By Courtney S. Lennon
It’s 7 p.m. on a cold December night at Nietzsche’s on Allen Street. Thirty years ago, Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt played this iconic Buffalo venue that features a painting of its namesake philosopher on the outside brick with the quote “Without music life would be a mistake.”
The lanky Fort Worth native performed seated in a chair, not on, but in front of the stage, with a captivated and respectful audience gathered around. No chatter, no coming and going. Van Zandt, who was brought to town by regional folk music champion, the late Michael Meldrum, was his normal joking self that evening, telling dry stories and playing a perfect sampling of his work, everything from “Waiting Around to Die,” the first serious song he ever wrote, to the bare and haunting “Nothin,’” about his time forcefully spent in a mental hospital in the late ‘60s, to the satirical “No Deal” and “Talkin’ Karate Blues.”
“The thing I loved about Townes,” says Harold Eggers Jr., Van Zandt’s road manager of 20 years and author of the recent memoir “My Years With Townes Van Zandt: Music, Genius and Rage,” “is that you always got the humor. Because no matter how dark it is, if you make fun of it, it relieves the pain.”
I’m here at Nietzsche’s on a tip from Buffalo native and acclaimed singer-songwriter Gurf Morlix, who informed me Van Zandt claimed to sign the ceiling back in September 1989. Morlix, who Eggers says is the “closest songwriter alive to Townes” in terms of content, first met Van Zandt the night he moved to Austin, Texas, in February of 1975 at the famous Armadillo World Headquarters.
Morlix later fell into knowing Van Zandt through their mutual friend, Blaze Foley (“Clay Pigeons”), who took up residency on Morlix’s couch on and off through the years he was living in Houston, Texas. This was in part documented in animated form in the Blaze Foley episode of Mike Judge’s “Tales From The Tour Bus,” which features Morlix alongside Van Zandt and Eggers.
“At the time, all I had known was ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt,’ and that was just mysterious and confusing,” says Morlix. “Then I met this guy and he’s drunk, but I realized what a great songwriter he was.”
Standing at the bar, I look above and see handwriting scribbled all over the aged plaster. The thought of Van Zandt having left his mark at a place I frequented in college is meaningful. His music inspired me to start a magazine a decade ago when I was in Los Angeles called Turnstyled, Junkpiled, the name taken from the gentle song on his 1971 album “Delta Momma Blues.”
His music gave me hope when I had none and saved my life. The day I quit drinking, I got my first and only tattoo, the initials TVZ on my left wrist as a reminder to learn from his mistakes and be alive to write about him.
Through the years, Van Zandt struggled with bipolar disorder, going through severe highs and lows and self-medicating with alcohol. In the spring of his second year of college at the University of Colorado Boulder, he willfully fell four floors down off a porch, landing on his back. His mother believed he was suicidal and flew in from Houston to Boulder, and took him back to nearby Galveston, where he was admitted to the University of Texas Medical Branch. While he was there, Van Zandt was given electroshock and insulin shock therapy, which put him into a coma every day for months. It ultimately caused him to lose his long-term memory and his mother considers it the greatest regret of her life. After that, he seemingly didn’t care if he lived or died and played Russian roulette as a lark through the following years.
“I don’t envision a very long life for myself,” a young Van Zandt says in Margaret Brown’s 2005 documentary, “Be Here To Love Me.” “Like, I think my life will run out before my work does, you know? I designed it that way.”
“Townes was a wild man,” Morlix says. “Everybody (who) met Townes tried to drink like Townes and drink with Townes. It’s like trying to hang out with Keith Richards. No one else has the constitution for it, but they all were enamored by it. Blaze certainly was. Blaze and Townes were good influences and bad influences on one another. I got to see Townes when he was clear and sober and playing great, and I also saw him fuck up shows so bad that people would walk out.
“The lifestyle is fascinating, but it isn’t romantic. It seems that way, but it’s really not. I’m a normal happy person. I wake up every day feeling good. I can’t imagine being Townes. I wouldn’t trade my life for his for all the great songs he ever wrote.”
“When Townes was off the road, that was when the biggest problems were,” Eggers says. “That’s when he’d go on benders and everybody in Austin saw him drunk on a regular basis. When there were no guidelines for Townes, that was the danger zone. On tour, I didn’t see the alcoholic that drank themselves into oblivion. That was not Townes. It would happen occasionally, but not often.
