got to sit in on two nights of Townes' lectures. I wasn't happy how the tape came out first night, so I asked Steve if I could sit in again, he said "Sure man.". He is incredibly nice and accomodating. The rest of night one and all of night two will follow this review. There are interesting differences in both nights. On the first night, I noticed Greg Kot (music critic for the Chicago Tribune) in the back, so you may see something in print. I know it's long, but believe me I am leaving tons out.

Last week, Steve started off the class by playing a just-finished mix of his version of the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today". It was amazing and he said the track would be mixed with Sheryl Crow's vocals for the final mix. Well, Steve must have been busy the last week because he pops in a new CDR and blasts out a revised mix with Steve and Sheryl trading verses. Last week, I was a bit skeptical about it, I'm not much of a Sheryl Crow fan. In Steve's version, it sounds like he's biting off the verses like hunks of tin and spitting out shrapnel. It's incendiary. But, when her voice kicks in on the second verse, she's upped the ante and finds new grit in her voice, it's almost a match for Steve's. It's a great balance, each tempering the other. In a perfect world, this would be a monster single. The speeches mixed in are from Abbie's speeches at NYU and two speeches from Chicago in '68.

There's a weird howl going through the ductwork in the class room. Steve jokes that it's a ghost and tells a story of when he played the Olympia Theater in Dublin and got lost backstage and a ghost passed through him (and he wasn't high). Steve's sporting red flannel, a small leather pouch that he always wears around his neck, two earrings (a stud and the silver hoop he usually wears) plus a big silver skull ring. His wallet's on a chain that goes "ka -chink" every time he sits down. Our teacher.

A big part of this class has been Steve finding borrowed passages or lifts in songs that can be traced back to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. With Townes, Steve said he couldn't find any direct lifts. Townes was that good.

According to Townes, his biggest influences were Robert Frost and Lightnin' Hopkins. Steve said that he has spent a lot of his time becoming too closely associated with anyone that doesn't understand that. He asks how many people haven't heard of Townes before and three folks raise their hands. Last night, he said he also got three. The following night there would be three. He said, he was thrilled because five years ago the ratio would have been reversed. A lot of people have become aware of Townes in the last few years. ("Get Jay Farrar started on Townes some time. Or Tweedy for that matter, but Jay knows Townes inside and out.")

Townes was a really good teacher and a bad role model. Steve said it wasn't Townes' fault, that he tried to insulate Steve from a lot of it because Steve was still a kid (17). When they met in 1972, Townes hadn't had an address for 8 years. He told a story about when they were stuck in Tennesse in 1977 due to heavy snow. They were hanging out, Steve wasn't writing any songs and Townes wanted to jump start him. So, he gave Steve a copy of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and "War and Peace". Steve read some, then went into town. When he came back, he found out Townes had his truck keys and told him he could have them back when he finished the books. Days later, Steve finished them and was going to head back to Mexico. Townes asked him what he thought of the books. Steve said he was glad Townes made him ready "Bury My Heart.." and that "War and Peace" was cool, but long. Townes asked him a lot of questions about "War and Peace". Steve finally figured out Townes had never read it and his plan was to get Steve to read it and be "a walking Cliff Notes" for him!

Steve was having problems with publishing and Townes told Steve he didn't need a publishing deal, he was Woody Guthrie. Steve said "He was wrong, I was having enough trouble trying to figure out I wasn't Townes Van Zandt, I didn't need someone telling me I was Woody Guthrie." Because he travelled so much, Townes didn't have a record player. Steve said he never saw Townes listen to records and that he missed Townes' musical development. Townes' influences were literary as well as musical.

Steve reads some passages from Frost's "My November Guest" and damned if you can't hear Townes singing the verses. Steve said he felt Frost was one of the few things Townes took away from his college experience. That and folk music.

Townes was supposed to pledge a frat (where he was a legacy) and was told to show up at a mixer at 8 and bring something to drink. He was uncomfortable with joining. It was snowing, Townes showed up at 9 with no shoes, jeans, a half gallon bottle of wine with about an inch left in it and his pledge pin pinned through his naked chest and two streams of blood down his chest. He didn't have to worry about it after that.

