A rambling, shambling Townes talks a lot, tells long jokes and occasionally sings a song.
You don’t always get to see your heroes, or sometimes they become your heroes too late. I never got to see Johnny Cash, Little Feat or James Carr. I did however, get to see Tom Waits, Whiskeytown and on the night in question, Townes Van Zandt. To be honest it wasn’t the greatest show I’ve ever witnessed, but shit, it was Townes Van Zandt and I’d never seen him before. To put it all in perspective, Townes had suffered from alcoholism and drug addition most of his adult life, a brief period of sobriety in early 1990s had given way to a lapse back into his former habits. This gig occured only a few months after Townes had been hospitalised and gone through a period of detox. Townes, on the night in question, was clearly not in good health and was very intoxicated. Yet despite that, he still had a magical aura, a drunken charm and some bloody good songs.
There is a 2CD bootleg of the show that is still obtainable. Listening to it again, the show was even more fractured and ramshackle than I recall (despite some editing). Townes’ voice is weak, sometimes even frail, much more so than I’d noticed on the night, even though it was clear then that things weren’t right. Maybe I was slightly intoxicated myself that night, not with alcohol, but more imbued with a sense of wonderment that ultimately prevented me from seeing the full picture – I saw my hero Townes in front of me as I imagined him, rather than as the actual person that was standing there. I remember feeling a sense of elation, I remember really wanting him to nail it, but alas, he fell well short.
In 1994, as well as being hospitalised and visiting Manchester, Townes also released his last proper album of new material and his first for seven years. ‘No Deeper Blue’ is a patchy affair. The first four songs ‘A Song For’, ‘Blaze’s Blues’, ‘The Hole’ and ‘Marie’ are worthy of taking their place in the great Townes canon of songs. All four were in the set, although ‘The Hole’ is not on the bootleg. However, it was ‘Katie Belle Blue’ Townes’ lullaby to his then two year old daughter that was the most poignent and heartfelt moment of the evening. Amongst all the rambling and stuttering talk and ‘going through the motions’ renditions of his songs, here were a few minutes of genuine emotion. The pain and regret were tangible as Townes, a long way from home, in front of a thin crowd, reflected through the words of the song on the father that he wasn’t. I swear a tear came to his eye.
Song-wise the rest of the set was made up of a mixture of Townes standards; ‘Flyin’ Shoes’, ‘Tecumseh Valley’ and of course ‘Pancho and Lefty’ but also a high ratio of covers. That someone who had written so many great songs himself should choose to sing other peoples’ songs seemed odd then and still does on reflection now. Maybe, because of his health problems, Townes just defaulted to what he knew best. There are numerous reports from around this time of Townes forgetting words and messing up songs. I don’t recall him doing that on this particular evening – perhaps the covers were his insurance policy. Anyway, he worked his way through Peter La Farge’s ‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ My Starter Won’t Start’, Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Racing in the Street’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Dead Flowers’. Great songs all of them, but the people came to hear Townes and they didn’t always go down well. This was particularly the case when he chose to throw in Tepper And Bennett’s ‘Song of the Shrimp’ originally performed by Elvis Presley in his 1962 movie ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’. “The shrimp song” as he referred to it was punctuated by Townes’ giggles, chuckles and self-mocking. as his audience grew increasingly irritated.
Perhaps the “shrimp song” was just another, more practical embodiment of Townes’ procession of jokes. Often long-winded and prolonged by his intoxicated state, Townes seemed totally oblivious to the crowd’s increasing frustration with them, one disgruntled punter imploring him to “just play another song”. At another juncture in the set, Townes asked his audience if they wanted a song or another joke, to which with typical Mancunian candour, they replied unanimously that they wanted a song. Townes responded with “Hey man, it’s easier to remember the jokes”.
My ‘Night to Remember’ was special because I got to see Townes Van Zandt. Do I wish I’d seen him in his prime? – of course. Do I wish I’d seen him sober? – undoubtedly. I saw a pale shadow of the great man on that evening. In many ways it was quite a sad occasion, but there were glimpses of his genius that I will always treasure. To my shame though, there is also an element of that kind of t-shirt wearing one-upmanship, that many americana fans seem to like to indulge in – I could forever say that I saw Townes Van Zandt live.
By way of post-script, I should mention that I saw Townes again at the 1996 Cambridge Folk Festival. If anything he looked worse. A polite and sympathetic crowd saw him through his allotted time. His friend and fellow performer Chris Smither stood at the side of the stage throughout looking concerned. When the set closed, Smither helped him off stage and ushered him away. Less than six months later Townes passed away aged just 52. I doubt that anyone there that day, whilst saddened, would have been surprised to hear the news.
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