“A lot of people don’t know that because most of the stories about Townes come out of Austin and Nashville when he wasn’t working. But there’s no way he could have been drunk all the time. Townes worked with top of the line booking agents and these agencies would not have Townes on their roster if he was drunk all the time.”
I flag down the bartender, “Do you know if Townes Van Zandt signed the ceiling?” He informs me that Van Zandt, along with a few other “luminaries,” including Grammy Award winner Lucinda Williams (“Passionate Kisses”) did indeed sign it. “It’s over there,” he says, pointing at a big silver air vent affixed to the celling. “It’s covered up. You’ll never be able to find it.” I turn to my husband, “That’s like covering up Bob Dylan’s signature.”
After all, Dylan himself reportedly said Van Zandt’s 1972 tune “Pancho and Lefty,” made famous through Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s 1983 Number One hit version, is the best song ever written. Van Zandt songwriting disciple Steve Earle once said he’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his cowboy boots and say Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world. So how could they cover up the name of arguably the greatest songwriter to have ever walked through the doors?
“I live in Austin, where Townes is a god. But he’s still relatively unknown throughout the world,” says Brian T. Atkinson, author of the book “I’ll Be Here In The Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt.” Atkinson grew up not too far away from Buffalo in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and spent his twenty-first birthday at Nietzsche’s. “Townes was the most poetic songwriter in the history of folk or any other kind of music. No words were out of place. Listen to ‘Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria,’ ‘Rex’s Blues,’ ‘Tecumseh Valley,’ ‘Flyin’ Shoes,’ ‘For the Sake of the Song’ and, of course, ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ They’re perfect. Period. He’s been as hugely influential (on his peers) as Hunter S. Thompson or Charles Bukowski.
“Thousands of writers have tried to copy him until they realize they can’t and eventually find their own voice. Townes can’t be duplicated. He was a rare, true original. However, many songwriters have followed Guy Clark’s advice and not strived to be him, but instead use him as the gold standard to aspire to be as good as.”
“Townes’ entire life has been an influence on me,” says Morlix, who recently recorded his take on Van Zandt’s song “Marie” for an Italian tribute record, “When The Wind Blows: The Songs of Townes Van Zandt,” alongside Texas greats Terry Allen (“Amarillo Highway)”) and Joe Ely (“Because of The Wind”). In fact, “Marie” itself has a Buffalo connection, as Van Zandt finished writing the song in the New York City basement apartment of Buffalo-bred folk songwriting legend Eric Andersen.
“I’ve played ‘Marie’ a lot over the years,” Morlix continues. “It blows me away. Every time I write a sad song, I’m holding it up to ‘Marie’ as the benchmark. It deals with homeless people and Blaze was homeless. I’m sure Blaze had an influence writing that song.
“Every time I write I have to decide if it’s any good and it’s really hard for me to figure out, so I have to compare it to other songwriters, and I use Townes, Guy Clark and Leonard Cohen. If you write a song and it’s not somewhere close to as good as theirs, then nothing’s really going to happen with that song. I hold Townes as a benchmark.”
The next week I show up at Nietzsche’s to see local singer-songwriter and Folkfaces leader Tyler Westcott. Tonight marks what would have been Blaze Foley’s seventieth birthday and at the beginning of his set, seated under the air vent, Westcott plays Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and “The Election.” In February, he’s hosting his first ever Foley tribute in Rochester and promises to play some Van Zandt tunes too. Westcott is doing his regular Wednesday night gig with local legend Dr. Jazz, a multi-instrumentalist who plays clarinet and saxophone, an instrument Van Zandt once took a shot at.
“Blaze booked (Townes) for two nights on a Friday and Saturday at this club (around Houston) we played a lot called Corky’s,” Morlix says. “The owners of the bar were really nervous because they heard he drank a lot and might not show up, but they sold tickets. We put together a six-piece band to back him up and Townes was gonna (get there) in the afternoon to rehearse, but he showed up a little bit before gig time.”
“Townes never practiced,” Eggers explains. “He’d say, ‘My practice is my first song of the set.’ I’d say ‘Townes, you have a gift god gave you. He’ll take it away if you don’t respect it.’ Townes would say, ‘No, Harold, my practice is the first song.’”
