Goofy, charming, courtly and oblique, Townes Van Zandt was the least populist of the songwriters who orbited Nashville during the fertile period bounded by Bob Dylan’s 1966 Blonde on Blonde sessions and Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville. Van Zandt’s songs never provided Tom T. Hall’s journalistic gratifications or Kris Kristofferson’s virile romanticism, and as a record-maker he was often sterile, paying lip service to the arty folkie-isms and arid exactitude of producers like Jack Clement and Chips Moman without ever fully entering into the spirit of the enterprise.
Be Here to Love Me, the soundtrack to Margaret Brown’s 2005 documentary, portrays Van Zandt as a royal fuckup aristocratically disinclined to ever let on how seriously he took himself, and too bemused by his own violent tendencies to be truly frightening. He’s never more engaging than when he tells an interviewer, “I don’t envision a very long life for myself. I think my life will run out before my work does,” or when he describes how he deliberately took a tumble out of a fourth-story window so he could remember “just exactly what it felt like.”
These remarkable admissions of self-destruction bookend Be Here to Love Me. In between, “Brand New Companion” reveals Van Zandt as a pretty fair Texas bluesman with a just-sloppy-enough fingerpicking guitar style he picked up from listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins. Yet the performance is static, pure dead space, and despite couplets like “She fits just like my guitar/Man, she’s near as tall as me,” Van Zandt seems sunk in on himself, insular. “Marie” is a superbly understated talking blues; Van Zandt’s dazed, phlegmy croak turns this tale of total destitution (“Maybe me and Marie could find a burned-out van/Do a little settling down”) into a truly heartbreaking performance that is about as far from hobo sentimentality as you’d care to get.
You come away from Be Here with the sense of a scattered, slapdash virtuosity, untamed by any overriding aesthetic. “Waitin’ Round to Die” is as overdramatized as a scene out of Sergio Leone, complete with clippity-clop percussion effects and what sounds like a savagely raked autoharp. And at the other extreme, the live version of “To Live’s to Fly” is Van Zandt at his sweetest and most casual. It nicely mythologizes, and undercuts, the singer-songwriter ethos (“I’ll miss the system here/The bottom’s low and the treble’s clear”) and one of his most emblematic compositions.
If Be Here suggests that Van Zandt was a strange mixture of openhearted sentimentalist and mannered manipulator, two live recordings give us a somewhat warmer portrait of a canny, devious, and guileless performer. Live at Union Chapel, London, England, a solo show from 1994 (not quite three years before his death), finds Van Zandt talking his way through “Pancho and Lefty” and making explicit his roots in folkiedom by using the guitar lick from “John Hardy” in a song about Thunderbird wine. He’s endlessly charming; the audience energizes him. A Private Concert, taped at a Houston Holiday Inn in 1988, is Van Zandt without an audience, yet he gives out details about how he came up with “Snowin’ on Raton,” goes through the repertoire, and sounds infinitely old and very far away. The performances aren’t bad, but this is a man who cannot envision any sort of future.
It’s hard to imagine Van Zandt making a record like Kris Kristofferson’s This Old Road. It’s exactly the kind of thing Altman might use in a remake of Nashville, since it’s full of good-liberal codgerisms like, “The truth is a highway/Leading to freedom.” Don Was’s production is so minimalist it isn’t even there, and Kristofferson sings almost as good as Henry Gibson. Still, “Chase the Feeling” works as a modified Sun Records two-step, and if Townes Van Zandt is listening from songwriters’ heaven, he might do worse than to crib these lines: “With a pretty piece of hunger/Was younger than her eyes/On a scale of cosmic thunder/It’s a wonder you’re alive.”