Flyin’ Shoes: Townes Van Zandt

by Mark Augustine

There was one point when I realized, man, I could really do this. But it takes blowing everything off. It takes blowing your family off. Money. Security. Happiness. Friends. Blow it off. Get a guitar and go.
– Townes Van Zandt

I long to never be heard from again. Not dead, just gone—a rumor, a ghost, a whisper. It is my most common fantasy. As I lay awake at night, worrying about the mounting pressures of work, school, and family, I dream of simply getting up from my bed in the home I share with my aunt and uncle, stealing my uncle’s truck, and driving away. The particulars of the fantasy have very little to do with what will happen to me after my sudden departure. I’ve never actually seen that part all the way through. The part I truly relish is the mystery of my disappearance and how it will affect the people in my life. These are the parts of the fantasy that I imagine in great detail, concocting multiple story-lines and endings, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. But the beginning of the dream—the theft of the truck—is always the same. It has to begin this way, with an act of transgression. This is, after all, an outlaw mythology I am constructing, and must therefore begin with an act of lawlessness.

It also serves the set the wheels of the fantasy in motion. I see my uncle waking at four A.M., as he does every morning, so he can drive the five blocks from his home to the dry-cleaning business he owns, turn on the boilers, and begin his work day. Only on this particular morning, he finds his keys missing from their familiar ring in the kitchen. He quickly searches for them in the other spots he often casually drops them before angrily charging up to my room to see if I have borrowed them without his permission. But I’m not there. Soon, he realizes the truck is absent from the driveway. He calls my cell-phone, only to hear it ringing from where I have left it on my bedside table. Knowing my night-owl habits, he is angry for a time, thinking I have simply done something careless and stupid, like gone to a bar or out on a late-night errand without consideration for his work schedule. But the morning turns into afternoon, and the afternoon turns into night, and I have still not returned.

Act of Transgression (by Aaron Porter)

Act of Transgression (by Aaron Porter)

From this point, the story goes in a thousand different directions. There are versions in which I am mourned and searched for, and others in which I am cursed by loved-ones for my selfishness, the mere mention of my name eventually becoming banned from all family discourse. But beyond just the freedom of abandoning my life and responsibilities, what I enjoy most about the fantasy is the pleasure of disappointing, or rather, of purposefully disappointing. I have certainly let people down in my life—friends, siblings, teachers, parents, whoever—but never intently. I am hard-wired to please. I need to fix. I want your approval. This is not an uncommon or interesting character trait. The rub is that I don’t want to want your approval. I have become increasingly weary and bored with my ingrained need to please, my impulse to gratify. And, at this point, I have little interest in setting out to discover why I am this way, or why anyone is this way. I just don’t care.

How interesting could the answers be, really? What I really want to know is how to hurt people, how to inflict pain. I am jealous of people who can. This is not, has never been, something that comes to me naturally. All of my instincts press hard against it. But I want desperately to learn because there is a freedom in it. A shallow freedom, but a freedom nonetheless. Even the shallowness I find romantic, intoxicating. Hence the dream of leaving, without notice or warning, for good and forever. I can think of no other act that would provoke as many different emotions—anger, fear, confusion, resentment, grief, betrayal. It’s even worse than death because there is no conclusion, no closure. I have chosen to leave you, but I still exist. The fantasy consumes me as I lay in bed, calming me, rocking me to sleep like some sort of perverse lullaby.

I wonder if others born with a jones for people-pleasing long for this too, or whether their idea of fulfillment involves attaining universal love and acceptance from every person they’ve ever known or will ever know. It gets confused here, because part of me wants this as well, I just want so badly not to. And this hope, this wish, outweighs my need to be loved. It feels like something I can attain with practice. Surely I can learn to wound, to hurt, to inflict. This is what attracts me do deeply to the music and myth of Townes Van Zandt. He spent his entire life leaving, of writing about leaving. If I listen to his records long enough, closely enough, patiently enough, maybe I can learn how he did it.

[pullquote]If I listen to his records long enough, closely enough, patiently enough, maybe I can learn how he did it.[/pullquote]

***
For really lonely music, Towne’s songs have this sharable, social quality to them. This seems to be even a part of his origin story. As one version of the tale goes, after recording his first album in 1968, he hitchhiked his way from the recording studio in San Francisco back to his home in Houston carrying nothing more than a satchel full of his freshly-pressed records. To show his appreciation for a ride, he gave one of these records to every person kind enough to pick him up and carry him down the road for a stretch. Soon enough, word began to circulate up and down this two-thousand-mile-long stretch of highway about the nomadic songwriter who had recorded the best album some people had ever heard. But as is often the case with Townes, this was the first and last time most of these people ever heard from him.