“He had a saxophone with him,” Morlix continues. “I guess he bought it at a pawnshop. He took it out and leaned it up against the bass drum and we started playing the set. I was wondering what the saxophone was doing there. But it was great. Townes was on his best behavior. The owners were happy. We stayed there drinking after hours like we usually did until 4 or 5 in the morning, then the owner said we had to go home, except Townes. He didn’t go out. He was drinking brandy.
The next night, we showed up for the gig and Townes didn’t show right away. He came in fifteen minutes later. It was obvious he’d been drinking brandy since the last time we’d seen him at 5 in the morning. He was really drunk. We started the show and he was so drunk, people were leaving and asking for their money back. Just walking out on him.
“One by one, band members started putting their instruments down and walking out. I was the bass player. The guitar left. At one point it came down to just me and Townes on stage. Then this switch went off in his brain and in the middle of one of his songs, he switched from English to some Cajun gibberish language that was just really bizarre. He never sang another word of English the rest of the night.
“Then Townes says, ‘Let’s play ‘You Got To Move’ by Mississippi Fred McDowell.’ It was just me on bass and Townes singing. I was loving the whole freakshow aspect. It was the craziest thing I’d ever been around. It came time for a solo, and Townes picked up the saxophone. He just wailed out this amazing jazz solo that sounded like John Coltrane.
“Earlier he picked it up and started blowing into it, and I realized he couldn’t play it at all. He was a total beginner, but somehow, he channeled something and played this amazing solo. When he was finished, he threw the sax on the floor and bolted out the front door. We didn’t get paid for either night. Then I saw him a few weeks later at an airport. I said, ‘Hey Townes, how’s the saxophone going?’ He said, ‘I hung it in a tree, and I shot it full of holes.’”
Ahead of the gig, I informed Westcott about the whole signature ordeal. He takes a break from his set and we look up at the air vent. “So, this is where he signed it?” “Yeah, it’s gone for good.”
The bartender that evening, who’s a fan of Van Zandt, interjects, explaining that they had no choice but to cover his name due to fire regulations after the 2003 Station nightclub fire that killed 100 people in Rhode Island. Suddenly their old heating system wasn’t to code. It wasn’t for lack of respect that Van Zandt’s name is gone; they had no choice.
While Van Zandt’s signature is no more, his impact on writers from the region runs deep, and he’s very much alive here. Eggers always very kindly tells me I have Van Zandt’s spirit with me, and his music can be heard at this dark old bar through local acts who play there like the Brothers Blue, who cover “White Freightliner Blues,” along with Westcott, who regularly plays the Van Zandt tunes “Rake,” and “If I Needed You.”
“I love ‘If I Needed You,’” Westcott says. “It reminds me of people who passed away. It’s not depressing. It’s a nice sentiment and positive message. I discovered Townes in my junior year of high school a decade ago.
“I was drawn to the heart wrenching raw emotion and wit he put into his music, almost effortlessly. His strengths are in storytelling and creating a whole scene with a song with vivid imagery. In ‘Tecumseh Valley’ when he says, ‘They found her down beneath the stairs,’ it’s like getting shot.”
Right around the time Van Zandt played Nietzsche’s, he was likely sleeping on Andersen’s couch in New York City. “We had a travel routine in the ‘80s,” says Andersen who will be performing in Buffalo January 15 at the Sportsmen’s Tavern. “Townes would stay with me when he came north, and I would stay with him and (his wife Jeanene) in Austin or Nashville when I was playing in the south.”
When Van Zandt performed the show, he wasn’t sloppy drunk, but it’s clear he’d been drinking by the depth of his voice. Sadly, it was just a few months prior that he’d made a serious attempt at sobriety with a 45-day stint in a rehab in Huntsville, Alabama. But by the time of the show, he’d fallen of the wagon and while it wasn’t noticeable, audience member Randy Rodda noted Van Zandt appeared frail the evening of his performance.
“Townes didn’t eat food,” Eggers says. “What he did eat, maybe half a piece of toast in the morning and maybe a cup of coffee. Basically, his diet was vodka and orange juice through the day. How the man lived is beyond me. He was extremely skinny, very fragile. I think the alcohol was not only used to fight the demons, but it was his gasoline that made him run. The doctors were under the opinion that his insides were eating themselves to survive. When he stopped drinking, he thought he’d lost his mojo. When he started drinking again, he got it back.”
