Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Rosetta Stone

Townes Van Zandt : For the Sake of a Song

On the seedy side of Houston you could walk into the "Old Quarter" and see blues artists like Lightnin' Hopkins or cowboy singers like Jerry Jeff Walker. For five consecutive nights in July of 1973,  a skinny songwriter , six albums deep in his career,  got up on stage with just his acoustic guitar and sang his heart out. You'd never know by the quiet of the room that hundreds of people were packed should to shoulder listening to classics like "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed You". Sitting in a corner, manning a four track portable tape recorder was Earl Willis. The result, released in 1977,  is an intimate album, the perfect setting for the stark songs of Townes Van Zandt. The "rosetta stone" of Texas music according to the liner notes.

Van Zandt wasn't always this lucid. He had suffered from manic depression and was treated with insulin shock therapy. The treatment damaged his long tern memory and when he drank, which was often, he had all kinds of problems. He sang in such a sad way he would diminish the pretty melodies he created.

Of course he had his fans. Steve Earle famously called Van Zandt "the best songwriter in the whole wide world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes told Van Zandt biographer John Kruth that he'd been given a copy of the album by Mark Olson of the Jayhawks and that the record "really spoke to me. I listened to it constantly while on a tour of Europe. In rock and roll people tend to forget about the importance of songwriting. Townes really inspired me to become a better songwriter. That motherfucker had his antennas up."

1 comment: