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Playing possum with Townes Van Zandt

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Dusted's Brandon Bussolini looks for signs of life in four Townes Van Zandt reissues.

Playing possum with Townes Van Zandt

It's hard to overstate the case for Townes Van Zandt's music, if only because the man himself was so low-key about it. The 2004 biopic Be Here to Love Me doesn’t want for attempts (Guy Clark’s comment that Van Zandt was a better songwriter than Dylan is the film’s best-known example), but it’s easily the most understated of a triumvirate of recent rock hagiographies, of which Jandek on Corwood (2003) and The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2005) are the chronological bookends.

Relying slightly (and pointedly) more on archival footage than the latter and avoiding the former’s speculation-as-content device, Be Here to Love Me is a product and agent of renewed interest from an indie-reared generation. In comparison to the above subjects, Van Zandt comes off as gregarious and affable interview subject, though he likewise has a sort of symbolic autonomy from his surroundings that makes him appear oblivious to his audience’s expectations. Though Van Zandt’s music had by far the most commercial appeal of the three documentary subjects, it’s exactly this sense of autonomy that makes his music and his career trajectory resonate.

In response to this renewed interest, Fat Possum has generously reissued four of his albums: a string of three early releases, starting with sophomore LP Our Mother the Mountain, and followed by Townes Van Zandt and Delta Momma Blues (all originally released by Poppy Records, in 1969, 1970, and 1971 respectively) and Flyin’ Shoes (originally released in 1978 by Tomato Records). Flyin’ Shoes marked the beginning of a dry spell in Van Zandt’s discography – he wouldn’t release another record for nine years – so these records function as an overview of both his early career and his most prolific period. From his first record out, Van Zandt didn’t so much create his own world as excavate banality so deeply that he came out on the other side. For this reason, arguing for the superiority of one Van Zandt record over any other is a wasted effort – unlike Dylan, Van Zandt’s records never got close enough to the Zeitgeist to appear to have agency. Any of these would be an equally good introduction to Van Zandt’s music for the uninitiated – Our Mother the Mountain for its vivid imagery, Delta Momma Blues for Van Zandt working over his Lightnin’ Hopkins influence and for “Rake,” Townes Van Zandt for its attempts at Dylanesque kiss-off jilted lover songs, and Flyin’ Shoes for its limpid, serene rambling.

Personal history is always phantasmal in Van Zandt’s music. Be Here to Love Me is, in a way, a testament to the difficulties of knowing a person who doesn't know his own history. Van Zandt came from wealth, not unlike Gram Parsons. His family, moreover, not only had capital proper, but cultural capital and political purchase, a fact borne out by the Texas county that bears their surname. Like Parsons, Van Zandt’s music projected an aestheticized vision of down-and-out cowboy life over music that owes as much debt to blues and folk as to country proper. It doesn’t seem as if Van Zandt’s stubbornly uncommercial career trajectory was the result of anything other than casual neglect, but even Van Zandt’s most approachable songs, like the Nashville-looking “Turnstyled, Junkpiled” from Delta Momma Blues, have an unshakably alien quality. Little surprise, then, that that song’s most relatable lyrics come from the following lines: “Well I know that prob’ly / you feel quite oddly / ’bout the words you hear me say.” Van Zandt is noticeably more comfortable singing about his a lover’s skin turning to brine (as he does on the title track of Our Mother The Mountain) than he is singing a relatively straightforward blues. The things that make up daily life for most people – work chief among them – only appear obliquely in Van Zandt’s music (a notable exception to this is Our Mother The Mountain’s “Tecumseh Valley,” where it’s primarily a tragic device), which displays, if nothing else, serious, self-contained poetics that strive to recuperate precisely those details of life that are lost to lives structured around rational self-interest and good old-fashioned American ambition. While it would be a stretch to claim that Van Zandt’s lyrics take shape as a direct result of the insulin shock treatment he received as a teenager, which erased many of his childhood memories, their lack of transcendence would make a pretty strong case.

While most listeners will be approaching these records with images of a casually self-destructive Van Zandt in mind (family members recounting the story of a willful, experimental tumble off a fourth floor balcony during a college party), the myth of the confessional mode that made for the recent revival of Nick Drake’s music doesn’t hold here. That mythology casts performance as stripping away artifice, a pathological sort of honesty closely affiliated with madness. Though Van Zandt's tone through these four albums is consistent, it’s the kind of consistency that arises from constant movement. There's a death-bound inertia in all of his personae, but the hopelessness that serves as a starting-point in all of his songs is the opposite of suffocating. Flyin’ Shoes is the only album of the four to feature full-blooded arrangements on every song, but, as Van Zandt draws back to allow room for sounds other than his voice and uncluttered fingerpicking, he also creates the perfect environment for the kinds of people that populate his songs. Like the songs themselves, these characters aren’t sad, but hopeless. Far from disillusioned, these are people like Van Zandt himself, entirely comfortable with the strategic falsehoods they tell themselves to get to the next day. "Loretta," the album’s first track, is a tribute to lovers not as they are, but as the speaker would like them to be: a portrait of a woman who "dances like a diamond shines / tells me lies I love to believe,” who “spends my money like waterfalls,” and “Loves me like I want her to." As the song picks up in pace and tone, the tone doesn’t brighten, and the boundaries between whatever objective reality we could dream up for the speaker and the purchase of his illusion has become completely smeary. The song’s reposeful tone is the only thing that hints at some level of history, a great wasted effort to mean something to somebody.

The image of Van Zandt composing these songs, sitting alone in a room and whittling down his ideas until they became the astringent glyphs he’s best known for (e.g., “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” from the self-titled album) pretty neatly encompasses what makes his music compelling. As hermetically sealed as his world can seem sometimes, especially when taken in large doses, his music is also filled with loopholes – just as the atmosphere begins to get too thick, a melody asserts itself, the floor collapses and the whole song takes on a new allure. If Be Here to Love Me played up the man’s scattershot brilliance, the Townes Van Zandt of these albums is a formalist. Like the Van Zandt we know from archival footage, this singer seems intent on making it difficult for us to actually hear his voice, subsuming it under those of his idols. While the result is different from what the film may have led us to expect, this disjuncture is a point of entry into a discography as full of holes as one could hope.

By Brandon Bussolini

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