Muddy Waters and Mozart: Remembering Townes Van Zandt

By Aretha SillsJanuary 1, 2012

Muddy Waters and Mozart: Remembering Townes Van Zandt

WHAT I REMEMBER MOST about the AP obituary that ran fifteen years ago tomorrow was its brevity — given that it was written for one of the most influential songwriters of our time — and a quote from Katie Belle, Townes Van Zandt’s five-year-old daughter who was with him: “Daddy’s having a fight with his heart.”

When he died at age 52 on New Year’s Day 1997, fans of the legendary Texas singer-songwriter were saddened but not surprised. He had, after all, named his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt — possibly a joke about his perpetual obscurity, or possibly because he and everyone who knew him thought he would die young like Hank Williams (who also died on January 1st). As his friend Guy Clark said at the memorial, “I booked this gig thirty-something years ago.” Townes’s seemingly brief turn on this plane was characterized by staggeringly self-annihilating behavior — behavior that had in many ways defined that turn, and has often overshadowed the powerful and transcendent body of work he left behind.

If I had a nickel I’d find a game.

If I won a dollar I’d make it rain.

If it rained an ocean I’d drink it dry

And lay me down dissatisfied.

—    from “Rex’s Blues”

Townes’s obituary offered just enough room to recap a few basic facts: that his songs were recorded by singers more famous than he would ever be, including Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson; that though he sang about prostitutes and bums and emulated Lightnin’ Hopkins, he was the scion of a prominent Texas oil family; and, the often-told tale, that Steve Earle once threatened to jump on Bob Dylan’s coffee table to proclaim just who was the better songwriter. The obituary politely left it to Van Zandt’s lyrics (from “A Song For”) to hint at his lifelong struggles with mental illness and addiction: “There’s nowhere left in this world where to go. My arms, my legs they’re a tremblin’. Thoughts both clouded and blue as the sky, not even worth the rememberin’.”

The day after New Year’s 1997, I was working at Streetlight Records in San Francisco. A co-worker gingerly handed me the newspaper, fearing I’d be crushed. He knew that I had interviewed Townes a few years back. One of the last things I’d heard Townes say was, “I wish you could help me, Aretha” — a line I withheld from publication, as well as a few other sections of our conversation, including a part about how many rehab facilities and mental institutions Townes had visited over the years. I’ve been mystified by my reticence to print these moments ever since. I have no excuse other than that I was in my early 20s and more of a fan than a journalist.

I did this interview with Van Zandt in the spring of 1994, for a now-defunct west coast monthly. Townes was promoting a new album called Roadsongs, and over the course of two days in May, he spoke to me for several hours. When I sent the editor the entire interview, he naturally cut it down to less than a page — who but me and a few other music nerds would read ten single-spaced pages of a conversation with an unjustly unsung folk singer? (But, but… The stuff about Cowboy Jack Clement is important! It wasn’t.) The short piece was now weighted to the dark side, the myth, but not the music. Suddenly, I felt that running with Townes’s institution confession was unfair, and lacked context. With the self-righteousness of the very young, I wanted the article to focus on the songs, even if they were famously inspired by mental illness and addiction. The editor was plenty annoyed with me, but he agreed to cut that line. When your fee is a pair of comps to a show and the chance to meet a hero, I guess you get some editorial leeway.

Since I was the co-editor of a country music fanzine called Maybelle, we printed the entire conversation; but even in our friendly little ‘zine (circulation: 200, give or take) I decided not to run those sections. It’s not that I thought being institutionalized was anything to be ashamed of; that wasn’t the issue…

Seeing it now, it’s notable how innocuous the omitted sentence is, just a bit of history uncolored by emotion or pathos, a list of experiences: “I’ve been in six or seven mental hospitals and ten or twelve alcohol hospitals.”

