Townes Van Zandt the songwriter pricks up the ears. The road-loving bandit of “Pancho & Lefty” wears his “skin like iron,” and his “breath’s as hard as kerosene.” The guy who has better things to do in “Waitin’ ‘Round to Die,” inspired by his runaway battered mother, turns gambler and boozer, then thief, finally settling down as an unobtrusive codeine addict. In his art, normal was abnormal, and in his life, portrayed in Margaret Brown’s unblinking documentary
Be Here to Love Me, he tested this theory. As notorious for his substance abuse and death wishes as he was for a mysterious ability to survive them, Van Zandt died in 1997 of a mere heart attack. He was 52. “I booked this gig 30 years ago,” joked friend and fellow musician Guy Clark at the funeral, swallowing tears.
Watching clips from the same type of concert over a 30-year spread is effective; while we keep looking for a slip-up that never happens, a friend
worries that Van Zandt’s extreme self-destructiveness drew others to him out of a “morbid curiosity to watch someone fall from a great height.” Loving but frank, Brown, by refusing to judge her film’s subject, never falls into this trap. Too frequently, however, the side-of-the-road montages that are meant to mesmerize offer only blurry filler instead.
Born wealthy in Texas, Van Zandt rarely permitted himself the levity to trash his roots, although a chuckle bubbles up in “Fraternity Blues.” Maybe that’s because wealth cultivated his dark side way before he discovered hippies, legal LSD, and ramblin’. Sent to boarding school in Illinois as a teen for football and a career in the military, Van Zandt found his first love instead: airplane glue, passed off as harmless fun in a yearbook group photo circa 1960. Glassy-eyed, his head in someone else’s lap, Townes is the kid with the sock stuck in his mouth. Nothing he would do later as an adult—from jumping off a fourth-floor terrace “to see how it felt” to shooting up bourbon mixed with Coca-Cola—seemed sadder, or creepier, than that.