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January 13, 2006

Townes Van Zandt

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

young townes.jpg
The price we pay for art? Or what a lot of hard living will do?

I was expecting to be annoyed by "Be Here to Love Me," Margaret Brown's new movie about the late Texas folk/country troubador Townes Van Zandt. I had read that the movie wasn't meant to be anything so banal as a straightforward documentary, and that had gotten my hackles up. What could possibly be wrong with simply telling the Townes story, introducing Townes' people, and including a lot of performance footage? Just the facts -- and the music -- ma'am. God damn arty filmmakers, always trying to put themselves between me and the information I want ...

As it turned out, I experienced the annoyance I was anticipating only a couple of times, and then only fleetingly. I spent most of the movie feeling blissed-out, in a hurts-so-bad-it's-good kind of way. Is "Be Here to Love Me" the downbeat, elliptical, artily hard-to-categorize movie I was expecting? Sure. Does Margaret Brown leave big parts of the Townes story blurry and unaccounted for, just as I feared? Yup.

But, as it turned out, this was all fine by me. Enough of the information comes across; enough of the key people make substantial appearances; enough of Townes' music is heard. Margaret Brown didn't try to make the definitive Townes Van Zandt biography; she's leaving room for others to do that. What she made instead is a glancing and touching mood piece -- a movie that's half about Townes Van Zandt and half about how his music can make you feel.

This dreamy, half-story/half-mood approach makes sense given how powerfully Townes Van Zandt's music -- given, in fact, how powerfully the whole Townes Van Zandt thang -- can hit a person. Van Zandt, who died in 1997, was an underground legend. He was a songwriter's songwriter: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, the Black Crowes, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, the Cowboy Junkies, and Gillian Welch have all spoken about his brilliance as a songwriter. He was also a charismatic and low-key performer. And, although he never had a hit of his own, he was loved for the purity and beauty of his records too.

"Townes doesn't have non-obsessive fans,'' Margaret Brown said to one interviewer. Count me among them. I stumbled across his music in the early '80s and have been hooked ever since. I've played his music more than any other artist's, and it's a big regret of mine that I saw Townes perform live only once. But what a beautiful show it was. Townes was on a double bill with his buddy and fellow Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. Both men performed solo, Guy first then Townes, walking out alone, telling their stories and jokes, singing their songs while playing guitar. On stage, Guy Clark was solid, craftsmanlike, companionable, and down-to-earth -- an old shoe, but one with a lot of grit and soul. I love Guy Clark's music, by the way. Start with this disc.

Townes was something very different. Although he was a dark and handsome guy (in a prematurely-broken-down way) and an engagingly droll racounteur, when he gave himself over to his music he seemed to disappear physically. He was transparent -- an enchanter. He seemed to become his music.

In fact, Townes was one of the most self-destructive artists imaginable -- one of the most self-destructive people imaginable. As a teenager, he didn't just experiment with drugs and alcohol; he embraced them wholeheartedly. He seems to have spent much of his time at military school sniffing glue. One friend from his teen years remembers Townes mainlining -- literally injecting -- a mixture of Coke and rum. During another party, Townes backed off a fourth-floor balcony and fell to the ground just to see what it felt like. Steve Earle recalls a horrific visit. With Earle watching, Townes put three bullets in a gun, spun the chamber, put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger three times. Townes spent a number of years addicted to heroin; there couldn't have been many days when he wasn't drunk. You can hear severe alcohol damage in his singing on this late disc. I love it anyway.

By the last few years of his life, Townes was falling apart physically and mentally. (See right-hand photo above.) He had been pickled for so long that his family and doctors decided it was riskier to get him off the booze than it was to let him continue on it. He sometimes woke up in dumpsters, and when he went in a coffee shop for some java he was such a smelly bum-like character that the people there shrank from him. Half his shows were disasters, with Townes incoherent and barely able to stay vertical. When he died, it was of a heart attack following a hip operation. That photo above? Compare it to the left-hand photo, of the handsome kid Townes once was. The right-hand photo was taken shortly before Townes died. He was only 52. That's what 52 looks like if you live the way Townes Van Zandt lived.