But I agonized. A trusted journalist friend assured me I was in the moral free-and-clear. I called Townes’s road manager, Harold Eggers, who was present during part of the interview, to ask permission. I never heard back, not surprisingly — further confirmation that nobody cared but me. Maybe I thought Townes had admitted something more special or secret than he had meant to — I don’t remember much about my reasoning except for a feeling of profound unease. I wondered if I had been taking advantage of a troubled soul. It proved one thing: I was not cut out for celebrity journalism (not the last career I’d find myself unsuited for).


Robert Earl Hardy’s A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt is an honest yet sympathetic portrait of Townes and his troubles. He had been diagnosed a “Schizo-affective type” while in college, but was later believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder. In the spring of 1964 he underwent dozens of what were then considered innovative insulin coma therapy and electroshock treatments at a mental hospital in Galveston. Afterwards, his mother would narrate to him the unfamiliar scenes in family photo albums, hoping to reconstruct his vanished memories. Not surprisingly, for the rest of his life he mostly sought help for his depression the old fashioned way, ingesting large amounts of heroin, cocaine, Robitussin DM, codeine, Dilaudid, Thunderbird, Johnnie Walker Black, and/or vodka; alcohol was his preferred method of assistance and the one that most likely killed him. He once claimed the longest he was sober was three months. He seemed to taunt oblivion, gambling away his last possessions, even his gold teeth, letting himself fall from a fourth-story balcony to see “what it felt like,” and generally until the end of his days, performing myth-making acts of excess in defiance of the human body’s capacity for abuse.

I’ll stop. I learned from Hardy’s biography that the unending litany of rotten luck, dissolute misdeeds, wasted chances, misplaced loyalties, intentional failures, and inexplicable cruelties make for a depressing narrative. Again like his hero Hank Williams, Townes was a mean drunk, but with a selfless, compassionate streak: he routinely emptied his pockets for those in need, even if that left him busted. I could only read a few of Hardy’s pages at a time. If, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the storyteller is “the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story,” then Townes was telling one hell of a story.

Sometimes I don’t know where

This dirty road is taking me

Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why

I guess I keep a-gamblin’

Lots of booze and lots of ramblin’

It’s easier than just waitin’ around to die

—from “Waitin’ Round to Die”

Since his death, Van Zandt’s legend has grown exponentially. With two biographies and a documentary released in the last decade, his legend will continue to grow as new generations have access to his music — because more than a handful of Townes’s songs are incontestably great. Lest you think that’s faint praise, I’d say the same of Stephen Foster, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, or Merle Haggard.


The first part of our conversation took place over the phone. I called Townes at the infamous “Rock ’n’ Roll Hotel” in Nashville, where he was living after his recent divorce — which I later learned had been finalized about two weeks earlier.

When we spoke, he broke script a few times to chat about stuff, like how I got my name, whether I could sing (sadly, no!), and what I was wearing. Yes — he asked me what I was wearing. At the time I thought, I’m not going to assume he’s hitting on me. That would be sort of pointless over the phone. And so what? He was a self-defined rambling folk singer. That’s what they did. I just wanted to keep the interview moving.

Here is the second of three key moments I cut from that original interview:

TVZ: What are you wearing?

AS: Oh! I’ve got my pajama bottoms on.

TVZ: I knew that.

AS: You knew it? How did you know that?

TVZ: I don’t know. I just know those kind of things.

AS: I have red clogs on.

TVZ: I didn’t know that. (He laughs)

AS: I’ve got blue pajama bottoms on.

TVZ: (Said quietly) Well, I wish I was there. That’s off the record, right?

AS: (Carefully and politely) Right.

TVZ: Are you, uh, engaged?

AS: No.

TVZ: Oh, I thought you were.

AS: No, not engaged.

TVZ: Well, you oughta be. I didn’t know that either. That was a silly thing to say. I’m just being silly.

AS: So are you kind of psychic, Townes?

TVZ: Oh yeah, big time. Much more than I want to be.

AS: What kind of things do you get?

TVZ: When people are born, what they’re doing, when your babies will be due.

AS: Maybe it’s because you’re a Pisces.

TVZ: Triple Pisces.

AS: Triple Pisces!

