Omaha Rainbow : Issue 15

TOWNES VAN ZANDT (continued)

Having been built up for the benefit of, and to some extent by, Easterners (and that includes Chicago), Colorado sometimes seems to have more than its share of places that won't tolerate anybody bringing in shit on their boots.  The night I saw Townes Van Zandt play in Denver, there was a good looking girl in the audience wearing a black cowboy hat and about fifteen other people without hats.  The girl was evidently pretty loaded and she became a kind of sympathetic heckler.  Everybody else had assumed a conventional coffee house, stone-faced posture, and she was giving them hell about it.  She'd lean back in her chair and say, "What's wrong with everybody?  Am I the only one that's drunk in here?  How come it's so quiet?"  And she'd shout out encouragement and approval right in the middle of a tune.  Townes, rather than take offence seemed to think she had the right idea and he'd nod and talk to her between tunes.

But it wasn't one of Townes' best nights, and as the evening went on, the band got worse and Townes started
looking a little put out.  The girl got hooked on one line, which I don't think she was aiming at Townes, but which he couldn't have appreciated, "Is the Cruise Room still open?" she kept saying, referring to the bar next door. It was after she'd started saying this that Townes tried to do a couple of fiddle tunes, but he couldn't get the fiddle to do what he wanted it to.  So he threw it down on the stage, jumped up in the air and came down on it with both feet.  The fifteen people without hats sat very still with their mouths open, but the girl in the black cowboy hat nearly fell out of her chair laughing.  Townes went into another song as if nothing had happened.

I've been to places where that could have gone down and nobody would have noticed.  Or if anyone had, they'd have thought it was part of the act.  Or maybe they'd have said, "Well, you know, every now and then Townes gets a little crazy."  But the handful of people in the audience that was stunned; except for the girl in the black hat.

That's when I should have made my move, because I figure if I could ever have gotten her away from the bars, we'd have wound up in some flea bag motel in South Santa Fe.  And South Santa Fe Drive is one of my favourite spots in Colorado.  It is bordered by the Platte River and the railroad tracks, and made up mainly of run down motels, and cheap all night gas stations.  Now and then there's a junk yard or liquor store or cafe, and there's one landfill operation that runs off into the Platte.  And since the obscenity law in Colorado was ruled unconstitutional, there are two bottomless joints.  I've had nightmares about living in one of those motels - they all rent rooms by the week- and looking through a dirty linen curtain at the rush hour traffic around twilight on a winter evening.  Nightmares, I think, because it has a strange attraction for me.

Every now and then we all get a little crazy, which for me is unusually just a matter of getting bored with being comfortable.  Getting drunk isn't a bad way to deal with it because you rarely get so crazy that you can't get back the next day, but sometimes it's not enough and that can lead to finding yourself on a kitchen floor in the 20th century holding off vigilantes, or on a stage in front of a handful of people stomping the shit out of a fiddle. So if ole Townes kept backsliding into town and the drinking he found there, and if the lady in the black cowboy hat seemed overly concerned about the Cruise Room being still open, I figure it's because they knew about
those cold twilights, and I knew that cities and whiskey were the best ways anybody has figured out how to fight them off.  And if I felt lonesome out there near Creede on the site of that old silver camp, if I had no trouble getting into the skins of those ghosts that were walking around out there, it was because I could see those lights in the valley, and they looked so frail.

The Legend Returns
Townes Van Zandt

I kind of moved to Nashville to get my songs heard and recorded by other artists.  I lived in Austin, not this past winter but the winter before, which was the first place I've lived for ten years.  I found an old lady and kind of decided she should have some kind of home base instead of couches and suitcases.  Lived there and worked out of there.  This is the first summer in about eight years I haven't lived out in the wilderness areas up in Colorado on horseback.  I'd plan my gigs to finish on June 1st.  Go over there and pick up my horses and head on into the mountains and not come out till the last of August.

It's kind of hard to carry a guitar, but I'd get a whole bunch of ideas and come back and write them all that Fall. I kind of consider myself as from there.  The Government has big tracts of land up there.  You go through the gates and you can't cut down live trees, you can't shoot animals out of season, that's it.  Just pack up your horses and up into the mountains.  This will be the first time in a long time I haven't done it.  My wife's a good horsewoman and started doing that with me.  The first time we were up there, we had a lot of time to think.  We decided we were gonna move to Austin, which we did, and then play gigs.  Then we went back up there a year ago and decided when we came down we'd move to Nashville and try to get some songs recorded.  Get the business end of it right, because up till a year ago I'd been on the road playing.  It's still what I'm doing, but to have money coming in the mail box is a real treat.