But the central point about Townes -- the thing that makes him a legend as well as a kind of beacon for his fans -- is that it was all for the art. (I say this not in praise, by the way, simply to relate a fact.) He lived for his art, and he lived for his art so thoroughly that he seemed to live for nothing else whatsoever, except maybe the booze and the drugs. He lived as though he wanted his life and his art to merge; he seemed to be driven to embody his art. Townes plunged so heedlessly into this pursuit that he made everyone else look a little cowardly, a little self-protective. You loved him for it, and you hated him for it.

Of course, we'd be speaking about nothing but a wasted life if he didn't also manage to put something of his go-all-the-way-with-it passion and determination into his music. He did. I know of very few artists, working in any medium or genre, whose work combines the sweet and the despairing, the plaintive and the bitter in anything like the way Townes' does. It's as haunting as any music I've ever heard. I'd be surprised if the entire Townes songbook totaled more than a hundred songs, and not every one of them is a flawless gem, god knows. But almost all of them have some of this bare-bones-of-it quality in them. And many of them leave you with the impression that -- in terms of directness, intensity, and simplicity -- you can't go any further than this.

His songs are formal and spare. He seemed to want to pare them down to some essence of feeling. Even his good-time stompers and his revival clap-alongs are set against a backdrop of bleakness. Yet, lonely as it always is, Townes' music is also shot through with a gentle (though not hopeful) radiance. Townes would mix up depressive dirges with minor-key drones, daisy-petal waltzes, rollicking barn-burners, and wistful lullabies. Although Townes was nothing if not a '60s-'70s singer-songwriter -- one of thousands -- his music feels like it comes from another era entirely. It has a touching remoteness. Listening to his songs can hit you the way looking at a Daguerreotype does, or the way that attending a rural church service or listening to medieval poetry can.

The best country, blues, and folk artists take you to emotional places that are intoxicating yet dangerous to visit. Townes' music seemed to be born in these regions, and to never leave it. His sad songs are really heart-rending; he makes the melancholy, the pitilessness, and the sweetness seem like the inescapable parts of life they really are. One of Townes' best-known (and best-loved) songs is entitled "Sittin' Around Waitin' to Die." He wrote it, and first performed it, when he was in his early 20s.

Townes seems to have been recognized as an artist to be cherished from early on. Many of his discs were produced sympathetically and sensitively. He's typically framed by a droning hurdy-gurdy, a few loose tambourines, angelic hippie-girl backup singers, and a distant, churchy organ. Although he wasn't a spectacular guitarist and he had a flat voice that was unremarkable in most conventional ways (he seemed as happy to speak a song as to sing it), what struck many people about his music was its emotional rawness -- its "truth." The emotion at the heart of his songs never feels fake. Raw, harsh, simple, and unadorned, his music seems to exist in its own emotional dimension, parallel to ours, yet still able to attract and affect us.

OK, this is just gush and impressionism. Even so, I have a hunch about what Townes represents, to me as well as to many fans. I think that Townes and his music represent the Thing Itself, that "It" or "the divine" or whatever it is that artists go in search of and that the rest of us hope they'll come back able to pass along to us. In other words, Townes is one of those artists whose work can make you think, "This is what it's all about." It's the real stuff, whatever the hell it is we mean by that. For people who love the arts, and who have constructed lives that make some room for the arts, this is it: the essence of why you've gone to the bother. All the showboating, the virtuosity, the arguments, and the fads -- none of it counts unless some of this is present. What's remarkable about Townes' music is how often it seems to consist of nothing but this Thing Itself.

Which prompts a question Friedrich von Blowhard and I have often chewed over: Is it possible to be an arts person without being ... well, a little demented? In what way does an involvement with the arts really benefit a person? It seems to me that you fall for the arts mainly because they move you. They infect and reflect your daydreams and your dreams. They give you feelings and experiences the likes of which you otherwise run across only in church or in bed. Your vulnerabilities, your sensitivities, your fantasies -- all are stimulated and engaged. FWIW, and IMHO: the best film evocation of the kind of seductive, crazy-making dream-state that a life in the arts can be like is Julian Schnabel's "Basquiat."

