Published On: Tue, May 23rd, 2017

Classic Album: The Late Great Townes Van Zandt by Townes Van Zandt

Despite the troubled singer’s sixth album garnering acclaim and status since its release, it tragically never brought him success, says Randy Fox.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, © Getty Images

In the summer of 1972, Townes Van Zandt began recording in Nashville for the first time in two years. The previous 24 months had been a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions for the singer and songwriter. His 1969 self-titled album had been cut in Nashville and garnered rave reviews, but sank like a stone in sales.

Seeking a change of pace, Van Zandt’s manager and Poppy Records head, Kevin Eggers, brought the singer to New York where he cut the stripped-down, traditional folk-flavoured album, Delta Momma Blues. The next year, Van Zandt headed to Los Angeles where he cut the country rock-inflected High, Low And Inbetween. Despite the change of locales and different sonic showcases, the pattern of critical success and financial failure continued.

Along with lacklustre record sales, Van Zandt’s devotion to self-destruction and chemical abuse remained unabated. In addition to heroin addiction, the Texan seemed to have an endless capacity for other drugs and alcohol. For every moment of transcendent artistic brilliance, a corresponding plunge into the pits of self-abuse followed.

This cycle nearly came to a tragic end in the fall of 1971, when Van Zandt overdosed on heroin while staying at his mother’s house in Houston. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital before an expert team of doctors revived him.

By December 1971, Van Zandt had recovered from his brush with the Grim Reaper. He was staying with his manager in New York when a phone call from Nashville sent him packing for the Music City. Guy Clark, a fellow Texas singer and songwriter had recently moved to Nashville with artist girlfriend, Susanna Talley. The couple asked Van Zandt to be the best man at their wedding. Van Zandt stayed with the couple in East Nashville for the next eight months.

New Lease of Life
Although Van Zandt left Nashville for short tours during those months, his time there proved to be relatively stable. His heroin addiction remained on the back burner as he substitutedit with copious amounts of Jack Daniel’s. In addition to the creative atmosphere at the Clarks’ house, Van Zandt also began hanging out at Jack Clement’s recording studio where he bounced ideas off other musicians.

Clement, who began his career at Sun Studios in Memphis, was a magnet for the younger breed of folkies, hippies and square peg songwriters in Nashville. After moving to Nashville in 1964, Clement quickly acquired a reputation as the Nashville producer happy to work with oddball songwriters and musicians and had produced Van Zandt’s first two albums. In 1969, Clement opened his own studio in a converted house south of Belmont University, and it became a clubhouse of sorts for Nashville’s musical misfits.

While the exact recording dates are unknown, Van Zandt cut tracks in several sessions at Clement’s studio, probably in late July and early August. Kevin Eggers later recalled that Clement oversaw the recording of two songs, No Lonesome Tune and Honky Tonkin’ while Eggers supervised the rest of the recordings and mixed the record.

Back to His Roots
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt was a move toward the country-influenced sound found on Van Zandt’s earlier records without the overproduction pitfalls of his previous Nashville recordings. The album opened with No Lonesome Tune, a vision of simple domestic bliss perfectly propelled by a simple arrangement of guitar, mandolin, piano and steel guitar. The song remained a favourite in Van Zandt’s live performances, and over two decades later he recorded a duet of the song with Willie Nelson.

Sad Cinderella was a remake of a song from Van Zandt’s first album, For The Sake Of The Song. The original version was marred by the inclusion of harpsichord and vocal choruses that transformed the sparse, Dylan-esque ballad into baroque psychedelic pop. Van Zandt had been quite open about his dissatisfaction with the production of his debut and rerecorded five of its songs on subsequent records. This opportunity to redo Sad Cinderella was a wise choice as it quickly became the definitive version.

German Mustard (A Clapalong) was an informal duet with Texas blues guitarist Rocky Hill. Hill and Van Zandt were old friends from their time playing the 1960s Houston music scene. The off-colour blues jam featuring Townes on improvised vocals and Hill on slide guitar is a peek into the rough and rowdy atmosphere commonplace at Clement’s studio.