Andersen’s first encounter with Van Zandt was in 1967 at the Ohio State Folk Festival, a year prior to the release Van Zandt’s debut album, “For The Sake of The Song,” the start of an impressive six-album run that ended with his 1972 seminal work, “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt,” the title, a premonition that the “Electric Cowboy,” as friend Rodney Crowell called him, would live fast and die young but remain forever immortal in Texas legend.
Despite critical acclaim in certain circles, Van Zandt never got the success and recognition he hoped for, which in part accounts for his continued self-destructive behavior. He released only three more studio albums through his career, with nearly a decade gap between 1978’s “Flyin’ Shoe”s and 1987’s “At My Window,” which features the Van Zandt classic, “Snowin’ On Raton.”
“I had first heard of Townes through Emmy Lou Harris in New York,” Andersen says. “Emmy Lou figured we would probably like each other (and said to) check him out. I promised I would. Most of the performers at this festival were assigned dormitory rooms with bunk beds and no doors. (Townes) knocked on the doorframe and walked in and smiled. He was tall and lanky like me. We both looked like we hadn’t eaten a bite in a month. We went out to find a diner. At the corner, we stopped (and) he pointed to a far-off high ridge that was lined with scary looking institutional brick buildings. He chuckled and said that was the biggest hospital for the criminally insane in the (United States). How would I know? But it certainly got my attention. We continued on and went to a diner and ordered grilled cheese sandwiches.
“At one point, before either had taken a bite, he pulled the mass of thick black hair back over his forehead and asked if I saw anything. I leaned in and looked. It was a little red below the hairline. He smiled and said that was where they had placed the metal band with the electrodes on his head and administered the shock treatments. He had treatments just the week before he came out to this festival. That was pretty impressive to learn too. After that we became close friends for life.
There was a time when we were driving to the Kerrville Folk Festival and I jokingly asked if there were more handguns in Texas or more 7-11s? He laughed and said, ‘More handguns, of course. Not everyone can afford their own 7-11.’ He was very droll (and) the truest of poet lyricists who spun the most memorable melodies with feelings and tales to match. He was also a great blues and rhythm guitar player who learned more licks from Lightnin’ Hopkins than Chet Atkins.”
“People have commented that my songs can be dark,” Andersen continues. “But Townes could actually paint on an extra layer in some of his imagery. Instead of the usual cliché star rating for songs and albums he jokingly ranked my song “Irish Lace” (from) “Ghosts Upon the Road” as a ‘10 Razor-Blader’ for darkness and depression, and he confessed once when he started out, he used to sing my song ‘Violets of Dawn.’”
The razor blade scale is a reference to the what critics would say of Van Zandt’s tunes. Ahead of the Nietzsche’s show on a phone interview with the Buffalo News, Van Zandt admitted some songs may have the audience passing out the razor blades, but that he balances his shows out with “good time numbers.”
“Townes was misunderstood,” Eggers says. “Writers used to say, ‘When I play Townes’ music, you might as well hand out the razor blades.’ But Townes told me, ‘The blues is happy music.’ I said, ‘Townes, it’s crying music.’ He said, ‘During my show, look at their faces when they come in. When they leave, look again.’ He was right. When they came in, nobody was talking, they all had their heads down. When they left, they were laughing, hugging one another. Townes said, ‘See? My songs made them not feel alone.’ All Townes wanted to do was write one song that would save the world.”
Andersen has the distinction of being one of only three Van Zandt co-writers, the others, Guy Clark’s wife, artist and songwriter Susanna Clark (“Heavenly Houseboat Blues”) who wrote Clark’s tune “Black Haired Boy” about Van Zandt; and Mickey White, who also wrote one song with Van Zandt.
Van Zandt was singular. He didn’t co-write. But Andersen wrote a total of four songs with him, which says a lot about Van Zandt’s admiration for the Amherst-raised songwriter.