My address is Franklin.  We decided, kind of automatically, that we wouldn't live in town because I don't think I'll ever live in town again.  We went to Nashville and it turned out that all of our friends and a bunch of people that we knew had been looking for a country place - everybody.  They had all been looking for years and we thought, 'Oh, we'll never find one.'  As it turned out, in about four days after we got there we found this 800 acre place for 30 dollars a month.  Wood stove and an outhouse.  It was real cold last winter.  The fuel is wood and for a month or two 80% of my energy went into wood.  I had dreams about wood at night.  We have electricity and
running water, sometimes, but no insulation.  One other guy that we're good friends with lives on it: we're kind of co-caretakers when I'm there.  It's real pretty, it's not like living in Nashville, and it's only sixteen or seventeen miles away.  It's real easy to go in everyday, but you're not in the smog, you're just not in the city.

Townes Van ZandtWhen Guy first moved to Nashville and we were all hanging out together, we had a friend named Bronco
Newcombe who ran a stables in Aspen.  When I would come into Aspen from out of the mountains on horseback, I'd put my horses up in his stables.  During the winter Bronco would live in Nashville and write songs and play, so he became a good friend of Dennis's.  We were all, like, one big group of guys.

Dennis got a job out there at the stables the last summer he was alive, and that was the year before my old lady started going with me, so it was just me and a horse.  I ended up kind of living up on the hill above the stables with Dennis in a tent, taking care of the horses.  One of the last songs he wrote was called 'Timber Line' about the general ideas .....he was gonna blow everything off and head for the timber line.  He never did make it because he had to work at the stable and play bass for Bronco on Monday night at the Holiday Inn in Aspen.  I tried to get him to go a few times.  I'd be leaving on a trip and pack up a horse, he'd ride me up the road aways where it turned into a trail and then he'd always have to turn around.

Townes Van ZandtOther times we'd take our pack horses up to this particular place and go for a ride with tourists all around us. He'd meet us at this placed after an hour's ridin'.  By that time we'd have a fire going and everything.  We'd tie up the horses and wander around.  The whole time Dennis would be hunkering down over the fire flipping flapjacks and eggs, looking like he came right off the range for 80 years, and that was the first year ever he'd ride a horse.  It was real fun.  He used to look like being in the movies because of the camp cooking.  Really insane.

That was the last summer I saw him.  He had a heart malfunction that he died from, and he knew he had it but he didn't take care, didn't do anything about it. He was, I think, two years younger than I was and he looked, maybe, ten years older.  He was 6'11" and weighed about 140 pounds, so his legs were like that, real skinny.
He had the same bone condition that Abraham Lincoln had, where there's kind of an elongation of the bone, which I'm sure is the only thing he and Abraham Lincoln had in common.  Though he knew he had this bad heart disease he kept playing bass and drinking, a little cocaine every so often, weed and cigarettes.  He died onstage playing bass.  He passed away about October, I think, of that year after we'd spent that summer in the mountains.  I was in Texas somewhere and somebody called me up and told me.

Right after that his mom put together a collection of his songs, because he wrote about ten really good songs, and he wrote a bunch of poetry as well.  She got all that from going through his effects, and put them all together in this little book.  I can't remember what it's called but it's really nice.  It was published locally, a real thin paperback poetry book type deal.  She's got a couple of songs in there like Patrick Sky's 'Many a Mile,' and the foreward is the verse out of Guy's song, "Here's to you old skinny Dennis/The only one I think I will miss/ I can hear your bassman singin'/Sweet and low like a gift you're bringing/Play it for me one more time now/I believe
everything you're sayin'/Just you keep on keep on playin'.

Everybody in Nashville loves Guy Clark.  It's the way he is, he's so sincere 'n' all and so straight ahead.  The people in Nashville are real suspective .... they're rednecks - real nice rednecks - but rednecks most of them. Put a whole lot of value on 100% sincerity and manners, courtesy to ladies, all that, and Guy's naturally that way.  I've never met anybody that didn't like him.