And the interview was back on the rails. On hearing this exchange again, I understood that he was using his proclaimed psychic powers, or at the very least, his super-attuned triple-Piscean intuition, to draw me in and get information about me; it was part of a practiced, and I’d wager, quite effective line. Let me add that of course I knew girls who chased older men of genius and experience as if those qualities could rub off and gild them with a fully formed self. Maybe it even worked. I’d certainly tried to cut corners in the finding-myself department in other ways, but back then I thought 50 was really, really old.

I don’t presume to know what he actually wanted. Perhaps he was lonely, making conversation with a young woman in the way he knew best. Is it wrong that I share this “off the record” moment now that he’s gone? I don’t see how it can do him any harm. He was good at making women feel protective of him — and not always to their benefit — but I did and do feel that way, even if I’m sharing this against his wishes at the time.


When I met Townes in May of 1994, he was touring to promote Roadsongs, a live album, and had just been to Ireland to record a studio album. He seemed busy and optimistic. His road manager Harold wanted to be sure I knew about artists like Tindersticks and Mudhoney who’d recently covered his songs, and about his many projects in the works.

TVZ: Recorded a new album of my own songs. It’s called No Deeper Blue. I think it’s too good for me to comprehend yet. I’ve only heard the rough mix. It’s got Irish percussion and Irish bouzouki, which is a great big mandolin (laughs), and Irish players, and I had a dream, Aretha. I woke up in the middle of the night with a dream. You’ve got to go to Ireland and have Phillip Donnelly produce your next record, and I walked out into the living room and turned on the lamp and found a piece of paper and it was Phillip’s phone number. There’s like 17 numbers, or something like that, so I just sat down, you know, and dialed the number and Phillip answered, you know, because it’s seven hours difference. I said, “Phillip, I got a plan. How ‘bout we do this record?” That was about seven months ago, and he said, “Oh lovely.” Right? And it all came together. Then I did about a 25-day tour through England and Ireland. I’ve heard the album a bunch of times. It’s as good as I’ve ever done, I think. Irish boys on it.

TVZ: There’s three lullabies on No Deeper Blue. One is for my wife called “Lover’s Lullaby.” And one I wrote for money, about Will, who’s eleven. Got a phone call from a record company, said we’re putting together an album of lullabies. I said, “I’m not sure I have any lullabies.” “Well, there’s money in it.” “Oh, Yeah! I got one. I got a good one!” So I sat up ‘til four o’clock in the morning and wrote “Hey Willie Boy,” and it’s a really pretty song. And then “Katie Belle Blue” I wrote from love, to put Katie Belle to sleep.

There is no deeper blue

In the ocean that lies

As deep as the blue

Of your laughing eyes

Come some day

I’m bound away

Wind and wings on the water

Whatever may

You must stay

And remain my beautiful daughter

—from “Katie Belle Blue”


As a songwriter, Van Zandt keeps rare company. Though he recorded several lasting studio albums, critics often prefer the stripped-down live performances that showcase his intricate finger-picking and imperfect and expressive voice. Many believe his best album is a live recording from 1973 called Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas in which passing busses rattle the windows, the crowd rustles, chatters, and sweats (the air conditioner was turned off for the recording), and Townes, the wounded troubadour, is deep in his element. His best work was written and recorded by the late ‘70s, with many wonderful variations and a few straggling gems to come. But several of those songs, some from the sky and some hard-earned, have become standards: “Snow Don’t Fall,” “Pancho and Lefty,” “If I Needed You,” “To Live is to Fly,” “No Place to Fall,” “You are Not Needed Now,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Waiting Around to Die,” “Nothin’,” “Rex’s Blues,” and on and on: ballads, blues, waltzes, story songs — by turns wry, dark, silly, and sublime.

