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Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, and the Blues

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The first feature film on the life of Townes Van Zandt is look into the darkness of his genius, a celebration of his music, and a study in entropy.

Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, and the Blues

The view through a car windshield speeds by, passing down roads and fields, cutting to blurry images of green foliage. Sounding from the car radio an interview begins, and a man sings lines to a new song he has written and declares, “My life will run out before my work. I designed it that way.” These opening scenes of Be Here to Love Me, Margaret Brown’s biopic on the life and music of Townes Van Zandt, seem to place the viewer in a memory, as a passenger on a half-forgotten journey, hearing words that, even at the time of their saying, seem prophetic.

To call Townes Van Zandt a tragic figure is an understatement; widely considered one of America’s finest songwriters, and commercially ignored during his lifetime, Van Zandt’s story has reached mythic proportions among musicians and music fans alike. Whether or not Be Here to Love Me is an attempt to “set the records straight,” it is unflinching in both it’s portrayal of Van Zandt’s hard-living tendencies and its celebration of his genius. It is also a fine study in the nature of entropy as it relates to a musician’s life, topped with the pressures of middle class, postwar family life.

Within the first few minutes of the film, a clip from Van Zandt’s appearance on “Nashville Now” finds a visibly uneasy Van Zandt discussing his status as a “cult figure” to an equally uneasy host. Lamenting the difficulty of fans finding his releases, Van Zandt jokes, “My wife and mother have them all,” to which the host replies, “And they’re selling them out of a truck in the parking lot?” “I certainly hope not!” Van Zandt scoffs, either missing or trying to one-better the host’s joke.

This uncomfortable exchange is immediately contrasted with the first appearance of Guy Clark, a close friend and fellow musician, who starts off with a tequila-shot “toast” to Townes, followed by words of remembrance that could easily have been an ode to a loved one or family member. “I saw him when he was perfect,” Clark reminisces, near tears. His personal relationship to Townes and his music versus the public’s reception, in the form of the show host, sets up an important dynamic that works throughout Be Here: personal vs. public reception of an artist who refused to make a distinction between a personal and public personna.

In footage from 1974 that could be either from personal home-movies or professional publicity, a noticeably drunk Townes stands with a rifle under his arm, a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and a Coca-Cola in the other, in front of a trailer that is his home. It is a scene of backwoods America, of poverty, glorified in the sense of pride Van Zandt displays. His girlfriend, when asked how it is living with Townes, mumbles, “It’s okay.... he likes animals.” Inside the trailer Townes plays a song to the assorted visitors, as confident and intense as if he were on stage. It is a striking scene and amazing live footage, particularly when, late in the movie, it is reprised, and focus shifts to an old man standing in the kitchen, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Much of Van Zandt’s musing in Be Here is on the blues. Professing love for blues great Lightnin’ Hopkins on several occasions, as well as covering his songs, Van Zandt is firmly entrenched in it’s mythos. Early footage of Townes as a child, circa 1947, attests to his upper-middle class upbringing, about which his sister claims, “It bothered him that he didn’t grow up hungry.” Van Zandt’s struggle to appropriate a down-and-out life-style is well documented in footage of his bare-bones accommodations, to which visiting musicians show surprise, and his worshipping of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ habits: “He would drink a quart of gin a night,” marvels Van Zandt in a telling scene. Rather than just sing the blues, Van Zandt tried to live the blues, renouncing his family and middle-class privilege. As a viewer, it is hard to sympathize with, yet Be Here manages to draw the viewer in enough to find some sort of guilty appreciation for Townes’ life as an extension of his art, becoming the personna his music reveled in.

It is in college that Townes discovers Hopkins, locking himself in his room for days on end in order to listen to him. This is also the time Van Zandt discovers drugs: initially sniffing glue, and later escalating far beyond. Be Here makes sure to discuss Townes’ decision to fall backward off a 4-story balcony, one of his more infamous anecdotes. With scenes of the very balcony Townes plunged from, the viewer is given another car radio interview with Van Zandt calmly discussing his, by most rational accounts, insane decision. Again it is rendered memory, albeit a physical one in which Townes swears he can remember exactly how his 4-story fall felt.

All of this framing leads to perhaps the most influential period of Van Zandt’s life. Based on his reckless behavior, Townes is given shock therapy for 3 months, being diagnosed as “suicidal.” Throughout the film Van Zandt is very upfront about discussing a number of issues most professional artists would refrain from: drug use, family problems, etc. However, no footage is shown of Townes directly discussing his shock therapy. Instead, we are shown a friend who underwent the same “treatment,” claiming that the end result was childhood-memory loss. A devastating circumstance for anyone, and one that undoubtedly informed the sorrow in Van Zandt’s music.

Van Zandt’s descent into drugs and alcohol inevitably take center stage toward the middle of the film. First hand accounts of losing teeth, shooting up bourbon and cola, not to mention heroin, may seem to overshadow the exceptional live footage dug up for the film. However, it is probably more correct to see these sordid exploits as informing his music, as they threatened to overtake his musical life at their most extreme moments. When not breathtaking, the live footage is awkward: Townes walking off stage in a drunken haze, rambling about microwave breakfasts.

Drugs and alcohol ultimately did Van Zandt in, and heartbreaking audio recordings from his (aborted) final sessions with Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelly do nothing to hide the complete mess he became. Be Here is not a story of redemption, yet many of the people Townes wronged in one way or another find a way to forgive in the film, whether by placing importance on a makeshift gift (Shelly) or a morning-ritual apology for the night before (Townes’ son JT).

Be Here manages this balance very well. In spite of all the drugs, the shirking of responsibilities, the family (families) abandonment, the talent, vision, and honesty of Van Zandt ultimately shine through. Early on, Townes says, in a moment of clarity, “I can do this, but it’s going to take blowing everything off.” Be Here’s appeal to entropy, of letting everything go to chaos to achieve artistic purity, goes beyond the tragic artist cliché to portray Townes Van Zandt as an artist working within a belief system established by musicians struggling with racial and economic hardships, quietly resigning himself to nuclear family life, and failing. The extensive interviews with Van Zandt’s three families show wives, sons, and a daughter resigning themselves to the memory of Townes: the good and the bad. It is as if the viewer is invited into Van Zandt’s extensive family, given insight into his creative process as well as his darker moments. It is sobering, slightly disenchanting, but ultimately enlightening.

It’s easy to condemn those who renounce their privilege, yet the scope of work Van Zandt was able to achieve while confusing musical role models with life role models is awe inspiring. Anyone who has heard Van Zandt’s music likely feels the “hopelessness,” as he calls it, in his songs, and Be Here does a superb job in framing, portraying, and ultimately overcoming the social and personal demons that Townes wore on his sleeve.

By Jon Pitt

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