Thursday, March 16, 2006

Townes Van Zandt: Be Here To Love Me

The irony that only a dozen people gathered upstairs at a local British pub to view the newly released documentary on Townes Van Zandt wasn't wasted on me. For even in death, one of America's greatest songwriters of the last century still has a difficult time attracting a crowd.
In the opening sequence of the movie an audio interview with Townes reveals that not only does he claim to know his fate, but indeed states that he designed it. It sets the tone for the somber and sometimes haunting film that chronicles a life filled with a succession of lows and the occasional high. His story is told through interviews with friends in the music business, three ex-wives, and an astonishing number of home movies and interviews spanning his entire life.
Early on, we learn that Townes was one tough sumbitch. A college friend recalls how, dressed only in a old pair of blue jeans, Townes strolled in to a school formal and parked himself next to the punch bowl and downed a few glasses to help get his buzz on for the night. As he walked out of the dance, Van Zandt is harassed by a number of his fraternity brothers for his lack of dress and his pervailing outsider attitude. Whereupon Townes approached the brother giving him the most grief, reached in to his pocket, pulled out his pledge pin, and pinned it directly on to his bare chest. Without saying a word, a small trickle of blood ran down his chest as he glared in to the eyes of his tormentor.
In another display of machismo, or temporary insanity, Townes purposely flung himself backwards off a fourth story balcony, landing flat on his back. In his own words he describes the incident, claiming his desire was to experience the feeling of going all the way to the edge and his realization that the only way to get there was to just do it. So, he did it. Wrapping it up by saying he never forgot the feeling. I guess not.
Steve Earle recalls a moment when the two were living in a wooden cabin in the back woods of Tennessee or Kentucky and how Van Zandt played a game of Russian Roulette in front of him and won...THREE TIMES IN A ROW! Needless to say, it tortured Earle to see his good friends unhealthy display of desperation and says it took him several years to forgive Van Zandt for putting him through such a disturbing incident.
But, above all, the most revealing, and downright heartbreaking, moments are when Townes songs are showcased. Inside his mobile home, a home movie from Austin(circa. 1974) captures a surreal moment as Van Zandt performs his song "Waiting Around To Die" before a handful of drinking partners including an elderly black man. As he sings the lines, One-time friends I had a ma, I even had a pa/He beat her with a belt once cause she cried/She told him to take care of me,she headed down to Tennessee/It's easier than just a-waitin' 'round to die, the lens focuses on the elderly man behind him as his weary, bloodshot eyes swell up with emotion at a verse that hits a little too close to home. As he wipes the tears from his eyes, Townes second wife, Cindy, puts her hand on his shoulder, drawing him closer in an effort to comfort the aching man's soul.
Guy Clark recalls receiving a phone call from Townes inviting him over to his hotel room where he had just completed the song "Maria" that morning and proceeds to premier the song for Clark with paper on knee. Clark then marvels at how, that very evening, Townes played the song live in concert for the first time and remembered every word to the newly born song without the aid of the lyric sheet.
In a home video from 2002, five years after his death, a heart wrenching moment catches his daughter, Katie Belle, quietly dancing and mouthing every word to one of his songs on the turn table.
Finally, in a video interview with Townes and old friend Guy Clark at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1993, Van Zandt recalls the first time he ever played nine ball with Clark as his teacher. As the balls were placed on the table in their familiar diamond setting, Townes promptly sinks the nine ball with his first break. Guy reluctantly hands over the hundred dollar bill that had been bet. But just as quickly, Townes loses the money in the second game. He claims that breaking even was all he ever wanted out of life and that Purgatory would be just fine with him. Going on to describe the three levels of life as Heaven, Purgatory, and the Blues. And concludes by saying he's been trying to claw his way up from the Blues since day one.
As the credits roll we see Townes, in a light hearted moment, trying on his collection of hats for the camera. There are a variety, ranging from cowboy hats to an old weathered Houston Astros baseball cap. A burst of spontaneous applause arose from the crowd of twelve.

from "The Hole"

What about my mother
I can't just leave her there to mourn
You don't have to think about her
Just forget you were ever born
I'll disappoint my father
you know he worked so hard for me
If you have to pay your father back
Just send him some misery

I'll miss, I said, a girl I know
I can't just leave there to pine
she's still got plenty of men to go
I'm sure she'll do just fine
What about my little boy
She said, he's just like you
Let a few short years roll by
He'll end up down here too
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Blogger Kilian said...

Was that in Houston? In which case even more ironic since his live album at the Old Quarter was recorded in Houston and is one of his finest. They showed this documentary for two weeks at the Music Box in Chicago.

12:58 PM  

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