TVZ: Roadsongs was put together by my companion and I, agent Harold Eggers, from recording songs off the board from different places all around the country. They’re live and we decided to tape songs that I didn’t write: there’s three Lightnin’s, three American traditionals, folksongs, two Bob Dylans, and a couple of Hank Williams… It’s the only one I can listen to. After an album of mine is finished I don’t listen to it no more. Occasionally I’ll listen to one song. I think it’s bad karma. It puts me in a place where I was, but I don’t want to be right now. But this one, Roadsongs, I can. It’s great fun to listen to because I didn’t write ‘em. There’s some guy singing, and you know, people playin’.

AS: People usually cover your songs…

TVZ: That means I don’t have to do ‘em.

Take me down, little Suzy. Take me down.

I know you think you’re the queen of the underground.

Send me dead flowers every morning.

Send me dead flowers by the mail.

Send me dead flowers to my wedding—

And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave

—from “Dead Flowers” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards,

AS: Is there anyone you wish had done one of your songs?

TVZ: Yeah. Ernest Tubb. I have a song called… Can’t remember the name of it. (Sings) Don’t you take it too bad. And then he died without recording it. (Laughs.) And I was actually peed-off at him for a couple of days.

AS: Was he planning on recording it or something?

TVZ: No, he wasn’t gonna record it, but he died. I mean he was maybe gonna record it.

AS: Was he thinking about it?

TVZ: No, he wasn’t even thinking about it. I wanted him to and then he died. It’s hard to be peed-off at the dead for long.


Sorrow and solitude

These are the precious things

And the only words

That are worth rememberin’

—from “Nothin”

In one of those accidents of fate, my tape recorder wasn’t working properly. I knew Townes would be in San Francisco a day later because I was going to see him perform at Slim’s, so I asked to meet him and he kindly agreed. On the phone, I’d gotten an engaging conversationalist. In person at the Phoenix Hotel, he was for the most part warm and witty; yet at times he spoke slowly and softly, almost as if suffering. He’d leave long pauses hanging, so it was hard to know if he had completed his thought. I tried not to fill dead air with mindless questions; I just recorded what he said, and he kept talking.

Holding a mini-bottle of vodka, Townes spoke of an album that, to my knowledge, was never recorded:

TVZ: After we finish this tour we’re going down to Texas to this studio that we know real good and just make up songs, and call it Sky Songs. They’ll all be original — all by me. I’m pretty good at that sometimes. With, you know, a little shot of hooey… I can really do it. Well, sometimes they come from the top — from the roof. Sometimes they come from the floor. Sometimes they come from the window and sometimes the heart. Occasionally from the mind. Bukka White, old blues player, called them Sky Songs, because they just come out. He never wrote any of them down. He’d just start playin’. So that’s kind of the next project.


I asked Townes why he’d never written political songs, given that he’d come up in the folk scene. His answer surprised me: he had, he said.

TVZ: Topical, more than political. Shade of a difference, I suppose. Might come about the same time we’re working on the Sky Songs. Might come about… I’ve written so much about romance and death and misery. And love and hope also. The topics are getting kind of narrow. I have – a couple you know. I have one named “Marie” that’s on this new record, about homeless people. “Tecumseh Valley” is pretty topical. It’s about a girl who’s a good girl gone… better.

The songs he considered “topical” tell the respective stories of a homeless couple and a prostitute. Each illuminates the suffering of the forgotten, but they are ballads from the oldest folk tradition. He made his statement with the stories he chose to tell:

I stood in line and left my name.

Took about six hours or so.

Well, the man just grinned

Like it was all a game

Said they’d let me know.

I put in my time till the Pocono line

Shut down two years ago.

I was staying at the mission till I met Marie

Now I can’t stay there no more.

—from “Marie”


In his small, spare room at The Phoenix, Townes wore a pale denim shirt decorated with plastic bone beads and faux-Native American stitching. A heavy stonewashed jean jacket hung on the desk chair. He was very thin, which made him appear old for his age, but still handsome in an Abe Lincoln kind of way, with his pronounced cheekbones and longish graying hair. He sat on a double bed across from me and Harold Eggers, smoking. Harold rested on the same bed I sat on, keeping a respectful distance and seeming nonplussed, but he chimed in from time to time. When I asked for autographs on a few records, Townes said they’d be worth more to collectors if he didn’t write my name on them – looking out for me in case I ever needed a few bucks. Harold advocated on my behalf in favor of personalizing the inscription. I’m forever grateful. On one LP, Townes drew me a desert scene; the other he signed simply “Best Wishes.”