If the arts don't hit you in this way, then why would you bother with them at all? God knows they can be a lot of trouble -- why not lead a sensible, prosaic life instead? On the other hand, if you go too far into headlong intoxication, you can wind up self-destructing. So: How to respect the real-life-practicality we all need to survive while maintaining the openness and receptivity -- and the imaginative/emotional engagement -- that an involvement with the arts requires? Is it possible to keep your head while losing it? Most of us find some kind of bearable balance, however haphazard.

Townes Van Zandt didn't even try. Once he walked off the cliff he just kept right on falling. Margaret Brown, who is in her 30s, has talked about how wiped-out she felt when she discovered Van Zandt's music. She and her talented cinematagrapher Lee Daniel (and her team of editors) use the usual combo of interviews, archival footage, and image-processing. But they also add free-associating editing riffs and dramatic recreations (or something like). A lot of "Be Here to Love Me" is just visual mood music set to voices. But the approach doesn't conflict with the Townes story. And the shadows, the stray views out smeary car windows, the lonely hotel rooms, and the beat-up mailboxes have their own sad, Townes-ish eloquence. Margaret Brown is a poet in her own right; she knows how to establish and sustain a powerful yet hard-to-label mood.

Brown wants to get across the kind of artist Van Zandt was from inside the experience of listening to his music. I wasn't surprised to learn in one interview that she had her collaborators watch Francis Girard's amazing little movie "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," a film that tries to present the pianist Glenn Gould in Gould's own terms. It's interesting to note that Gould's life and music had the same kind of purity that Van Zandt's did; it was all about, and for, the music. Gould too died in his 50s.

There are even fans who compare Townes to Mozart. That comparison may be, er, a little overdone. Still, I know what these fans are getting at. Like Mozart and like Glenn Gould, Van Zandt can seem like an alien, sent here for one reason and one reason only: to deliver beautiful music to the rest of us, and to show us something of what beauty can be.

What was he like as a person? That's a much sadder story. Brown checks in with family members, classmates, and friends. Townes grew up the blazer-wearing son of a well-off Texas family (there's a Van Zandt County in Texas). But he was never anything but an unstable screwup, and his acting-out went beyond brattiness and into something downright alarming. He seems to have loved toying with self-extinction. At one point his desperate parents had him institutionalized. The shock therapy he was administered while in the loony bin left him with a ragged and torn-up memory function. As far as his background went, for the rest of his life he was rattled and vague.

In college and just after, Townes was still clinging to a straight-ish path. He hoped to live a life that was both semi-conventional and semi-bohemian. At school, he was an economics and pre-law major; in his private life he married, and he fathered a son. But by now he had caught the arts bug. He'd fallen in love with literature and music, and he skipped classes to study and practice along with Lightnin' Hopkins, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Robert Frost. During his first marriage, he'd lock himself away in a tiny room until he emerged with a new riff or a new song. He was a gifted part-time cafe musician who did parody material. Soon he started to find his way around a stage and to introduce his own songs.

The arts fever had him in a death grip. One day Townes knew, he just knew, that he needed to commit entirely to being an artist -- that there was no way for him to be an artist without doing so. With that, Townes was out of there. He walked away from conventional life never to return. Leaving his wife and son behind in order to realize himself as an artist, he was off to embrace his fate.

Handsome and folkie-sensitive, Townes quickly became a well-known regional artist. He may never have sold many records, but he made TV appearances, he had musician buddies, and he toured.

Then it went to hell. Where the facts go, Margaret Brown does sometimes leave you in the lurch. Did Townes screw over his producer at Tomato Records, or was it vice versa? And what was it that went wrong for Townes in his personal life? By the mid-'70s, Townes seemed to have left the music scene almost entirely. Why this happened is the biggest puzzle in the film. He spent much of the '70s living in a trailer, then in a cabin, playing with his guns, watching "Happy Days," and doing drugs. It was during these years that he lost his chiseled, dark-eyebrowed, sexy-hippie-dreamboat looks and emerged as a corroded old tramp.

