Perfect Sound Forever

Townes Van Zandt

Townes on guitar

Tribute by Steve Cooper (August 1997)

In the late 1960s, I mowed a few lawns to get extra cash, most of which I spent on records. One lawn's worth of this minuscule folding dough was spent on Townes Van Zandt's first album, For the Sake of the Song, on the obscure-now-defunct Poppy label.

At first listen, I thought I had wasted my labor and my money. ("Damn, I couldda had In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.") But, something kept drawing me back to the mournful voice contained within the Milton Glaser album cover art. Soon, each song on the album was a distinct, echoing entity and I began a 30-year love affair with the music of Townes Van Zandt.

On January 1 of 1997, Townes Van Zandt died. He was 52. In life, he was a singer, a poet, a Texan, an all-around difficult person, and a talented chronicler of the human condition. He was the singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter. His only "hit" was "Pancho and Lefty," performed not by him, but by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

Unfortunately, Townes was known also for his drugging and drinking and wildly uneven stage performances. ("I'm too drunk to remember the lyrics, but here's what happens in the song ...") Fortunately, his songs did not die with him. All his dozen or so albums are on CD and are highly recommended.

I could, at this point, launch into a chronological discography-with-comment, but, instead, I'll let some of Townes' lyrics - his poetry - do the talking:

"Living is laughing/Dying says nothing at all." - 'At My Window'

"If you needed me/I would come to you/I would swim the seas/For to ease your pain." -'If I Needed You'

"It's legs to walk and thoughts to fly/Eyes to laugh and lips to cry/A restless tongue to classify/All born to grow and grown to die." -'Rex's Blues'

"To live is to fly/Both low and high/So shake the dust off of your wings/And the sleep out of your eyes." -'To Live is to Fly'

"If I had no place to fall/And I needed to/Could I count on you/To lay me down?" -'No Place to Fall'

"Days up and down they come/Like rain on a conga drum/Forget most, remember some/But don't turn none away." -'To Live is to Fly'

And, finally, this for his young daughter, Katie Belle Van Zandt:

"Come some day/I'm bound away/Wind and wings on the water/Whatever may/You must stay/And remain my beautiful daughter." -'Katie Belle Blue'

Townes Van Zandt died on New Year's Day - the same day as his hero, Hank Williams. On the liner notes to that first album I purchased many summers ago, fellow songwriter Mickey Newbury wrote: "Townes Van Zandt, the man. He'll be remembered." That he will.

"We had our day but now it's over/We had our song but now it's sung/We had our stroll through summer's clover/But summer's gone now, our walkin's done." -'None But the Rain'
(The publishing company for Townes' songs is Silver Dollar Music, Inc.)

Also see our Travels with Townes article

Check out the rest of Perfect Sound Forever