Townes Van Zandt – Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

townes

“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Steve Earle

Every serious Townes fan I know considers this the album. One glaringly obvious reason for this is that his studio albums are kinda shit. These albums are still Townes, of course, so you still get that crème de la crème of songwriting. But listening to a studio album of Townes is like watching the keys to the perfect muscle car, rebuilt to the tits, get handed over to some buck-toothed 14-year-old that wants to trade it in for some Hummer painted the same colour as big-bird’s shit. Whoever produced those records didn’t know who they had behind the mic. They tried to clean the dirt off Townes, paint him up all prim and proper, and sell him off like a lemon-scented asshole bleaching kit. But that’s not what Townes was.

For those that don’t know, Townes is arguably the greatest country songwriter to have ever lived. You wanna talk about smart? Holy fuck. Townes was smart. His first wife Fran Lohr even said, “Townes was a genius. They couldn’t test him because his IQ was so high—way above 140.” But you don’t need a fucking IQ test to figure out Townes was smart. All you really have to do is listen to the lyrics of one of his songs like “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold”. In that song Townes tells a story of war and redemption by personifying playing cards in a game of poker. The game is being played between two guys named Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd. This shit is unbelievable. It has to be heard to be believed. Sonic Youth’s drummer Steve Shelley was obsessed with Townes. He even paid for an entire record to be made. Townes missed this because he drunkenly broke his hip. Townes was known to turn down offers to write with Bob Dylan because he didn’t like the whole fame thing. Stories of Townes continue to come out to this day. Each one propels him further away from human understanding and closer to some unknowable songwriting god.

That’s what makes this album so great. This is Townes doing what he does. He’s in a crowded bar with a broken air conditioner and he’s just playing out his tunes. There’s nothing polished or overproduced about it. It’s just a man and his songs. He starts out with one of his more famous songs “Pancho and Lefty,” which has been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Hoyt Axton, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Steve Earle. It’s fucking country music cannon. After the song, the crowd applauds, beer glasses clink, and Townes says, “Thanks a lot man. I’ve never heard it that quiet in here before. It’s funny.” He goes on to tell corny jokes between songs, that you can’t help but smile at. He’s not some god on this recording. He’s just some dude that has the ability to write a fucking song. You feel the dust in the room, the energy of the place, and with an absolute lightness Townes displays the depths of humanity without making anyone feel sad. In short, the man embodies what country music is all about.

I wanted to bring light to Townes before March 7th, when a new Townes album is set to be released. No, he isn’t with us anymore. If he were, this album would be released on his 75th birthday.

 

 

4 thoughts

  1. Hoo boy, what an album. This is that rare thing, something I heard way before your writeup – in this case, it was an insomniac night in early autumn, sandwiched between the first volumes of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie collections. This was the one that stood out, though (no offence to Belly or Guthrie) – so *many* songs here are excellent and simple, not poetry in song like Dylan (I think the comparison doesn’t really fit, but I’ll elaborate below), but the pinnacle of SONG-writing.

    So, songwriting vs poetry. Who’s the best, where’s the line, does hip-hop count? Dylan is the best, but that’s only because he managed to merge poetry and song – different disciplines entirely, no matter what people try to say – to a standard of excellence in both. Joni is also an excellent songwriter, but a mediocre poet. ‘Blue’ (song and album alike) has great lyrics, but rarely great words and arrangements of them – there’s a lack of vividly original imagery, of technique. But when she sings, everything falls into place – as it should, for she’s a songwriter, not a poet. Cohen is an excellent songwriter, but just a decent poet; his very best songs are both, sure, but for the most part, he was a successful musician, not writer, for a reason. It’s in the matching of sentiment to word arrangement (more important in lyrics than in poetry, where ideas can bleed together more, without the prescriptions of melody and rhythm to attend to).

    Townes, then, is an excellent songwriter – every line important, even the repeated ones, which serve to drive home the *song*, not his own genius, whereas in poetry they don’t drive home the meaning, but anchor threads together. This is partially because our eyes are better drawn to similar things on a page, but more because because losing ourself in the music moment-to-moment obscures repetition better than perhaps any other form of expression. Because of his explorations at this border of poetry and song, Dylan fell prey to self-grandiose repetition sometimes, indeed, more often than fans like as me are usually willing to admit.

    I’m too lazy now to write anything about Hip-Hop, so I’ll save it for a future featured album. Cheers!

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  2. That’s a cool fucking perspective. It’s only a couple days now till March 7th and that new album release. Townes kills me. He’s smart without acting like a douchey prick. I like the poetry vs. songwriting conversation. It is Hop Hop that changes the game on that motherfucker. I think I’ve brought up Saul Williams before. His ’01 album “Amethyst Rock Star” is some of the greatest poetry I’ve ever heard. Bar none. In these kinds of conversations it’s essential as fuck to define your terms. What’s poetry? What’s a song? What are some of the differences between the two? And, as good philosophical conversations often go, you eventually find yourself in heated debates on basic shit like what “think”, “thing”, or “exist” means. For instance, if a song is meant to be sung, then rap isn’t technically made up of songs. Or, if there is a poem that’s not written down AND it emphasizes a language’s musical qualities, then why isn’t this shit called music? I think if anyone could try and pin this shit down it would be a motherfucking audiophiliac like you. So, let’s try this shit. According to you, what is a song?

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    1. Well, hmm. I think the most pointless thing to do is to try and define the line between them, because as soon as you do, someone’s gonna try to straddle the line – hell, someone, somewhere, probably already has. Then there’s the unavoidable fact that they are right next to each other – rhymed poetry used to be six metric feet, back when we had warrior bards with huge chests to perform it, by Shakespeares time it had reduced to five (hence, the famous iambic PENTAmeter), and by the 20th century was getting bittier and bittier. This is no coincidence – we write poetry according to our ability to perform it, usually unconsciously. So ultimately, I think it comes down to the *use* of language – I’ll get back to this.

      Meanwhile, what is a song? Obviously, there’s the ‘song-of-the-year’ sense, but that’s defining song as ‘record’, rather than ‘assembly of words and music’. ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ might well be ‘song of the year’ for 1998, which implies a record, but it’s *not* the ‘best song of the year’, which implies a song. So at some point, there’s a divide – even though it has words, they aren’t song-words.

      So, it comes down to use of language, but tied to the music. If a set of words genuinely loses something, some flick-of-the-wrist genius, when written down, as opposed to sung, it’s a song. This is why I refer to Joni’s ‘Blue’ above. Consider this, from ‘Little Green’: “Child with a child pretending / Weary of lies you’re sending home / So you sign all the papers in the family name / You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed / Little Green / Have a happy ending.” Poetically, it’s nothing – “child with a child pretending”? “You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed?” Yuck. But as a song, welded to the melody, and with the someone there to bring out the latent emotion in it, it works. Aha! There, I found it, amongst my ramblings:

      A song is a song, rather than poetry, when a (musical) performance of it brings out nuance that the words *alone* don’t have. Poetry is poetry, although it can still be a song, when it can stand entirely alone on paper, with the emotion, or rather, the mood, inherent in the writing. (This definition is actually imperfect in that everyone will pick up on emotion in different things, and in that it seems to exclude songs from being poetry, but it’s a start).

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      1. Goddamn! That is a good start. Nicely rambled. It actually made me go back and listen to Saul Williams “Coded Language” in both song form and as a spoken poem. You really do listen to them differently. When the words are tied to the music, you hear different meanings in the words. Certain things about it just pop. As a poem, different thing. You’re one badass motherfucking audiophiliac.

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