It seemed that something had happened in the interim between conversations — debilitating travel, maybe — I didn’t know, but I guessed, given the evidence in his small room, and the mixed-signals about how much he’d cleaned up his act, that he was not a well man.

TVZ: I’d like to — I don’t know how to do it — write one about AIDS. Always takes a long time for ideas to germinate. I’ve thought about it awhile. Since I’m not acquainted with it, it seems kind of condescending to do it like your brother-in-law has AIDS, but I want to do it from the first person. But it’s hard to, I mean, makes me feel like, who do I think I am to be singing about this when I’m not acquainted with it? But it’s a good subject. I’ve been thinking about it and it’ll come up one way or the other, you know, hopefully, and there’s any number of topics for political songs and all different ways to approach them. (He tugs at his elaborate shirt.) You know I don’t have any idea where I got this shirt or that jacket. I just woke up with them on. Plus I got a big bump on my head and a broken toe.

AS: What happened?

TVZ: I don’t know. It’s OK. A shirt and a jacket are worth a broken toe and a lump, I guess.

AS: It’s a pretty nice shirt.

TVZ: It is? I haven’t looked at it yet. I don’t look in mirrors too much. Is there anything on the back of it?

AS: The back goes in a V, real simple.

TVZ: I’ll just walk backwards to the gig.

A few gray federales say

they could’ve had him any day.

They only let him go so wrong —

out of kindness I suppose…

—from “Pancho and Lefty”


TVZ: In America when I play, I’m a folksinger — just me and my guitar. And when they’re recorded in America they’re usually recorded country, like Willie and Emmylou. In Europe they’re usually rock. They’re turned into rock or grunge. But they don’t fit into a category. I don’t write for anyone. It’s between me and the spirits. And the people on Earth. Every recording ever of mine, a cover, I’ve loved. Well, a person or a band, whatever they may be, takes a song of mine, learns it and does it their way: I mean you can’t fault that. There’s Eskimos around the campfire in Alaska passing around the guitar and maybe one of them will play “Pancho and Lefty” or something, and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

“Pancho and Lefty,” of course, was a number one country hit for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Townes once modestly said that the pair “could record ‘Happy Birthday’ and it would sound good.” He was asked to play a role in the video.

TVZ: It was real nice they invited me. They didn’t have to invite me and I made I think $100 dollars a day. I was the captain of the federales. And plus I got to ride a horse. I always like that. It took four and a half days and that video was four and a half minutes long… The money goes by a strange life, or elsewhere. I mean it doesn’t come to me. But money’s not the question. I would like if I could write a song that would somehow turn one five-year-old girl around to do right. Then I’ve done good. That’s what I care about.


Days full of rain

Sky’s comin’ down again.

I get so tired

Of the same old blues,

Same old song.

Baby, it won’t be long

Till I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes

—from “Flyin’ Shoes”

TVZ: Mickey Newbury (was the) first guy who ever took me to Nashville. He saw me playing in Houston one night back during the days I was telling you about, the ramblin’ days, which haven’t really slowed down much, but like we were talking about, he saw me and said “Maybe you better come to Nashville.” And I said, “Sure.” Then he said, “You have to come to Seattle,” or “You have to come to Chicago.” I said, “Sure.” “You have to come to New York.” “Sure.” “You have to come to Lubbock.” “Sure.”

TVZ: And he was talking about a record deal and a publishing deal with Jack Clement, and that had never even crossed my mind, times were different, and so we went and I was just all the sudden there in a recording studio and putting down these songs. Got a publishing company, made a record, For the Sake of the Song, and it’s now been re-released under the title The First Album. I like it, but I had to re-record about four of the songs, because I was just totally taken — not on purpose — but totally taken off guard. I was surrounded by ten of the best musicians in the world. Boy, and I’m a hick from Texas, you know? I’m a cowboy hippie from Texas and all of a sudden I’m playing these songs and I was just showing ‘em how they went and just playing. And then I realized toward the end of the record that that’s not how the song goes. That’s not how it was written, so on the next record I had veto power and listened and took equal charge.