The spotlight continues to shine on Van Zandt’s performance with the next two songs. The appearance of Guy Clark’s Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya might have seemed like a favour to Van Zandt’s quasi-landlord, but it was hardly an act of charity. Not only does the song stand on its own merits, but Clark would soon achieve massive success when his songs L.A. Freeway and Desperados Waiting For A Train became country hits for Jerry Jeff Walker.

Hank Williams’ Honky Tonkin’ was a country music classic. Originally cut in Nashville in 1947, the ode to good times and hard drinking became Williams’ second hit record in 1948. Van Zandt considered Williams one of his heroes, and his version hews close to the sound of the original. Unfortunately, Van Zandt’s desire to emulate the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ went beyond this tribute, often using Williams’ penchant for self-destruction as a justification for his own.

The poignant ballad Snow Don’t Fall closes side one of the album with exquisite beauty and sadness. Van Zandt wrote the song as a tribute to his late girlfriend, Leslie Jo Richards. Richards had been living with Van Zandt while he was recording in Los Angeles.

While Van Zandt worked in the studio, Richards hitched a ride back to their apartment to retrieve a bag of finger picks and was brutally attacked and murdered. The shock, guilt and grief over her death continued to haunt Van Zandt throughout his life and manifested in many of his songs.

Side 2 opens with another direct tribute to Van Zandt’s hardcore country music influences, the Texas country music classic, Fraulein. Written by Lawton Williams and inspired by a post-war romance while he was a G.I. stationed in Germany, it was recorded in 1957 by Bobby Helms, who took the song to number one on the country chart. It was a favourite of Van Zandt’s father and was one of the first songs that Van Zandt learned to play on the guitar.

After the lilting and delicate Western swing of Fraulein, Van Zandt moves on to the song that became his best known composition, Pancho And Lefty. Mixing perfect measures of Old West romanticism, classic themes of betrayal and regret and a dollop of narrative mystery, Pancho And Lefty tells the story of two bandit partners who meet their end through dramatically different means.

Pancho is captured and hung by Mexican Federales, apparently the victim of betrayal by his best friend, while Lefty survives to slowly live out his years haunted by guilt and regrets.

It’s an immediately striking and powerful ballad. Throughout the rest of his life, Van Zandt was at a loss to explain the song’s origins, saying that it had come to him in a flash of inspiration while on tour in Texas in the spring of 1972.

As related in Robert Earl Hardy’s book, A Deeper Blue: The Life And Music Of Townes Van Zandt, he recalled, “I’m not sure how Pancho And Lefty came about, but all of a sudden it was there and I was beginning to write it down… It was the first song I’d ever written with any reference to Mexico because I haven’t spent a lot of time out there.”

Although Van Zandt held fast to his story of the song’s sudden and mysterious appearance, his friend Dale Stoffer later recalled hearing an earlier version of the song shortly after Van Zandt’s heroin overdose in the fall of 1971. Stoffer also saw the song’s two main characters as representative of the two sides of Van Zandt’s personality – the wild and free Pancho eager to live life to the fullest even if it led to an early grave, and Lefty, whose fear of mortality led only to a slow and lingering descent into guilt and regret.

Whatever the song’s origins, Van Zandt’s recording strikes a perfect balance between reserved romanticism and world-weary resignation. It remains one of his finest achievements. Five years later, Emmylou Harris recorded a version on her album Luxury Liner, and in 1981, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard scored a number one hit single with their version, guaranteeing the song’s lasting appeal.

Mysterious Inspiration
Pancho And Lefty would have been a major achievement for any album, but Van Zandt managed to follow it with If I Needed You. A perfect portrait of undying love that became his most covered composition, Van Zandt later claimed the song came in a moment of almost mystical stimulus. He had heard the melody in a dream and immediately wrote down the lyrics upon awakening.

Guy and Susanna Clark later confirmed this story, recalling the morning that Van Zandt had written the song and played it for the first time.But as with Pancho And Lefty, other versions of the song’s origin exist.

Van Zandt’s ex-wife, Fran Petters, later recalled hearing an earlier version of the song, as did Kevin Eggers who recalled the song was written while Van Zandt was staying with him in New York. Whatever the true origin of the song, Van Zandt probably refined the final version in Nashville since the Loop and Lil mentioned in the song’s last verse were two parakeets Van Zandt acquired while living with the Clarks.