When he did perform, Townes had a modest, soft-spoken, spare way: he was a gaunt, wry, impassioned enchanter. I've never seen a performer who left so vivid an impression that Something Larger was speaking through him. As a person, Townes clearly had charm and grace too. It's on display in some footage in the movie, and in the eyes of his friends, girlfriends, and wives as they recall him.

The upper-middle-class military-school kid never left him; nor did the Texas storyteller with the self-deprecating sense of humor. Even during his decline, Townes had a patient, modest, almost courtly way of speaking. He had a distinctive way of being both morose and bleakly cheerful. At one point he takes the trouble to explain to an interviewer the difference between "lonely" and "lonesome." At another, an interviewer asks Townes why so much of his music is so sad. "Well, many of the songs, they aren't sad, they're hopeless," Townes answers. He says this in a tone of amiable helpfulness. He isn't bragging. He just wants to get the facts straight.

At other times, though, another side of Townes emerges. He's a clown and a cut-up. Sometimes this side of Townes is engaging, but at other times his drunken horsing-around is slobby-stupid and repulsive. As he aged, Townes never seemed to grow up. He seemed to go directly from being young to being old. Instead of developing into a man, he remained a boy -- who then collapsed in slow-motion.

He was one of those people who can rip your life apart. Friend after friend says so. He would attract your love and sympathy and then break your heart. One of his wives tells Brown that when she met Van Zandt -- who was already in bad shape -- she saw clearly what was coming. She saw herself falling in love with this disaster-in-process-of-happening, and she reacted by thinking, "Please, God, don't let this guy be the love of my life." Townes left people's emotions in tatters. If you cared about him, you'd get hurt -- there was no escaping it.

In fact, Townes was crazy. He was semi-manageably, semi-functionally crazy, but crazy nonetheless. As a teenager, he was diagnosed as a manic-depressive with schizophrenic tendencies. Picking up his Lithium prescriptions was part of his routine. My guess is that somewhere along the line, his mental illness overcame him; he was certainly one of history's more ferocious self-medicators.

As you'd imagine, he was no kind of father to his three kids. Mostly, he wasn't there. His elder son didn't meet Townes until he was five. When he finally did visit his dad, Townes was doing drugs openly; terrified, the boy dialed his mother and begged her to let him come back home. When Townes got around to visiting the family, he was often drunk and abusive. Townes' other son (by his last wife) recalls going to bed crying night after night, having been humiliated by Townes. Katie Belle, Townes' youngest child, in whose name he wrote some lovely songs, never knew Townes at all. Margaret Brown caught on film a heartbreaking moment when Katie Belle is twirling and spinning, and singing along to Townes' music. It's all she's ever going to know of her dad.

Here's a passage from an inteview with Townes' older son:

Townes wrote beautiful songs about family and love, but he never lived those things out, he was off in a corner creating them while his family was wishing that they had a father or a husband. He sacrificed his personal life to describe to the rest of us what true beauty and love is. He didn't experience it, so he became the poet off in the corner beating his brains out what the essence of human emotion is. You can choose that or you can be a simple man who follows his heart and behaves honestly and treats his family well. And in that case, which would you choose?

A friendship with Townes could be rough too. When Margaret Brown shows up to talk with Guy Clark, Townes' best friend, Guy leads the director directly to his bar. He says that if he's going to talk to her about Townes, then he and she are both going to get good and drunk. All of Townes' friends to react with a mixture of pain and pleasure when asked to talk about him.

Still, though he was an exasperating emotional sinkhole, it doesn't seem to have been a matter of Townes actively causing hell in people's lives. He wasn't a malicious pot-stirrer. It seems instead to have been a matter of Townes being so monomaniacal about his music. Nothing else mattered to him. Once he took the artist's path, he no longer cared about normal things.

