TOWNES VAN ZANDT MOVIE
From Harp Magazine, 2005
By Steven Rosen
Just the other night, at a small club in Covington, Ky., Ray Wylie Hubbard ended his set with his own reflectively melancholy ballad, “The Messenger.”
When he got to the line “And to the rock and roll gypsies/may the last song you sing/be by Mr. Van Zandt/when you’re down in old Santa Fe,” some heads nodded in understanding. Just another way, I thought, that a shared aesthetic is forming that the late, great Townes Van Zandt represented the highest achievement in blues and roots-music balladry – an inheritor of Woody Guthrie’s and Hank Williams’ legacy.
What’s remarkable about this is that Van Zandt, with his mournful songs and ruggedly somber and lonesome voice, never had much more than a cult following while alive. And awareness of him is still growing. (He died on New Year’s Day, 1997, of heart failure brought on by a lifetime of hard living. He was 52 and had started recording in the late 1960s.)
But that cult included his fellow Texas troubadours (and other kindred spirits) – Hubbard, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris – who wear their affection for him like a Medal of Honor. They continue to spread word of his legacy and the timeless worth of his songs like “Pancho and Lefty,” “To Live’s to Fly,” “Be Here to Love Me,” “Flyin’ Shoes,” and “Waitin’ Around to Die.”
Also spreading the word is Margaret Brown – an Austin-based filmmaker whose new documentary “Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes Van Zandt” is getting a Fall national theatrical release from Palm Pictures.
Poetic and even loving, yet unflinchingly honest when it could have been prosaic and sensationalistic about his life, it does him well. (Brown never knew Van Zandt.)
But then the lanky, dark-haired Van Zandt does himself well in the movie – which includes film of him singing before audiences in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. True, from the old footage and archival interviews amassed by Brown, it’s clear he often could be a self-destructive substance abuser – a heavy smoker hanging out in ramshackle housing with a shotgun and booze always nearby.
But his periods of sobriety were informed by a lucid, haunting frankness. The film’s key moment comes when a calm Van Zandt – looking weary but alert during a 1995 interview – is asked by a journalist why all his songs are so sad. “I have a few that aren’t sad – they’re hopeless,” he replies. “The rest aren’t sad, they’re just the way life goes.”
Then he looks at the (off-camera) interviewer and asks, like a teacher to a naïve student, “You don’t think life’s sad?” Waiting a few seconds, he goes on to explain his view of songwriting – and life. “By recognizing sadness you can put it aside, be happy and enjoy the happy side of life. Blues is happy music.”
It is that viewpoint that appealed to filmmaker Brown. “There’s something about hearing people sing songs about despair and heartbreak,” she says, during a telephone interview. “You remember someone else has been through an experience like yours.”
Brown got support for her project from people who knew Van Zandt – his three wives, two sons and daughter, sister, cousin and high-school friends. Admiring fellow musicians tell their favorite stories about Van Zandt.
Yet the most telling ones come from people outside the music business. They reveal a troubled soul early on, despite being born to a comfortable Houston family. His parents institutionalized him for suicidal tendencies and he received shock therapy. And his first wife recalls how, while still newlyweds, he sequestered himself in their small apartment’s coat closet to write his first song ever – “Waitin’ Around to Die.” “I was expecting a love ballad,” she says.
No one can watch “Be Here to Love Me” without realizing Van Zandt’s music is spectacular. But his life? “I want people when they watch the film to think about the common artistic question – how much do you have to live your art,” Brown says. “I believe you have to go there to know what it’s about. But I’m not sure you have to take it as far as Townes did.”