Townes Van Zandt, 9/11, and the Wages of Prophecy
By Paul CullumSeptember 27, 2016
But it was poetry, the most democratic of art forms (in that anyone can attempt it), that rose to the challenge most directly. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (“The Names”), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“History of the Airplane”), Galway Kinnell (“When the Towers Fell”), and literally thousands more addressed our collective trauma head on — enough to fill three anthologies in the first year. Older poems, too, seemed to speak to our current catastrophe. Most prominent, by far, was Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of World War II, whose lines “The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night” found special purchase (just as his “Funeral Blues” became the unofficial elegy of AIDS, as appropriated in Four Weddings and a Funeral and elsewhere). Yeats’s “Easter, 1916,” chronicling the Irish uprising against British rule, with its haunting refrain of “A terrible beauty is born,” was frequently cited, as were any number of Wilfred Owens’s WWI elegies — especially “Dulce et Decorum est,” with its evocation of death by mustard gas. The New Yorker Editor David Remnick advanced Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” for its lines, “I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken, / Tumbling walls buried me in their debris.”
But 15 years hence, the truest evocation of that shared experience for me remains an unlikely one: an obscure minor-key ballad and biblical jeremiad titled “Lungs” by the Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997, four years before the towers fell.
Like Hank Williams, Van Zandt died on New Year’s Day. The autopsy report attributed his death to cardiac arrhythmia and myocardial ischemia (a deprivation of oxygen to the heart). It was widely reported as a heart attack, although it probably had more to do with some combination of the hospital drugs administered for his recent hip surgery, the glass of vodka he was sipping to allay the onset of the DTs when his wife took him home against doctors’ orders, and the four Tylenol PM he took as a poor man’s painkiller. Better known outside of Austin and Nashville circles as the high plains mystic who inspired the likes of Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and Lyle Lovett, Van Zandt is probably a textbook example of the distinction between what The Blues Brothers termed “both kinds” of music — “country and western.” A scion of a prominent Texas family who helped found Ft. Worth (hence Steve Earle’s posthumous tribute “Ft. Worth Blues”), he was beset by lifelong depression, alcoholism, and addiction to drugs, including heroin; he claimed his stints in rehab stretched into the double digits. Like fellow depressives Nick Drake (Five Leaves Left, named for the tab in packs of British rolling papers that signals you’re almost out) and Phil Ochs (Rehearsals for Retirement, with its graphic image of a tombstone on the cover), Van Zandt’s recorded output often seemed framed in a gallows humor that was funny until it wasn’t. He named his would-be breakthrough The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
Van Zandt died at 52, the same age as his father, a fact he had long predicted; in one of the most harrowing moments in Margaret Brown’s excellent documentary Be Here to Love Me, Van Zandt can be heard confessing over the phone, “I don’t envision a very long life for myself. I think my life will run out before my work does, you know?” One of my first memories after moving to Austin for college in the late ’70s was the image of him crumpled on the end of the bar at the Hole in the Wall the day after New Year’s Eve (which, if I’m doing the math right, makes it 20 years to the day before he died). He looked like Ronny Cox at the end of Deliverance, one arm improbably bent behind his head, and the bartender told us, “Don’t disturb him; he had a hard night.” For someone whose very first song was titled “Waitin’ Around to Die,” the cause of death may not matter.
“Lungs” was written sometime in mid-1969. It appears on his third studio release, titled simply Townes Van Zandt but often referred to as “The Kitchen Album” for its cover photograph, taken by Sol Mednick in the kitchen of designer Milton Glaser, who created the famous psychedelic Bob Dylan poster that came with his first Greatest Hits LP. The song has been covered by numerous artists, including the Cowboy Junkies (who essentially adopted Van Zandt and brought him on tour, and for whom he wrote “Cowboy Junkies Lament”), and it was recently featured in the second season of True Detective. It’s probably the angriest song in the Van Zandt canon, and reads like Old Testament prophecy, although it’s not entirely clear of what. In his biography A Deeper Blue, Robert Earl Hardy refers to “an apocalyptic power” couched in “the language of dreams.” In To Live’s To Fly, John Kruth suggests it “directly addressed the ravages of addiction.” AllMusic calls it “a mining ballad” — presumably referring to the black lung of coal mining. And in an essay for The A.V. Club, provocatively titled “How Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Lungs’ veers from Platonic epistemology to magic realism,” author Jason Heller suggests the song was inspired by a three-month regimen of insulin shock therapy, administered during his college years at a hospital in Galveston, Texas, to thwart the onset of depression and incipient schizophrenia, with its attendant retrograde amnesia. Then again, according to A Deeper Blue, the inciting incident could even date back to his childhood: when they burned the scrub at his uncle’s rice farm near Houston to get rid of the poison ivy, Van Zandt got it in his lungs and was forced to spend two weeks in gloves, strapped to a bed.