Artists come along who -- whether consciously or not -- are determined to go all the way with things. Some of them even have talent: Lord Byron, Jim Thompson, Chet Baker, Dylan Thomas ... Come to think of it, "Let's Get Lost," Bruce Weber's film about the cool-jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, has a melancholy similar to the melancholy in "Be Here to Love Me." Chet Baker cared about nothing -- or rather, he cared about nothing but music, girls, and good times. Where the rest of life was concerned, he was content to let everyone go to a lot of trouble for his sake.

shanemacgowanap.jpg chet baker color.jpg
Romantic ruins: Shane MacGowan, Chet Baker

I wrote here about yet another example: Shane MacGowan, the onetime lead singer of the Irish punk group The Pogues. Although he's still in his 40s, Shane is just barely alive. He's up and about, sort of, and he's much loved in Ireland, where he's treated as an elder statesman and a hero. But he has clearly suffered massive brain damage from the oceans of whiskey and buckets of heroin he did during his rock-star years. He's in worse shape in his 40s than many people in nursing homes are.

What are we more-cautious, more-sensible people to make of these talented, self-destructive artists? Though we should probably take care to warn kids away from such behavior, tut-tutting isn't going to keep such artists from coming along. And shouldn't we be honest? Sometimes their work can be head-turning in special and powerful ways. So should we be glad for their existence?

Still, isn't being moved by the work -- letting ourselves be touched by it -- a way of endorsing the behavior? Isn't there some danger that unstable people will hear our applause and commit to this kind of behavior themselves? On the other hand, is it possible to care about the arts yet cut yourself off from these kinds of artists -- and the experiences they create -- entirely?

I don't know about you, but I can spare a few tears for the likes of Chet, Shane, and Townes. I'm glad I haven't lived that way myself. (The few stretches when I tried to didn't result in anything to brag about anyway.) And I'm double-glad I wasn't personally close to them. But I still find them glorious. I love some of their work, and I feel a little ashamed, in a way I'm not proud of, that I'm not as devoted to art as they are. I mean, I am devoted to the arts. But I don't -- and I'm not able to -- live the whole art-thang out as thoroughly as they do.

With Shane MacGowan the damage is clearly self-inflicted. He made a choice to burn himself up with no regard for his safety or his future. That's his foolishness and his pride; he'd be angry if you didn't understand that. But how about Townes? Did he ever make a choice, or take responsibility for one? Was he even capable of such an action? After all, he really was crazy. So perhaps he was doing the best he could, and contributing all that he had to contribute. Yet, yet ...

Walking out of the movie, these were the topics The Wife and I were talking about: artists, romantic figures, crazy people ... The arts, dreams, desires ... What's the point of them? Like dreams, art can really tear you up. Yet it can deliver a lot too. How to take your dreams and your fantasies? What to make of the arts that move you? Is any kind of balance really possible in our relationship with our dreams, our fantasies, our desires, and with the arts? Or do we just reconcile ourselves as best we can?

If you respond to Townes the way that I do, you can listen to his music thinking, "That's what being alive is like." And isn't that, at the most basic level, what we turn to art for? Townes delivered that. But Townes also broke innocent hearts, and he punched holes in the lives of friends. Does the beauty he created justify the pain he inflicted? Was his complete dedication to the perfect song a blessing or a curse? And does his undeniable craziness change the moral equation in any way?

It's right that we were gabbing like this, because these are the questions that Margaret Brown wanted us walk out of her movie wrestling with. She wanted us to feel the tug of the beauty Townes created, to witness the pain Townes caused, and to ask a lot of questions that might not have good answers. Margaret Brown herself seems to have begun making her film wowed by the power of Townes' music, but she seems to have come away from her time on the project unsure whether the human cost that was paid was worth it. She was clearly knocked out by Townes' music; she was also just as clearly appalled by the emotional devastation Townes left behind him. Me, I'm not sure where I stand either. I do know that I'm glad I'm not Townes' kid.

  • If you want to sample the music of Townes Van Zandt, I like these three discs especially.

  • On this page, you can look at some pix of Townes, and download and play a freebie Real Player file of a live performance of "2 Girls."

  • You can listen to four Townes songs at this page.

  • Here's a Townes FAQ.