TVZ: It used to be much different ‘cause you could go to a place and play, audition on Wednesday. If the club owner liked you, you could play on Friday for twenty bucks. All over Colorado and Texas, Oklahoma. Nowadays you go into the basement or garage and make a tape and if you get a good enough tape you send it to a record company and you could get a record label. But I was kind of at the end of the ramblin’ folksinger period. Myself and Guy Clark and many other folks. It’s seriously different now. I know when and where I’m going to be months from now. It used to be like, ‘Hey, Guy, grab your guitar man, let’s go to Oklahoma City, there’s a new joint.’ Hop in the old Chevrolet and play a song or two Wednesday night and play for twenty bucks Friday. I did that for a long time. And playing bars with the cowboy hat to collect the money. And back then I didn’t have a family and not so many bad habits as I do now, so twenty bucks would last a week. But you know now I really do have a family — and not so many bad habits, matter of fact. But twenty dollars does not go where it used to.

AS: People used to describe you as a rounder. But not any more, you say?

TVZ: Afraid so. Harold, would you say I was a rounder?

Harold: I’d say.


Living on the road my friend

Was gonna keep you free and clean

Now you wear your skin like iron

And your breath’s as hard as kerosene

You weren’t your mama’s only boy,

But her favorite one it seems.

She began to cry when you said goodbye

And sank into your dreams.

—from “Pancho and Lefty”

TVZ: There’s so many good young people and old people, I can’t listen to it all. I end up listening to Muddy Waters and Mozart, Muddy Waters and Mozart. Hank Williams every so often, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I mean, I listen quite a bit, but mostly I’m playing. Traveling and playing. And when I’m in a car, somebody gives you a tape, you listen to it. That’s one of the best places, but eventually it comes down to the hum of the wheels.

TVZ: But this land is covered with brilliant young and old musicians. What it takes is perseverance, and you have to be lazy. You have to be too lazy to work. When you start, at least, it helps not to have a family, because I started before I had a family. Young men come up to me and say, ‘I’d really like to do what you, how shall I go about it?’ I say, well you get a guitar or a piano (I prefer a guitar because it’s a lot easier to carry than a piano), then you’ve got to blow off security, money, your family, your loved ones, your home, blow it all off and stay with your guitar somewhere under a bridge and learn how to play it. That’s how it goes. That’s what I did. And that discourages a lot of them, ‘cause some of them are like, ‘I have two kids and I work in a gas station. I’m going to save my money and go to Nashville for a week.’ But that ain’t it. And girls, young ladies, occasionally ask me. I say, well first off, you’ve got to cut all your fingernails on your left hand off. And that stops most of them. But it ain’t easy. I mean, it’s not hard; it ain’t easy. It’s killing me, I know that. Something’s killing everybody. Just sometimes I get so tired that I can’t even sleep.

Townes paused here, and I struggled to find the right response. Ultimately, I asked if he preferred to stay at home, and he said No.

TVZ: I like touring. When I’m not touring, you know, the devil makes work for idle hands. Oh yeah, I like projects and touring and new records. Sometimes it just wears you down, big time. But I’ve learned to eat and not go to the parties after the gig every night, come back to the room, because a lot of people have big time parties set up and they only go to them once a month, whereas if H. and I did that we’d go to one every day. When we leave, I mean they’re gone to sleep and we hit the next town and there’s no party, so you have to balance it, drink your orange juice and try to take your vitamins.


Reading A Deeper Blue and other articles over the years, I’ve found that, like many musicians, Van Zandt revisited common themes in his interviews. Some of the stuff I’d gotten was recycled, but there were improvisatory riffs that segued into new imagery, new conclusions. I was surprised to find in Hardy’s book a passage from my abbreviated interview. I hope that means some of the material was new to him. In any event, except for the country music diehards who read Maybelle (and if you’ve heard of it, we probably owe you some money), much of this interview makes its debut here.


