After Leonard Cohen, my personal list of my musical heroes drops off dramatically. It’s not like I have four or five songwriters I could substitute in the 1-1 through 1-5 spots. There is only one #1, Leonard Cohen. The rest of the pack runs a somewhat distant second. Jason Pierce is up there, as is Harry Nilsson, Elliott Smith, Bill Callahan… but if I were pressed to pick a #2 above anyone else it would definitely be Townes Van Zandt.
Early in my college career a friend leant me a copy of Heartworn Highways, a documentary film by James Szalapski that was released theatrically in 1981 in spite of the fact that it was filmed during the last weeks of 1975 and first weeks of 1976. Szalapski’s documentary followed some of the founders of what is known as the “Outlaw Country” movement, guys like Townes, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle. As soon as I heard Townes’ rendition of “Waitin’ Around To Die,” I was sold.
By the time the documentary Be Here To Love Me was released in 2005, my senior year of college, I was doing my best to obtain all his records. I must have watched that film a dozen times, showed it everyone who came over to drink or get high when it was IFC and I didn’t feel like going out on the town, and with each viewing my respect for Townes’ songwriting grew. Hell, I even started listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins because of Townes. Songs like “Rake,” “Lungs” and “Flyin’ Shoes” will never NOT move me when I hear them. And those are just three cuts, I could name a dozen other songs that… each time I hear them, I listen as intently, and am as impressed as I was when first I heard them.
Many have analyzed Townes’ lyrics before, and much more eloquently than I ever could. Ron Silliman, in his review of Be Here To Love Me, writes about the song “If I Needed You”:
[The lyrics are] quite simple. While they tend toward certain patterns, they’re not at all rigid in their structure. Thus the ABBC format of the first quatrain is not repeated in the second, which is BABC. The next two stanzas both contain two quatrains, but now the rhyme scheme has become more regularized – AABC. Only in the final stanza do we find a second rhyme – the last line of each quatrain. What this scheme really sets up, tho, is a critical pause that occurs at the end of the third line in each quatrain…it sounds as if two short lines lead to a longer third, e.g., “to lay her lily hand in mine,” and that ambiguity – to my ear at least – is the key to this song’s measure.
Also worth noting are the number of syllables per line here – a number that in the song itself means that shorter lines possess words that will extend over the music. Each stanza contains six five-syllable lines, and two shorter ones. It’s worth noting where in the three stanzas these condensed lines fall, again in a pattern that is both intentional & not systematic.
Above all else, this is a text dominated by one-syllable words, a device that harkens back to poets like Larry Eigner & Lew Welch. In these 24 lines, just ten words have two syllables and none have more. The only moment of difficulty, to even call it that, is the reference to two persons, Loop and Lil, never mentioned otherwise in the song.
A final – and my favorite – touch is the use of the word or syllable “for,” which occurs exactly once in each stanza, always at a critical point. That’s a tiny detail, but it says a lot aboutVan Zandt’s formal imagination, which is hardly as haphazard as we’ve come to expect from popular song. Did this come to him in a dream as he claimed? We should all be so lucky.
Ok, so Loop and Lil were actually Townes’ parakeets, not real people, but other than that it’s a pretty apt deconstruction of what makes him such a brilliant lyricist.
You’re wondering what the fuck this has to do with the new CD I received from Neurot called Songs Of Townes Van Zandt, aren’t you? Well, the answer is, because I treat the songs of Townes Van Zandt with the utmost reverence. There have been tribute recordings before. There have been cover versions committed to tape countless times. Most of the time I couldn’t be bothered to care, but this comp gets some aspects very right. First of all, the song selection is solid. “If I Needed You,” “Lungs,” “Rake”, “Nothing,” “Tecumseh Valley” and “A Song For” all appear here, which are top-notch choices. The musicianship and singing is pretty good, it’s not a revelatory take on Townes’ music. But between Scott Kelly (Neurosis, Mastodon, Shrinebuilder), Steve Von Till (Neurosis, Culper Ring, Harvestman), and Wino (The Obsessed, The Mentors, Saint Vitus, Spirit Caravan, et. al) they do an admirable job. Couple this recording with the cover of “Kathleen” Nate Hall (U.S. Christmas) included on his solo album, and it’s starting to feel like a widespread Townes revival is underway. Which is only fitting, because he’s one of the greatest and most important voices in the history of American music. Any attention given to his life and his music can only make me happy.
Songs Of Townes Van Zandt will be released by Neurot Recordings in June of 2012. The track listing for the album is:
1. If I Needed You [Steve Von Till] [MP3]
2. St. John The Gambler [Scott Kelly]
3. Black Crow Blues [Steve Von Till]
4. Lungs [Scott Kelly]
5. Rake [Wino]
6. The Snake Song [Steve Von Till]
7. Nothing [Wino]
8. Tecumseh Valley [Scott Kelly]
9. A Song For [Wino]