  • Here's the beautiful Townes Van Zandt Central, run by one of Townes' ex-wives, Jeanene.

  • I see that there's a book-biography of Townes being worked-on by John Kruth. Here's a lovely excerpt.

  • Here's the website for "Be Here to Love Me." If you want to see "Be Here to Love Me" at a theater, here are the dates.

  • James Szalapski's 1982 film "Heartworn Highways" is a lovely documentary about the hippie-country movement -- about alt-country before there was such a thing as alt-country. The film includes early footage of Guy Clark, Townes, and many others. You can buy it here; for some reason the viewer reviews (many of them very eloquent) are all here. Szalapski gave Brown permission to use some outtakes from his film in hers.

  • In this interview, Margaret Brown talks about how proud Texans are of Townes Van Zandt. A number of them (including the filmmaker Richard Linklater) helped her finance her film and get it made.

  • Here's a sad story about legal squabbles over Van Zandt's musical estate. Needless to say, Townes didn't care about business or financial matters and left it to others to deal with them. Here's another story about the mess.

  • Here's a long, rambling, and very late-in-the-day interview with Townes and Steve Earle.

I notice that the DVD of "Be Here to Love Me" is scheduled to come out in March '06. My advice: Wait for the DVD. Perhaps it will include extra material. And treat yourself to some Townes CDs, and to "Heartworn Highways" too.

Why not close with a quote from the man himself? Townes said this to one interviewer:

"My favorite fans are the ones who say some album or other saved 'em from suicide. That means it must have meant a lot to 'em in times of craziness. That's kinda nice."

I think it's kinda nice too.

Where do you come down on the romantic-self-destructive-artist question? Does their work ever get to you? And what do we make of them -- and how do we handle them -- as people?



posted by Michael at January 13, 2006


Wow, I only scanned this very long post, but the passage from Townes' son nails it. Some people can only access grace and beauty by illuminating it through art. That's why many, if not most, artists are fucked up. They can't experience that grace directly by living it, yet the need to touch it burns in all of us, so they approach it via the arts.

Posted by: the patriarch on January 13, 2006 4:31 PM

I had a dream recently in which I was rummaging around in the attic of an old house. Someone who was with me read from a yellowed piece of paper the phrase, "art is an ode to God". I took the note and saw that it actually read "art is the id of God". I guess what it means is that artists who don't dedicate their work to God will be consumed with the fire of His passion.

Posted by: Will on January 13, 2006 7:13 PM

Look. I like Van Zandt a lot, but I don't put him that far above or below a bunch of similar self-destructive musicians:Phil Ochs, Nick Drake, Judee Sill, Elliott Smith (all suicides, except Judee with an unclear overdose). I might put Gram Parsons in there, but Parsons always seemed to have a band, and I think those are a little different stories.

"Well, many of the songs, they aren't sad, they're hopeless" ...Townes.

Yeah. It's about despair. Obviously a lot of great art is created by healthy, happy, balanced people. There are Vermeers and Monets and there are Van Goghs. Maybe the one group gives us illusions and the other takes illusions away. I don't know why we are sometimes attracted to despair. I think Periclean Athens was a civilization of despair. Thucydides says the Athenians only wanted to say and act the truth. More self-destruction.

A few weeks ago, prompted by another post, I listened to Van Zandts first five albums straight thru. Just my impression, but it seemed familiar, yet not really country, or blues, or most singer/songwriter stuff. So I did some searching, and the closest feeling I got was the giant English folk revivalist, Martin Carthy, when he was doing the ancient laments, Child Ballad stuff. FWIW.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 13, 2006 7:30 PM

After Richard Pryor died, I caught an interview with him on the radio. It was from a few years back, when he was a;ready in bad shape, and he calmly recounted how, even after all his health problems, he kept doing drugs. When the interviewer asked him why he would do such a thing when he knew the problems it would cause, he just sighed and responded, "Ah, but you see, you're making sense. And nothing that I ever achieved in my life was done by making sense."

