Townes Van Zandt died on January 1, 1997, at the age of 52, exactly 44 years to the day that one of his greatest influences in music, Hank Williams, died.
Van Zandt seems to me to have been a trapped man. What I mean is that he was this one odd thing, while the world wanted something else, something more polished, something ideal, or at the very least, something familiar, something they could get a handle on.
He was boxed in, imprisoned in a kind of psychological Alcatraz. He was trapped by others' expectations, the terrible darkness his manic visions showed him, the poetry his genius gave him to express those visions, and by his own very human weaknesses and dependencies.
He was born into an old and influential and relatively wealthy Texas family. He was very smart and they imagined he could be a lawyer or possibly a senator. But Van Zandt seemed to spend his life trying to create an identity that was as far removed from that as possible. He became the stranger. The down and out-outsider. A guy on the edge of the abyss. An alcoholic. A veteran of one too many mornings in rehab. A strung out addict, who two years before he died, rode an old 1984 Honda Shadow motorcycle or drove around in an even older Jimmy pickup.
When he began his career in music in the mid '60s, he played in the Jester's Lounge in Houston, doing covers of Bob Dylan songs as well as covers of songs originated by bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. But thanks to a meeting with Mickey Newbury, he ended up in Nashville in 1968 where musician and producer Cowboy Jack Clement began to try and fit him into the country niche, both as a writer and as a performer.
You've read the words to his songs. You've heard Van Zandt sing. Did he sound like any country singer in the late '60s, early '70s? Did he sound or act like Jimmy Dean, for example? Did he write like Dallas Frazier, for example? Jimmy Dean had some big '60s hits and a TV show and he did a lot for country music in that decade. But Van Zandt wasn't that kind of guy. Frazier wrote some great tunes in that era, but can you even use the word "tune" to describe a song like "Tecumseh Valley?"
After high school Van Zandt's family had wanted him to go to college. He went. But, worried about his binge drinking and depression, they brought him home in the spring of his sophomore year and put him in the hospital where he received three months of insulin shock therapy. This "therapy" put a patient in daily comas over several weeks. Van Zandt lost all his childhood memories as a result.
Van Zandt was manic depressive, or as it's sometimes labeled, bi-polar. He also had tremendous poetic and verbal skills which he employed as he tried to write himself out of those terrible dark places the manic episodes many times took him to. You can hear the ache in the words and in his voice as he sings about the darkness his illness helped him see. It's not imagined, it's a very real darkness most of us are too busy or "sane" to see. Facing that terror, and making art out of it, is a most noble and courageous human endeavor. But it doesn't ultimately lead to the solution of the problem. When the song is finished and the ink has dried on the paper, for a manic depressive the big Shadow still looms down the hall.
"No Place to Fall" was apparently written in or before 1973 when it was recorded on the "Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas" album. According to Wiki, the "Old Quarter" album wasn't released until 1977 and in the next year, the song also became part of the 1978 album "Flyin' Shoes."
In an earlier Van Zandt post I used Nanci Griffiths version of his "Techumseh Valley," called by some "the saddest song ever written." The song tells of a poor young woman who came over the hill from Spencer down into Tecumseh Valley. Her Pa had told her to find a job and make enough to buy some coal to bring back. But things didn't work out for her. Her Pa died and she chose a life on the streets. In time she was crushed by that life. Here's a couple of verses near the end.
She saved enough to get back home
When spring replaced the winter
But her dreams were denied, her Pa had died
The word come down from Spencer
She turned to whorin' out on the streets
With all the lust inside her
It was many a man returned again
To lay himself beside her
This version is by Van Zandt himself. As you listen, look into the poet's eyes. That's the Shadow reflected there.
Van Zandt might make art out of the Shadow, but his eyes also tell you that making that poem, making art won't be the end of the battle. The Shadow ain't goin' nowhere.
But the eyes also tell you that making art ain't the same as running. As a matter of fact, making art is one way of taking a stand against the darkness. I'm glad some of us have the courage to do that.
Note: this post is also posted on Country Dirt.