Lightin Hopkins was Townes' main musical hero and Steve plays a track. He then plays a talking blues that Townes recorded and you can hear the influence immediately. Steve says he loves the line "She lives way out the D train / but she's Texas as can be"; Townes was living in New York at the time. "Townes had Lightnin' down." But instead of just copying him, he incorporated his essence into his performing.

Another part of Townes' style was an original fingerpicking and flatpicking guitar style. Steve learned the style and says he can sound just like Townes, but he arrived at it slightly differently. The way Townes played is to let the pick travel through one string and then hit the string behind it. Combined with a hammer on, it gives a distinct percussive effect. Steve plays the CD version of "Dollar Bill Blues" and says, "I know for a fact where he got that from, because he told me." Steve plays a CD of Doc Watson doing "The Coo Coo Bird" with his amazing banjo style. Steve then plays Clarence Ashley's version from the Anthology. Steve says Doc Watson learned it from Clarence Ashely on Clarence's front porch and that Townes worshipped Doc Watson. Townes' guitar style came out of trying to emulate banjo music on the guitar. Steve says Doc worried about Townes like Townes worried about Steve.

Steve picks up an acoustic guitar ("My kid's guitar, it used to be mine") with a Joker and an ace of spades taped on the back to demonstrate the flatpick style. He runs through it a couple times, showing the hammer on and picking. Steve's sitting, picking, running through a riff that sounds like "Taneytown" for two seconds. He says, "This is one of the best songs I've ever heard and it's really coming from the same place, it's derived from 'The Coo Coo', but he didn't lift the melody, he lifted it to a whole 'nother place lyrically.".

He starts the picking pattern, tunes one guitar peg down and launches into a raw, astonishing version of "Lungs". He's seated, both boots tapping up and down in counterpoint. I'm about three feet away and it takes restraint not to let my jaw drop to the floor, watching Townes' words funnelled through Steve. When he finishes, there is a small vacuum in the room.

After the amazing version of "Lungs", Steve prepares to play the recorded version of a similar song in tone: "Mr Mud and Mr Gold" ("I ruined my vinyl copy trying to learn it, picking up and setting the tone arm down."). It's about gambling, and He cracks that Townes had a thing for gambling, but was the worst gambler he'd ever seen. The only person he could beat consistently was Guy Clark.

Someone asks when Townes died (1/1/97) and Steve tells a little about Townes' last days. He had fallen down and had his manager pushing him around in a wheel chair. He was recording an album and finally checked into a hospital and found out he'd been going around for a week with a broken hip. They did the surgery, but Townes wouldn't stay in the hospital because they wouldn't let him drink. He was on anti-coagulants and had a heart attack sitting straight up in his chair in his living room. Steve said he has wasted whole days wondering why that had to come down the way it did because the heart attack wasn't due to heart disease, but to a blood clot from the hip injury.

Steve plays the song and asks if we can figure out the poker players' hands. I've never heard the tune, it's an amazing rush of images and wordplay. Steve said it took him a while to figure out the players hands: Gold has four kings, three are showing. Mud has four aces, plus a jack of diamonds.

At this time, Townes had reached the zenith of narrative songs, his phonetic work and meter were world class. To prove it, Steve plays "Silver Ships of Andular", a long epic ballad inspired by "Lord of the Rings" and maybe "Moby Dick" too. Steve cited this song as a big influence on him and inspired him to write songs like "Ben McCulloch". The following night Steve reveals that it was cut live in the studio with Townes on guitar and a live orchestra. The first night I wasn't positioned to hear the lyrics and thought it was a bit overblown. The second night, I am nearer the back and hear it clearly; the song gives me chills.

Steve plays the second best known Townes tune, "If I Needed You". He cites the lyric "You will miss sunrise / if you close your eyes / that would break my heart in two" as a lyric you only have to ever write one of in a lifetime. He says, there are only so many original melodies out there and they've all been used up. "That's what I keep telling myself so I don't end up quitting." He believes there are still some new melodies out there, but they are gifts given to a very few and that's where the rest of us get them from. Townes was one of those people. He says that the lyrics were changed in the Emmylou and Doc Watson version to "Who could ill agree / she's a site to see / and a treasure for the poor to find." The original lyric was "Loop and Lil agree" and Loop and Lil were Townes' two parakeets. Loop was named after the North Loop drugstore in Austin where they used to buy codeine cough syrup and Lil was named after a girl Townes knew.