Posted by: jimbo on January 13, 2006 9:17 PM

In the late Fifties, my undergrad years, I was in theatre. It was the time of Beatniks, existential despair, black turtlenecks and romantic mental illness. One of the finest actresses in the drama program was victim of the last on that list and you never knew when she was really sick from when she was acting. She was beautiful and the acting was incandescent. She and her brilliant protective husband had a TV show for a while, a comedy. She's had a few parts since. Thanks to him, she has a family and a pretty good life.

But you can't make movies with people like that -- even when they're Marilyn Monroe. They're just too erratic and risky. Maybe the music biz can tolerate that more -- in fact, it seems as though it's expected.

My marriage -- well, the formal marriage was only part of it -- was the kind these ex-wives can tell about and I buy their books when I can. My own book -- the publisher's board is voting next Friday -- but sometimes the only thing that kept me surviving was the idea that some day I'd get a great book out of it. That and the rule never do to anything irreversible.

I think romanticizing this kind of turmoil and near insanity is VERY dangerous. Esp. in a free form environment or a cross-vector environment like a reservation. So far I've lost most of the students who showed real promise as writers. They didn't live long enough to really write anything. You can't tell me that great classical violinists or opera stars can carry on like this and still do their stuff. Maybe you caught the news report today of the guy who speed-skates (? maybe skiis?) while drunk? Thrilling they say. Worth his life? He must think so. The media loves it.

But I hate the drugged and captured option, too. And some things can be tamed no other way. I don't know the answer. A different culture, maybe, one that's a little more elastic but still clearly requires boundaries.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 13, 2006 11:52 PM

Beautiful post.

I must say, however, that as I've gotten older--hence, closer to my own end--the allure of self-destructiveness (even experienced via the arts) has diminished greatly. My own many idiotic habits are disturbing enough. I spend most of my music-listening time with Hadyn, possibly the least self-destructive artists in history (not that I ever noticed this before reading your post.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 13, 2006 11:53 PM

A beautiful post and a very nice tribute to Townes Van Zandt. I bought one of his CD's after hearing Nanci Griffith sing one of his songs, but I never really listened to it much. You've convinced me to dig it out and give it a serious listen.

I must say, though, that I come down on the anti-self-destructive side, too. I'm wary of the romanticizing of self-destruction that happens with some great artists, and I wonder about the suggestion that great work gets done *because* of the craziness. I think it sometimes gets done *despite* the chaos and craziness -- which is probably the case with Van Gogh, for instance. Friedrich mentioned Hadyn. I'll throw Bach in, as well. Is there any music which consists more of The Thing Itself than Bach's greatest pieces? Yet he was fairly staid, stable, almost craftsmanlike in his approach to his work.

Does Van Zandt's work justify the damage he did, especially to others? I don't think so; that is, if that damage *really was* the price he had to pay to create his art, I think he made the wrong decision. I make that judgment in ignorance of his art, but I think (maybe I'm deluding myself) I'd say that about any artist. The thing is, though, that it's only retrospectively -- it's only once a body of work has been created -- that we can consider such a question. The work already exists. The damage can't be undone.

Posted by: Kate Marie on January 14, 2006 1:51 AM

Michael, that was a lovely, even moving, post, and I want to thank you for it.

The quandary you pose is an ancient one. I wonder sometimes who has the 'best' life: Mozart; Salieri (I guess not, if 'Amadeus' is to be believed, but I do take joy myself when I think I can see Divinity shine through in others); or the ordinary Josef in the stalls who revels in a symphony, then steps out into the street and starts thinking he needs to get his brake fluid checked.

I was also pleased to see Kate mention Bach. Bach, of course, was famously devout. If the 'it' you talk about, Michael, really is a taste of the divine breaking through, then how doubly blessed Bach was. He looked on God's face, and beheld Him eye to eye, if for however briefly. It seems to me sometimes that tormented artists such as Van Zandt see God's face, too, but for whatever reason, it's always turned away.

Posted by: mr tall on January 14, 2006 4:46 AM

I think that you're reading into the photo. Old Townes didn't look that bad.