Everyone who loves Townes has a story about where they were the first time someone played one of his records for them, much in the same way that people remember a tragic historical event. And to become a fan of Townes is to invite a certain amount of tragedy into your life. Because with Townes, you can never be half-in. This has something to do with the fact that the man was never half-in on anything. In a rare radio interview, he put it this way: “I don’t envision a very long life for myself. I think my time will run out before my work does, you know? I’ve designed it that way.” For the sake of authenticity, he designed his own life to be as tragic as a song. Never happiness over grief. Never love over heartache. Never half a bottle when there’s a full one around. This masochism all comes oozing through the music.

Suddenly it makes sense that at various spots down a long desert highway in the summer of 1968 there were people huddled together around turntables in bars, bowling alleys, and living rooms, spinning a record that was more cripplingly sad and desperately hopeless than anything they had ever heard, given to them by some mysterious traveling stranger—and they couldn’t turn the damn thing off. It’s nearly the script of some sort of B-Movie, which is just one of the many confusions and heartbreaks one finds themselves tangled up in when becoming a fan of Townes. You begin to question yourself. Am I really falling for this? Can any of this really be true? Surely no man can feel all of this at once, can he?

 

The Road (by Aaron Porter)

The Road (by Aaron Porter)

So you listen again just to make sure. Then you listen a third, fourth, and fifth time. Soon enough, you’ve lost track of the number of times you’ve pressed the needle back down into the wide, easy grooves of track one, side one. It’s not suspicion or doubt or unrest that now compels you to continue to flip the record over and again, over and again. You’re not quite sure what it is all. But you don’t care anymore. You’re assuaged. You’re converted. And, if you’ve been listening to a Townes record for this long, you’re probably also pretty drunk.
***
There was a time after college, after the various incarnations of the bands I had performed with for several years at local dives around town had dispersed, when I would play solo acoustic sets for free beer and a few bucks at any place that would have me. These were not glamorous gigs. Most of them I agreed to as favors for musician friends of mine who were headlining a bar or club on a particular evening with the stipulation that they would need to provide their own opening act. It’s usually difficult to find people to agree to this, however, because the pay is either low or non-existent and the time-slot (usually something like 7-9 P.M.) essentially guarantees a small, disinterested audience whose reaction to live music ranges from casual indifference to blatant disdain. This is the time of the evening when a bar’s patrons are mostly of the chicken-wing-consuming, domestic-draught-swilling, ESPN-watching set, and the presence of the lone acoustic troubadour in their midst, wantonly filling their precious airspace with murder ballads and tales of love-gone-wrong is typically ill-received.

[pullquote]Admittedly, I could have given better consideration for my audience.[/pullquote]

Admittedly, I could have given better consideration for my audience. I was not, after all, performing in Nashville, or Memphis, or St. Louis, or Chicago, or in any place where my bent for performing country, blues, and folk songs would have been better appreciated, or at the very least better understood. In complete honesty, I probably wouldn’t have been warmly greeted in these cities, either, whose clubs and honkey-tonks are already over-crowded with innumerable artists and musicians whose talents surpass my own, but at least what I was doing on stage would have made sense. But in the typical, mid-sized, Midwestern college town in which I was performing, the epitome of live music was best understood to be 80’s hair-metal tribute bands. I knew this to be true, so it never came as an overwhelming surprise to me that, while performing to an audience who would be most satisfied by hearing a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” my rendition of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” didn’t catapult them to their feet in a fervor of unbridled gratitude. Typically, the conclusion of most of my songs was met with the half-hearted applause of a sympathetic bartender, followed by the pseudo-silence of clinking glassware and hushed conversations.

As an evening wore on and I began closing in on the end of a set, the bar would begin to fill with people who had come to see the headlining act. Of course, these acts were able to draw audiences because they had chosen a performance strategy in stark contrast to my own—that is, they played songs people actually wanted to hear. As stools and booths filled, people would begin to shout requests at me for songs from artists and genres completely disparate from anything I had played in the last two hours. Having just finished Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” or John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” I would settle into the familiar silence, take a sip from my beer, and wait. Soon enough, a loud bellow from the back:
“JASON MRAZ!”