Van Zandt’s original recording never dented the charts, but Emmylou Harris and Don Williams scored a number three country hit with their duet version in 1981. Subsequent versions have been recorded by Doc Watson, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Mumford & Sons, Kasey Chambers and many others, making it Van Zandt’s most covered composition.

While The Late Great Townes Van Zandt is filled with nods to his country music influences, The Silver Ships of Andilar fires off in an entirely different direction, touting the influences of both Van Zandt’s prep school background and his love for pulp novels. The seven-verse epic relates a grandiose saga of warriors and seaborne tragedy with obvious allusions to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and heroic fantasy novels popular in the early 1970s.

As Van Zandt later recalled, “This is my folk epic. Warriors against dire odds and maidens a-watching the keep. It comes from reading too many Lin Carter editions, I’m sure. It took 36 hours and an entire legal pad to get it on paper.”

To match the epic nature of the song, Kevin Eggers recruited Nashville’s go-to string and horn arranger Bergen White to score the accompaniment, enhancing the sturm und drang of the song while keeping it anchored sonically close to its more hillbilly-influenced companions on the album.

Townes Van Zandt

To close the album, Van Zandt returns to hillbilly-land with Heavenly Houseboat Blues. With a melody borrowed from the country music standard The Great Speckled Bird, Van Zandt composed the song with Susanna Clark during a late night drive back to Nashville the day before he recorded it. While it’s a lightweight bit of fun, it serves as a sweet perfect grace note to the more serious material on the album.

Morbid Tales
Released in September 1972, the album’s title The Late Great Townes Van Zandt was chosen by Kevin Eggers as both an in-joke on the general state of Van Zandt’s career and with a slight hope that the Beatles-inspired ‘Paul is Dead’ nature might draw interest to the record.

Photographer Steve Salmierie shot both the stately portrait of Van Zandt and his guitar in Eggers’ New York townhouse for the front cover and the snapshot of a drunken, impish singer flipping the bird for the back cover. Renowned graphic designer Milton Glaser patterned the cover after a Victorian-era funerary card.

Van Zandt’s mother was not amused by the morbid nature of the album’s design and title. It had been far too soon since her son had almost died, and she initially refused to believe the uncouth ruffian on the back cover was her son. Her distress increased when she began to receive phone calls from family friends offering their condolences for Van Zandt’s untimely end.

Although Pancho And Lefty picked up airplay on a few FM rock stations, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt proved to be another dead in the water album, selling barely 7,000 copies upon its initial release.

In the meantime, Van Zandt began work on a follow-up album at Clement’s studio, tentatively titled Seven Come Eleven. The sessions were cut short when Poppy Records was forced into bankruptcy by its distributor United Artists. With no money for the sessions, the master tapes were eventually erased, though rough mixes later surfaced as the 1993 release, The Nashville Sessions.

The death of his record label threw Van Zandt’s career into a tailspin. Eggers recorded a live album with Van Zandt in July 1973, but it would take four years before Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas would be released on Eggers’ newly launched Tomato Records label.

Van Zandt continued to record and perform, but The Late Great Townes Van Zandt marked both the pinnacle and close of the most creative period of his life. His constant and steady consumption of drugs and alcohol soon took their toll on both his songwriting and performing.

He managed to release three more studio albums – Flyin’ Shoes (1978), At My Window (1987) and No Deeper Blue (1994) – but the pattern of critical acclaim followed by dismal sales continued, even as other artists took his songs to the top of the charts.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many artists attempted to work with Van Zandt, but tales of his substance abuse and unfailing ability to throw away second chances became the stuff of legends. On New Year’s Eve 1996, Van Zandt was staying at the home of his third ex-wife Jeanene Munsell Van Zandt when their 13-year-old son noticed his father wasn’t breathing.

Attempts to revive Van Zandt failed, and he was pronounced dead in the early morning hours of January 1, 1997 – 44 years to the day after the death of Hank Williams, and slightly over 24 years after the beautiful but tragic prophecy of The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.



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