In a 1977 songbook titled For the Sake of the Song edited by Joseph Lomax of the celebrated folklorist clan (copies of which are priced between $400 and $600 on eBay), Van Zandt himself claims the song was born of “the darkness of disease and the fire of frustration. This song should be screamed, not sung.” Steve Earle seemed to take him up on it with the incendiary version on his 2009 tribute album, Townes, punctuated by a blistering guitar solo from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. (Earle is as responsible as anyone for the cult of Townes Van Zandt; his quote — literally invented as a selling tool — is that “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt’s response to the provocation that launched a thousand reissues ably showcases his legendary wit: “I’ve met Bob Dylan’s bodyguards, and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, he’s sadly mistaken.”)
Earle recounted the song’s provenance to the Aquarium Drunkard website in 2009:
The story I heard was that he was in New York and […] got walkin’ pneumonia. He was literally sick with a respiratory ailment. It’s literal past the poetic decimal point. He was a bad-ass. The difference between Townes and Bob Dylan is, and this makes Townes a lot more radical to me in some ways, is Dylan was really heavily influenced by the same kinds of music, but lyrically he was influenced more by modern French poets and the Beats. Whereas Townes was much more influenced by old-school, conventional lyric poets like Robert Frost and Walt Whitman.”
Van Zandt often described himself as a cross between Robert Frost and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the lyrics to “Lungs” suggest some impenetrable amalgamation of “good fences make good neighbors” isolationism and “Cemetery Blues” funereal despair. But reconsidered in light of the events of September 11, they tack to the eschatological, and take on a heretofore undetected prescience:
Won’t you lend your lungs to me?
Mine are collapsing
Plant my feet and bitterly breathe
Up the time that’s passing
Breath I’ll take and breath I’ll give
And pray the day’s not poisoned
Stand among the ones that live
In lonely indecision.
Impact: The first verse portends some great asphyxiating tragedy. The bulk of the deaths came not from fire but from brimstone, the ubiquitous smoke and particulate matter from the vaporized towers. Sight is restricted, hearing lost to the concussion of impact, smell and taste overwhelmed by the acrid stench of the explosions and the sweet, delirious fumes from the tons of unspent jet fuel. With the senses truncated, there is only the insistent passage of time and the stark thrum of survival. The most obvious explanation for these events would be a nuclear attack, the preceding decades of sanctioned paranoia and our obliviousness toward it finally short-circuited by some clerical oversight or bureaucratic impasse. Except that here we still stand, paralyzed by hollow choice, cursed together, but doomed to survive alone.
Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you found
You fool, it’s only moonlight
And if you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
Better leave this dream alone
Try to find another
Aftermath: Groping through the darkness, the cool certitude of stairwell concrete and the ineluctable momentum of gravity, with its promised deliverance of solid ground, our thoughts turn to the darkness within. Surrounding us, everywhere, like feathers swirling in the air, are the pre-digital paper records and cumulative weight of our financial transactions — an ideology and ethical construct now rendered moot by an act of heresy. Greed, ambition, wealth, power — all those forces emanating laser-like from this citadel of global finance — are suddenly reduced to moonshine and lunacy. Scoop it up, try and salvage the toxic ash surrounding you, and you will melt like butter, as surely as Sambo’s tigers. The old order has been made instantly, irrevocably irrelevant.
Salvation sat and crossed herself
And called the devil partner
Wisdom burned upon a shelf
Who’ll kill the raging cancer?
Seal the river at its mouth
Take the water prisoner
Fill the sky with screams and cries
Bathed in fiery answer
Exigency: That old order was perpetuated on moral ambiguity and material displacement. What devil’s bargain did it demand of us; what rot in the armature? And what recourse is available to its litigants, once our theory has been bent to privilege and our own chauvinism, and our philosopher’s stone encased defiantly in its own island-vault? Relating these repercussions as if in a dream, the narrator imagines the now-familiar litany of carnage as prognosis and strategy on the part of its perpetrators: contain the sickness, close off egress, tighten the noose, and visit a coruscating rain of fire from above.
Jesus was an only son
And love his only concept
Now strangers cry in foreign tongues
And dirty up the doorstep
And I for one and you for two
Ain’t got the time for outside
Keep your injured looks to you
We’ll tell the world that we tried
Absolution: Our grand experiment was launched in the name of Christian charity and spiritual redemption. It’s perhaps this moral grandeur that most of all enflames those touched by its insidious ripples. The wretched refuse of our teeming shore — tenuous guests at best — have now been replaced by armored Saracens bearing outsourced rage and terror. Those trapped in the crosshairs, the broken narrator included — innocent but not, unwitting but aware, literal canon fodder — are left bereft of hope, their imagined empire reduced to rubble, sucking the oxygen from its own embers. Best to forgo resentment and self-pity and accept the biblical Armageddon that always awaited us. Our failure is our proof of action, hence our absolution. We’ll tell the world that we tried.
Perhaps this lacks the spiritual uplift or healing balm of Auden or Whitman. But then, prophecy often does. Certainly the weight of bearing its message did Van Zandt no great favors.
All lyrics ©1969 Silver Dollar Music
Paul Cullum is a writer and journalist living in Los Angeles. He has written extensively for the L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Film Threat, Arthur, Black Clock, and hundreds of other marginally subversive magazines.
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