I come from a long line: High and low and in between— Same as you.


There is the highway

And the homemade lovin’ kind.

The highway’s mine.


Heaven’s where you find it

And you can’t take too much with you.

Ah, but Daddy, don’t you listen—

It’s just this highway talkin’.

All things that are alive,

Our brothers in the soil

And in the sky.

I believe it with my blood

If not my eyes.


Answers don’t seem easy.

And I’m wondering

if they could be.


—from “High, Low and In Between”


Later that same evening I took my friend and Maybelle co-editor Tim to see Townes perform at Slim’s. He’d perched his tall, angular body on a stool, guitar on one knee, and was still wearing the mystery denim shirt with the imitation hairpipe beads that suggested a sort of suburban Pow Wow regalia. In the gulfs between songs, he’d put on metal finger picks, carefully, slowly, one on each finger of his right hand, then remove them to start the process over again while he told corny jokes (“say, officer — somebody stole my car…”), my hopes rising and falling every time he replaced and rejected the picks. Corny jokes take on new resonance when balanced against lyrics of depression, death, heartache, and departing (more than any other theme, his songs return to the solace of leaving: “I’m goin’ out on the highway, listen to them big trucks whine. White freight liner won’t you steal away my mind…”). The jokes become a necessity, a venting, and even his earliest recordings show him proficiently mixing light and dark, the “high, low, and in between.” When he didn’t seem to be getting around to playing the songs, however, they were just bad jokes told by an alcoholic we wished to god were singing.

I wondered again what had happened in the few hours since I’d last seen him. Though he spoke considerably more slowly than the day before, he’d barely let me out of the room he had so much to say. The interview had kept going long after I’d asked my last question; he talked about old albums and old friends, plans for upcoming recordings and tours. In A Deeper Blue, longtime friend and accompanist Mickey White suggests Townes put on a drunk act, because “he was building his legend.” White said he’d seen him go on stage completely sober, then fumble lyrics and stumble his way through the show. White’s theory does have the perverse ring of truth. It’s possible. But why would a man so concerned with his own myth labor to leave such a sad story behind? Or was White, like me, just wishing Townes wasn’t as messed up as he was?

Watching him perform was a near pure experience of anxiety. He’d invited us to say hello afterwards. I wondered if we should go. What would we say? Great show? He didn’t seem drunk enough to believe that. But wasn’t it worse not to go backstage? Wasn’t that saying something? How tragic would this show get?

It wouldn’t turn out to be one of the worst, like a show where he famously howled his lyrics like a dog, and not in a Hank Williams “Moaning the Blues” kind of way. Like a dog. There were brief glimmers of the artist we’d come to see, singing his songs that hurt too much — enough to raise questions about our complicity. Why were we asking this of him?

If I needed you would you come to me?

Would you come to me and ease my pain?

If you needed me I would come to you;

I’d swim the seas to ease your pain

—from “If I Needed You”

We did end up visiting the over-lit green room afterwards. I have no idea what I managed to say but I remember trying to smile a lot. Townes, Harold, and a friend were hanging out on the old sofas. The friend was wearing a floppy leather hat and waving around a cane. He told us he was from the east coast: Colorado. He goaded Townes into wagering fifty dollars on a coin toss. Harold argued wearily against this plan. Townes lost at least a few rounds in the short time we were there. We interrupted the betting long enough to get our picture taken for our fanzine, Tim next to Townes, me on the right. Tim said it was like hugging a skeleton.

Tim and I hadn’t spoken about that time in many years, but recently we met on a clouded day, and on the small cement amphitheater overlooking the Watts Towers I asked him what he recalled. He remembered the expensive coin tosses in the green room, his arm around Townes’s shoulder, all bones, and that when he picked me up at the Phoenix Hotel, I told him Townes had been drinking vodka like water. Strangely enough, I hadn’t remembered that detail at all.