The best known Townes tune is "Pancho and Lefty" which was also recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and others. At the time, Willie was doing so many duets, it got ridiculous. There was a joke "Why did Willie Nelson cross the road? To do a duet with a chicken." Steve says this song disproves almost everything about the music business (that a song has to be short, has to be upbeat, can't be literate, has to have a beginning, middle and end, that people won't appreciate art). He also says it is much more a song for one voice , not a duet.

Townes was always asked who the song was about. Some people thought it was about Pancho Villa and Lefty Frizzell, but Pancho Villa wasn't a bandit. Townes didn't really know. They may have influenced the characters, but the important thing is the story. Steve says it sounds like Lefty gave Pancho up, or at least that's what can be speculated, the listener is supposed to judge that for himself. An image is created and a feeling is created, it's impressionism. It is very pure and poetic, people respond to the song on many levels. "You won't find a song that's better written, that says more or impresses songwriters more." The song proves music can reach the level of literature. Music can become art and people will respond to it.

Steve says he picked out a lot of the more serious material and Townes could be "a morose motherfucker", but he was also one of the funniest people he'd ever met. The class is running out, but he says we should do a funny song. He picks up the guitar, retunes it and does a very natural, very funny version of "No Deal". People laugh and he finishes up and says, "Thank ya'll. Next week you'll figure out exactly how much I stole from Townes Van Zandt. Which is a lot."

I wanted to get him to sign my CD of "Train a Comin'", so I asked him after class and he said sure. We were running late, and there was a guitar class coming in and setting up. It was just me and Steve and this woman comes up and says, "Were you the guys playing 'If I Needed You' "? Steve's packing up his guitar so I said "Yeah.". She says, "It sounded really good.". I've got my guitar in hand and Steve has his and I realize she thinks this is another guitar class and she doesn't recognize or doesn't know who Steve Earle is. I thought for a second she had heard the version of "Lungs" and I almost burst out laughing and said, "Yeah, our teacher's pretty good.", but I hold back. I thought it was terrific that she knew Townes' music but not Steve Earle! Steve says "This is a songwriting course and we were talking about Townes Van Zandt and playing his CDs.". She says "Oh, okay!". That was priceless. I can't wait for next week, "Hey, your teacher sounds a lot like Steve Earle!".

I mentioned that there were some differences in night one and two, and I think I'll save those for a third post, this went on too long as it is.
 

Discography:
Townes:
High Low and In Between Compilation includes the Late Great Townes Van Zandt
Flyin' Shoes
Delta Mama Blues

Doc Watson - The Vanguard Years

Bo Diddley - His Best

Lightin' Hopkins - Jakehead Boogie

The Anthology of American Folk Music
 

On side projects:

After playing "Time Has Come Today", Steve says he got the vocals for "My Back Pages" back from Jackson Brown, but he didn't do the harmony and melody as requested. He said Jackson's in Spain and is in this "[I'll get to it] manana." Steve shakes his head and says "Man, I don't have manana!" (sorry, I don't have an n with tilde).

On plugs:

When asked for a quote to plug Townes' record, Steve said: "Townes Van Zandt's the best songwriter in the world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." After the record came out, Townes said that was nice but that he'd met Bob Dylan's bodyguards and he didn't think that was a very good idea.

On gambling:

The first time Steve saw Townes was at Jerry Jeff Walker's birthday party. Steve crashed the party and was hanging out in the corner when Townes walked in. All his heroes were at the party and Townes came in wearing a gorgeous buckskin jacket he'd received as a birthday present from Jerry Jeff Walker. Townes immediately started a crap game. Within 30 minutes, he had lost every dime he had in his pockets and the jacket , and then he was gone. Steve said, "I thought, 'my hero' ".