What people actually mean when they shout “Jason Mraz!” is that they want you to play the artist’s multi-platinum breakout single, “I’m Yours” which was inescapable for nearly two years over radio, television shows, film, commercials, and all other media. It is the sort of saccharine-sweet acoustic super-pop irresistible to white people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. What compelled these people to believe that I had constructed a set-list that included songs from both Bob Dylan and Mr. Mraz I never really understood. Even more puzzling to me was that this song—this sugary love ballad—was nearly exclusively requested by men. Grown, drunk men. Perhaps there is just something ineffable about me that compels straight adult males to demand that I look down on them from the stage, stare deeply into their eyes, and reassure them that, yes, sir—I’m yours.

But a request of this nature, whether it was for Mraz or one of his indistinguishable contemporaries, was always my cue to play a Townes song. I saved him for just this moment, when I had used up the last remaining shred of goodwill from the audience, after my set was nearly over and they had grown restless and desperate to hear something that they recognized. I had come to hate them, and I used Townes to take my revenge.

[pullquote]I had come to hate them, and I used Townes to take my revenge.[/pullquote]

***
I wasn’t always this way. It is and odd thing to stand in front of an audience and purposefully disappoint them, to work in direct opposition to their wants and expectations. It is perhaps even odder to use the music of an artist that you love in order to do so. For many years, I had performed with bands or other musicians with the simple goal of entertaining, of being appreciated, of being wanted. It seems antithetical to play live music without having these desires as your driving forces. For what other reasons, really, do we write or compose or perform than in the hope that someone else, anyone else, might read our work or hear us play and tell us that we are good, maybe better than most—that we have value?

When I began playing guitar as a teenager, this was certainly my goal. I can remember running my fingers across the strings of the cheap guitar my mother had bought me for my 13th birthday, breathing in deep the sharp aroma of the lemon oil that had been so lovingly rubbed and pressed into the grain of its dark rosewood fret-board, and fantasizing about being able to bend the instrument to my will, of standing in front of throngs of adoring fans with their mouths agape in complete awe of my mastery of the instrument. If my thirteen year-old-self could have seen a decade into the future, when I was using my ability to punish an audience rather than entertain them, reveling in their scorn instead of basking in their adulation, he surely would have thrown his precious new guitar into the fire. But that kid hadn’t yet played countless hours for the happy-hour set. He hadn’t been forced to sing happy birthday to drunken sorority girls, or had his guitar stolen by someone posing as a bar staff member, or had made the regular concession to accept alcohol instead of cash. Moreover, that kid hadn’t heard Townes yet.

I first heard Townes when my older brother lent me his copy of Live at the Old Quarter House in the summer that I turned twenty. Not only did this record change my perception of what a song is and could be, it also made two things abundantly clear:
1.) Townes regularly performed in front of audiences as small and disinterested as I did, and…
2.) He didn’t care
This is a live album recorded in front of about twelve people. The record begins with an announcement about the location of the bar’s cigarette machine. (It’s upstairs, if you were curious.) Yet Townes performs one of the best sets of his life, even occasionally joking about the indifference of his own audience. “I never heard it that quiet in here before,” he quips after finishing “Pancho and Lefty,” a song that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard would later cover and turn into a number-one hit. But Townes never pandered or compromised. The Old Quarter House was just another stop along a never-ending road of gin-soaked roadhouses. Tomorrow, he would be in another one, maybe in the next town, maybe a few hundred miles away. Maybe the next place would have more people. Maybe it would have less. With Townes, there was never any certainty. It didn’t really matter, though. He would play with the same conviction for two people as he would for two-hundred or two-thousand. Being loved for what he did wasn’t important. It was the doing it.

He hurt people along the way, the people he loved most. He hurt them by leaving them—abandoning them to do something he would never receive real appreciation for in his lifetime. As he sat down to play that night in The Old Quarter house to a room half-full of drunken strangers, somewhere in the world, his wife, children, and friends were wondering where he was, how he could have left them, and whether or not he loved them. Most people would not consider this an admirable quality. I am in complete awe of it. I want to learn how.

The Old Quarter House (by Aaron Porter)

The Old Quarter House (by Aaron Porter)

 

Mark Augustine

Mark Augustine

Mark Augustine is a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago and a staff writer at BG: Blues And Music News.

More Posts