Oh, my sorrow is real even though I can’t change my plans.

If she could see how I feel, then I’d know that she understands.

Or does she actually think I’m to blame?

Does she really believe that some word of mine

could relieve all her pain?

Can’t she see that she grieves just because she’s been blindly deceived by her shame?

But maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song.

And who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong?


—from “The Sake of the Song”


Here’s the section of the interview I had edited in 1994, now complete. Not exactly breaking news. I feel that if I could adequately describe how difficult it seemed to be for him to say these few lines, how long he waited between each short phrase, how quickly he pushed for the release valve by turning to humor, it might help explain my fundamental misunderstanding of my role in the situation, my failure to accept my part in the dissemination of the myth. Maybe not. Here it is, anyway.

AS: I want to ask you about some songs like “Lungs,” “Kathleen,” “Rex’s Blues.” They all deal with a heavy depression state. Is that something you’ve struggled with?

TVZ: Many times… Half the time…. I live on the edge. I’ve been in six or seven mental hospitals and ten or twelve alcohol hospitals… Going to the mountains this summer. I hope. Colorado, up in the wilderness, which I used to do a lot. I think I’ll try to do it again. I have two horses lined up. Most people would probably classify me as crazy as a loon, right H.?

Harold: At least. That’d be an understatement.

TVZ: I want to know where I got this shirt and that jacket. I’m afraid to open my suitcase because it might have a bomb in it. My ex-wife packed it. ‘Cause I figure, I’m dressed. We just came back from Europe from a big one, and this time it dawned on me, man I’m carrying too much stuff. This suitcase is too heavy. So yesterday I woke up wearing that jacket, with a lump on my head, a broken toe and this shirt. I said, “Where’s my guitar, let’s go.” Then I missed the first plane, caught the second plane. H. came from Austin and met me here, and I can’t really decipher what happened, but I’m scared to open the suitcase. May be a snake in there or something.

He laughs. “You want to open it?”


I read in A Deeper Blue that a few weeks following our interview, Townes was on a respirator in the ICU at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville — on prescriptions for medical detoxification. After being admitted for food poisoning he began having seizures. He had not told the doctors he was an alcoholic so they didn’t understand at first that these were DTs, severe symptoms of withdrawal. Of the “numerous attempts to dry Townes out,” writes Hardy, “none had been as harrowing as this one.” His ex-wife Jeanene believed he nearly died there. In the next few years, his alcoholism and touring continued unabated until a hip fracture he ignored for several weeks required surgery, and the doctors wanted to detox him again. His ex-wife, insisting he was too weak to undergo the physical stress, took him home where he died not long after.


As Townes walked me to the door of the hotel room that day, he put his hand on the frame as I was passing through, and said, “Well, I wish you could help me, Aretha.”

This is the last story I withheld. It is definitely, to my mind — both then and now — something he wanted me to run with. I’ve told many people over the years, so it isn’t that I’ve kept it entirely private. But I was keenly aware of Townes’s spinning his legend as he talked to me. I was also aware that the myth was the truth, or had become the truth in his case. As he said the words, I felt the full weight of his destructive behavior, his myth-making, his ability to transfix and beguile an audience, and more clearly than all those nebulous things, that he was handing me a perfect ending to my piece. “Help you with what?” I asked.

TVZ: “Help me through this vale of tears.”

Now who wouldn’t use that? He had asked me by name, but I knew the request wasn’t specific to me. He’d smiled a little and sighed as he said it, like he was aware it wasn’t something any of his fellow travelers had the power to do. Still, I understood it to be an honest plea. I wish we could have helped him, too. Townes was both a storyteller and a man in pain: he was writing his own ending. I wanted a different one, of course, but he was a triple Pisces – he knew better.


LARB Contributor

Aretha Sills is a novelist and teacher of improvisational theater. She's worked in the music industry as record clerk and music writer, and in artists and repertoire. She lives in Los Angeles.



LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!