On drugs:

It first occurred to Steve that he [Steve] was in really bad shape when Townes came to his house to give HIM a temperance lecture. Steve was doing heroin and cocaine, Townes said he looked like shit and his arms looked like shit. Steve said, "I know."
Townes asked, "Do you have clean needles?" Steve said, "Yeah"."Every time?" Steve said, "Yeah"Townes said, "Okay, let me play you this song I wrote."

Steve said that Townes knew he couldn't save him, but he did suggest he could come to Townes' house and they could lock themselves up in the basement and Townes could stop drinking and Steve could kick. Steve said, "I declined."

On performing and guitar style:

Instead of sitting, Steve is standing and pacing a lot. He does "Lungs" standing up and it's not as explosive. Steve adds that his fingering style comes from Townes AND John Prine.

Townes used to own a Martin D-35 guitar and Doc Watson said it was the best D-35 he ever played. Townes was extremely proud of it. Any time anyone started talking guitars, he would bring it up. Townes lost that guitar, every dime he had and a tooth by walking into the wrong bar in Houston one night. Steve said Townes never had a decent guitar or took care of guitars after that. He had one Epiphone that he got so sick of he shot it full of holes and "The worst Gibson J-200 I ever played in my life."

On recording:

Townes' best record dissappeared off the face of the earth because of the incompetence of recording company. Jack Clement, the producer taped over the master tapes out of sheer meanness. Townes and Jack got into an argument, pulled over and got into a fight, Jack was beating the shit out of Townes and the cops pulled up. Jack said, "Officer, it's okay, I'm his producer!". The cops busted both of them.

On playing Townes' music:

Steve said one time they were playing in Durango, Colorado and they couldn't wake up Townes. The picture on the album wasn't that big and Steve knew all the music, so Steve had to play as Townes. "To this day, those people think I'm Townes Van Zandt!"

On "The Silver Ships of Andular":

Steve said Townes was very careful about the language he used, it had to be timeless. Townes was into Hank Williams and Doc Watson, but he couldn't get the language from them, that came from Robert Frost. Townes had to avoid contractions ("Townes invented the word 'b'lieve'"), and the song is meant as a letter from a dying man, a message in a bottle that you don't find out
until the last verse.

On "Pancho and Lefty":

First night, Steve said that Townes didn't really know who the song was about. Both nights he joked that Townes said the song was about Billy Graham and the Guru Maharaji. The second night, he shocks me by saying, "It's about Townes." "The first verse ['Living on the road my friend/was gonna keep you free and clean/now you wear your skin like iron/your breath's as hard as kerosene.] is about Townes." It started out to be about Townes, and it ended up going somewhere else after the first verse. In Steve Earle's "Fort Worth Blues" (which he wrote about Townes to deal with his death), Steve takes the first verse of "Pancho and Lefty" as a starting point.

On the road:

Townes spent a lot of time in his songs telling himself that he didn't live anywhere because that was where he was most comfortable. The class is almost over and I hear the door click. It's Steve's 18 year old son, Justin (who is taking classes at Old Town as well.). He stands in the back and waits for his dad. [This is paraphrased]: "I've lived like that a lot of my life. And it's --y'know....bullshit." Steve looks toward the back and sees his son, talking as much to him as to us. "I've finally reached the point where [I feel like] I'm on the road because it's my job, not because I don't want to go home (pause). I didn't for other reasons for a long time." I only see Steve's face, not his son's, but I imagine there's more said in that pause than anyone will ever know.

Sadly, Steve does not do "No Deal", so this class misses out on the funny side of Townes. He apologizes for playing so much downbeat music, but Steve says, when he's bummed out, he wants to hear sad music, not uptempo music. "Song craft in Nashville is at an all time low." Nashville has locked into a formulaic style that seems to work. He cites the old saying "You'll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public." But he counters that ,it's a matter of what people are fed. "Unfortunately, there's a cancerous effect when they're fed crap for a long time." Pancho and Lefty is proof that when people are exposed to really great stuff, they respond.

Phew, there's more, but that's it for me. Go buy a Townes album and hear the man yourself.