That story Rodney Crowell told you about Dennis visiting after he died, the only people there were Susanna and I.  We were talking about Dennis, and this was the year after that song and it was Christmas, so it was December.  All of a sudden, without any wind or anything else, the screen door opened.  It was the middle of the night, one or two o'clock.  To open the latch had to turn.  The latch turned, the screen door opened about this far, and then closed.  My wife had already gone to bed, so had Guy; Susanna and I were just talking about Dennis and that happened.  We made a little joke about it being Dennis.  Said, "Why don't you take a seat Dennis?" Pointed to the rocking chair, and the rocking chair moved!  Then my hair just went whew!!!  Then Susanna said, "Well, Dennis, it's real good to have you visit, but there's no extra beds.  I guess you'll have to go sleep in the car."  The rocking chair went again, the door opened .....

Susanna and I were both stone sober. The first night Cindy and I arrived the four of us had stayed up and
talked all night.  This was the second night, and you know how if you have a few drinks over a period of time you get real sober.  That's the condition we were in and we both saw it, both saw all that happened, and I just kind of blew it.  I don't think about it.

Right now John Lomax and I are real serious about my music career.  We got together and decided to build a
music empire.  I've never been close enough to fame to have to resist it.  I started with a company that made
beautiful records, but couldn't get their distribution together, and had zero promotion.  Still, during the low points and everything else, the one thing I've done is play - sing and play guitar for a living.  I've never gotten any money from records, or my songs.  I've gotten advances from ASCAP, but they eventually take that back, so I'm only up to even right now.  So far, I've lost 461 dollars in everything but playing my guitar into a microphone.

It'll be fun to make the next record.  Just as soon as we get the deal we're working on we'll start at the first opportunity.  I've got enough new songs and all.  It looks more like a Los Angeles crew than a Nashville crew.  A lot of people come to Nashville and try to get something other than country, and they're not taking advantage of what's here.  It isn't going to be straight country at all, so I guess Los Angeles is the place to go.  People have tried to put a tag on my music but it hasn't stuck.  It's not really country and it's not really anything - it's not top 40, for sure!  I always call it folk music because live I play alone, but on records it's different. I do have two friends in Texas I play with sometimes, that's Mickey White and Rex Bell.  They're called the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys.  We've done a lot of shows together, but putting a band together is a whole big sweat.  I don't like
playing big places.  I played a college festival in Ohio with 18,000 and I just couldn't generate enough energy to fill the place.  There is a certain size that is just big enough.  One person alone can end up screaming their brains out.

The Tomato record is a double album made up of four or five nights at the Old Quarter in Houston in July '73.
Me and a guy named Earl Willis carried his Teac down there every night and did the whole deal ourselves.  I kind of forgot all about them.  Then Kevin Eggers took the tapes to a studio at Lima, Ohio, and came out with the record.  It's OK.  That's what went down and it's good to have.

Getting that record out on Tomato meant to me that all the mire that the business end of my career got wedged
into was finally evaporating.  I was out of the chute on a brand new horse, right?  With that album and the songs I'll be cutting on the next record, well, something's gotta give, and it ain't gonna be me.  The way I feel about it is, my part of this whole scheme is just to hit whatever particular note feels right in that particular moment.  Try to do what I can with my voice, and after that happens, well the rest of it is just beyond me.  Whatever happens.....happens!

Townes Van Zandt has every right to be bitter, but he isn't.  He's gentle, unassuming and friendly.  After the
interview he apologised for not being very lucid and hoped I could find something to use.  Having assured him of my own personal satisfaction at the way it had gone, I told him I had heard he had once killed a bear with his own hands ..... "That was a rumour that I started.  Someone called me one morning when I was staying in Colorado. My friend, Norman, woke me up and said there was a journalist on the phone.  I'd just woken up and felt goofy, so I told him I was the local hero 'cos I'd killed a rabid bear.  It was 100% bullshit."

I figure Townes treated me more kindly.  My thanks to him, to John Lomax for his help and hospitality, and to Cindy and Geraldine for waiting so patiently for us to finish.

Townes Van Zandt has recorded eight albums, six coming out on the Poppy label in America, one that never got
released and is now tied up legally, and the most recent being a live double onTomato Records, released four years after it was recorded in 1973.  Townes' albums are not the easiest to find, though vast quantities of "High, Low and In Between" have recently appeared in the cut-out lists on both sides of the Atlantic.  The Tomato album is available from GI Records and Harlequin in Dean Street, London, to name just two outlets.  I'm sure there are a lot more.  "The Late, Gat Townes Van Zandt" was released in the UK by United Artists on UAS29422, so you will find copies around.  The remainder are more difficult.  With the help of Bob Westfall in Fairport, New York, I have
got them all except the third one, "Townes Van Zandt."  Tracking them down is well worth the effort, so here is
a discography.  Numbers listed are for US releases.