On the question, I think that in our society the job of the artist is bad enough that the people who take it are the ones who for some reason don't have other options. I worked on the staff of a medical school / research university for decades, and lots of the MD's, PhD's, and students had talent in writing and especially music. But they wanted to have a normal income and raise a family, and they had the option of being doctors.

But some talented musicians can't do anything else, not necessarily because they're fucked up -- maybe they don't do well in a classroom or in a bureaucratic environement. And then, the typical musician's lifestyle and earning power won't make anyone any less fucked up.

I think that there's a sort of mirroring. Eventually the fucked-up musicians end up expression their own feelings, but also the unhappiness of the professionals who wish that they could have become musicians. It's like somewhere in the middle there's the hypothetical happy, successful, unfucked-up musician who's doing what he loves to do, but that this guys hardly ever exists.

Musicians with a business sense who are willing to work like businesspersons can do OK. Strange as it may seem, two of the best examples are Frank Zappa and Ani di Franco.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 14, 2006 12:04 PM

Actually, the Grateful Dead had a viable business plan too. Most musicians want other people to do the business end, which is one of the main reasons they do so poorly. Even Billy Joel, who sounds street-smart, got ripped of for most of his loot. So did Leonard Cohen.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 14, 2006 4:44 PM

A true story. I sang Pancho and Lefty to little kids at bedtime a couple of times. My oldest one was about five at the time. I finished the song and he burst into tears and said "don't sing that one again. I don't know what it's about but it's too sad."

The links to the top 3 albums don't work. I'd like to get your recommendations, so I hope you fix that.

Posted by: Lexington Green on January 14, 2006 10:11 PM

Of course mental health or a lack thereof has nothing to do with talent or artistry (not that you were suggesting otherwise). It's very difficult, though, for a happy or satisfied person, or just a person with an orderly life, to attach themselves to their art with the doggedess and intensity required for real accomplishment. That's why train wrecks are over represented in the arts. In a way, a guy like Wallace Stevens is the real miracle.

Posted by: Sluggo on January 14, 2006 11:43 PM

Sluggo, what I'm saying I that that's only true recently and hasn't always been true. Historically there have been a lot more Wallace Stevens types out there.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 15, 2006 8:09 AM

I'm troubled by self-destructive, so-called "artists." Being a "child" of the sixties I became aware of many creative people who opted to fall into the cauldron of substance abuse. Adolescent stupidity, as I look upon it now; criminal behavior on the margins, if you will. In a case such a you describe, you place yourself "out there," in a sense, by giving Mr. Van Zandt a pass because he was a creative sort; a very troubled one, too. Well, perhaps, you may be more tolerant than most. As far as I can tell I'd not care to bother with spending time listening to anything this chap had to say. He was a tremendous waste and an obvious, slothful, parasite. Surely, if you spoke to all the folks he "touched," they'd probably agree --- with honest, soulful reflection. In reality, who in there correct mind would have time to deal with oafs of this caliber? People who find them charming or unique or different? Talented --- in a stretch of imagination???? As I see it, a person with head problems who seeks solace with substances and dumps on acquaintances, as a matter of course, isn't worth the cost of the shoes he chooses to wear. Mr. Van Zandt squandered any smidgen of talent he may've thought he had. Playing three chords on a guitar and chirping a tune or two doesn't exactly meet a standard of excellence. --- Nor would it ever qualify to encroach upon the little time that remains for me on this troubled planet.

Posted by: Patrick on January 16, 2006 11:35 AM

I think John Emerson nailed it.

Posted by: jult52 on January 17, 2006 9:28 AM

Thank you for warning me away from Van Zandt. I'll take Neil Young, thanks. At least he values his own life.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on January 17, 2006 3:40 PM

When you choose to listen to someone's music you're not voting on his or her personal character. Robert and Patrick's little rants are silly.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 17, 2006 8:27 PM

Ye gads, Patrick, you may be right about the gentleman's behavior, but if you refuse to listen to his work because you disapprove of his "slothful" ways, the loss is all yours. Inspite of his failings at everything else, Townes Van Zandt wrote several records (now CDs) worth of beautiful songs.

Posted by: Flannery on February 9, 2006 7:25 AM

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