The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt
by John Kruth
Townes Van Zandt died young at 52, but he was lucky to have made it past 30. The subtitle of John Kruth’s biography refers to a 1973 album, “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt,” which got its’ title from the time in 1972 that the singer clinically died – twice – after a heroin overdose.
“Many thought Townes’ excessive behavior was deliberate,” writes Kruth, but the Texas songwriter “believed he couldn’t write with validity without firsthand experience … it was hypocritical to sing the blues if you haven’t lived them.”
Through the recollections of Van Zandt’s friends and acquaintances, John Kruth’s biography paints a vivid portrait of a troubled, gifted artist who never achieved the level of personal success he deserved. His songs, said one friend, “stick in your mind like burned beans to a Crock-Pot.”
“If you say Buddy Holly is the father of Texas rock,” says Michael Murphey, “the you have to say that Townes is the father of Texas folk.”
Sadly, Van Zandt’s own records didn’t sell well, a fact Kruth attributes to poor management and the singer’s lack of creative control in the studio. Over the course of his career, Van Zandt re-recorded many of his best songs, both live and in the studio, trying and failing to get the perfect take. Often, says Kruth, excellent work was obliterated by overdubbing.
It wasn’t until tunes like “Poncho and Lefty,” “Tecumseh Valley” and “If I Needed You” were covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan that the world outside Texas began to notice Townes Van Zandt. In death, his reputation as the best songwriter to ever come out of Texas is undisputed.
Kruth’s book is hamstrung a bit by its’ hagiographic nature, conflicting memories and the absence of some key voices. Susannah Clark is working on her own book, so the author had to rely on a few quotes from other sources to communicate her close friendship with Van Zandt.
Some of Van Zandt’s close friends were reluctant to speak with Kruth, a fact used to entertaining effect in an exchange with Guy Clark (married to Susannah). Before agreeing to talk, the songwriter grills him mercilessly, phoning Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in an attempt to call his bluff. “Jack, I got this little Yankee journalist here who says he knows you,” sneers Clark, then hands the phone to Kruth.
There are festering rivalries between many of the principles that leave the reader wondering about the real stories at the heart of the book. Longtime manager Kevin Eggers and Townes’ third wife Jeanene Van Zandt, for example, had a bitter relationship before and after the singer’s death.
Often, each reports a different version of events, forcing intermediaries to provide clarity for certain incidents. Engineer Eric Paul stood between the two while trying to mix a 1990 session using a group of backing vocalists that Jeanene termed “cheesy” and Eggers likened to Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires.
“I did my best!” says the exasperated Paul, who claims that Van Zandt was “quite proud” of the finished work..
The author attempts to solve the problem of multiple recollections by introducing an abundance of voices to Van Zandt’s narrative. This is a problem. As Kruth notest early on, “Townes was everyone’s best friend.” Often, the telling of a single story resembles a gaggle of hung-over drunks trying to explain the events at last night’s party.
That’s a challenging task for the best of writers, let alone an unabashed fan who’s given the singer’s widow “my guarantee that I wasn’t out to lionize her husband for all the wrong reasons.” Any honest biography would suffer from such stipulations.
Still, “To Live’s To Fly” managers to ably gather the threads of Townes’ Van Zandt’s life. But Kruth can’t avoid, as he puts it, “glorifying tragedy.” He’s writing about a subject whose best work was at times utterly morbid, and who wrote lines like “the end is coming soon it’s plain/and a warm bed just ain’t worth the pain (“Tower Song”).
“Townes was a sad soul,” says friend Eric Anderson. “You know how Rolling Stone rates new albums with stars? Well, if a song was really depressing, we’d give it ten razor blades.”
It’s hard to find the silver lining in those words . Says Kevin Eggers, Townes Van Zandt “worked at being a tragedy. That was his full-time occupation.”