1968 "For the Sake of a Song: Poppy PYS-40,001
For the sake of song/Tecumseh Valley/Many a fine
lady/Quicksilver dreams of Maria/Waitin' around to
die/ I'll be there in the morning/Sad Cinderella/The
velvet voices/Talkin' karate blues/ All your young
servants/Sixteen summers, fifteen falls.

1969 "Our Mother the Mountain" Poppy PYS-40,004
Be here to love me/Kathleen/She came and she touched
me/Like a summer Thursday/Our Mother the mountain/
Second Lovers song/Saint John the gambler/Tecumseh
Valley/Snake Mountain blues/My proud mountains/Why
she's acting this way.

1970 "Townes Van Zandt" Poppy PYS-40,007
For the sake of a song/Columbine/Waitin' around to
die/Don't you take it too bad/Colorado girl/Lungs/I'll
be here i the morning/Fare thee well, Miss Carousel/
Quicksilver daydreams of Maria/None but the rain.

1971 "Delta Momma Blues" Poppy PYS-40,012
FFV/Delta Mama Blues/Only him or me/Turnstyled,
junkpiled/Tower song/Come tomorrow/Brand new
companion/Where I lead me/Rake/Nothin'.

"High, Low and In Between" PoppyPYS-5700
Two hands/You are not needed now/Greensboro' woman/
Highway kind/Standin'/No deal/To live's to fly/When he
offers his hand/Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud/Blue Ridge
Mountains/High, low and in between.

1973 "The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt" Poppy LA004-F
No lonesome tune/Sad Cinderella/German mustard/Don't
let the sunshine fool you/Honky tonkin'/Snow don't
fall/Fraulein/Pancho and Lefty/If I needed you/Silver
ships of Andilar/Heavenly houseboat blues.

1977 "Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas" Tomato
Pancho and Lefty/Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold/Don't you take it
too bad/Two girls/Fraternity blues/If I needed you/
Brand new companion/White freight liner blues/To live
is to fly/She came and she touched me/Talking
thunderbird blues/Rex's blues/Nine pound hammer/For
the sake of a song/Chauffer's blues/No place to fall/
Loretta;Kathleen;Why she's acting this way/Cocaine
blues/Who do you love/Tower song/Waitin' around to
die/Tecumseh Valley/Lungs/Only him or me.

A Townes Van Zandt fan club is run by manager, John Lomax, and if you'd like to become a member and receive all sorts of information on a regular basis, send 3 dollars if you live in the United States, 5 dollars for Canada, 10 dollars the rest of the universe, to John Lomax, Box 12542, Nashville, Tennessee 37212, United States of America.  Letters to Townes himself may also be sent to that address.  The very latest newsletter, which arrived only yesterday, has the news that Tomato Records plan to re-release three of those rare Poppy albums.  "Our Mother the Mountain", "Townes Van Zandt" and "Delta Momma Blues".

In the works is a song book, "For the Sake of the Song", which will be published by Wings Press of Houston, Texas.  More information through Omaha Rainbow as it becomes available.  I'm sure Compendium will be
stocking it.

Crimson Productions of New York City have recently released a feature film, "New Country", in selected
mid-western cities.  There have been a couple of press showings in London, neither of which I saw, and it doesn't look as if there are any immediate plans for general distribution.  The film ..... "presents an incisive look at a lot of the new artists making noise in country and rock.  Stars such as Charlie Daniels, Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, Barefoot Jerry, Larry Jon Wilson and Steve Young share the spotlight with Townes."  Talking to Richard about the film, Townes said ....."Have you seen the movie that I think is dedicated to Dennis?  I haven't seen it either. We did it last year, a year ago last winter.  They just came and filmed us for a couple of days and it all happened at the same time as I started a big gig in Austin where we lived for a time.  It was winter and they wanted to have a Seymour style barbecue where we lived, Seymour's house being famous for barbecues.  He's this old black man, he was 82 at the time, and a real ham.  A couple of friends and I tried to get a fire going.  There were people driving past looking at us like we were nuts."


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