“Townes wouldn’t have co-wrote with him if he didn’t think he was great,” Eggers says. “When you look at Allen Ginsberg and that scene, Townes would talk about Eric in that vein. Townes would rave on, ‘You know, Eric was part of the folk scene when folk was at its height. He was part of the Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack era.’ He was one of the greats. They were real good friends. When we toured in Europe, I really saw it. Eric would come by and they’d play and record in the room. Generally speaking, Townes did not pick up his guitar. Once he came offstage, he didn’t touch it. With Eric, he’d knock on the door and they’d play. It was rare and special.”
The four songs, “The Road,” “Night Train,” “Blue March” and “Meadowlark,” which landed on Andersen’s 2000 album “You Can’t Relive The Past,” were written in the span of a couple days in the basement of his 21st Street apartment in New York one November in the mid-’80s. The lyrics came first, followed by some sketches of music Andersen later finished. The cassette and lyrics got lost for a time, but later turned up in a box in New Mexico where some of Andersen’s friends had moved. He recounts writing the tunes with Van Zandt.
“‘The Road,’” Andersen says, “had images based on a tour we did in New Mexico and Colorado. ‘Night Train’ was based on a walk we took in the barrio neighborhood in Denver on a day off where we saw an abandoned store with a recessed entrance and on the concrete floor lay an empty bottle of hooch called ‘Night Train’ that featured a steaming locomotive hurtling toward the eyes of the drinker. Next to that lay a woman’s high heel shoe someone had left behind. Those images figured into the song. ‘Blue March’ we wrote in a little neighborhood Irish bar around the corner from my apartment. It was the bar Saturday Night Live filmed as part of its visual New York City introduction at the time. I didn’t know that until later.
“It was late and the place was dim, dark and empty. Just us and the bartender. We sat on bar stools and in front of the huge mirror were displayed the usual hundred liquor bottles. We started discussing the merits of Irish whiskey. The bartender said, ‘Try this.’ It was called Black Bush. We took out some napkins and ‘old black bush’ became the first line. We set it in New Orleans. (With) ‘Meadowlark,’ Townes and I both loved the rolling prairie and mountain beauty of Montana.
“We both loved the music of the songbird the meadowlark. I told him the story of visiting the depressing Custer’s Last Stand Memorial but hearing the songs of meadowlarks flying to the side and overhead as we drove the car through the prairie grass roads. He had a similar experience camping by a river. An amusing aside, the title track (of the album) was written and recorded with my other friend, Lou Reed. I miss them both terribly. Townes was the greatest Southern songwriter since Hank Williams.”
Townes Van Zandt passed away New Year’s Day 1997, 44 years to the day after his hero Hank Williams Sr. died at the age of 29. Van Zandt likely passed from a clot getting into his bloodstream and delirium tremens, a fatal complication from alcohol withdrawal after being forced into the hospital to get his broken hip fixed. When he walked out of the hospital after surgery, he got into his ex-wife Jeanene Munsell’s car. Van Zandt was shaking so badly he had trouble opening a bottle of liquor waiting for him in the vehicle. He died of a heart attack in his home in Smyrna, Tennessee. He was 52 years old.
“I started “I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt” to spread the word about the greatest songwriter who ever lived,” says Atkinson, who released his ode to Van Zandt on New Year’s Day 2012 to commemorate the 15-year anniversary of his passing.
“My book is all about how he’s influenced younger songwriters like Scott Avett, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Kasey Chambers, Jay Farrar and other leading lights in the Americana world and beyond.”
“There’s a song I wrote seven years ago called ‘By My Side’ that was influenced by Townes,” Westcott says. “It’s about being broken up with, cheated on and feeling hopeless. I get that feeling from a lot of his music.
“It’s important his songs are around for future generations because he’s a connection to an earlier time. He was kind of out of place in the ‘70s. He lived off the grid without electric and water. He was a vagabond with an old-timey way of doing things. His music will be a connection to the past songwriters like Hank Williams and the cowboys that came before him.”
“I’ve always said Townes would be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Paul Simon as touchstones of modern American songwriting within 50 years,” Atkinson says. “Looks like it’s not gonna take that long after all.”
Writer Courtney S. Lennon is the Buffalo-based author of the forthcoming book Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver (Texas A&M University Press). She recently contributed a chapter on “No Deal” and philosophy to For the Sake of The Song (University of North Texas Press), a forthcoming book on Van Zandt.