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January 5, 2012 2:00 PM   Subscribe

I did this interview with Townes 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.

Townes Van Zandt died 15 years ago on New Years' Day. Along with the heartrending interview/article above, please enjoy some rare footage of Townes at work.

An Evening with Townes Van Zandt, from Austin public access TV (Part 1, Part 2).
Televised solo session from the Austin Music Network (1995)
Songs from a private "concert" performed in a Houston Holiday Inn in 1988:
posted by mudpuppie (24 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for this post.
posted by dpx.mfx at 2:05 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

For the Televised solo session link, there is a correctly-sync'ed version available here. Thanks for this!
posted by not_on_display at 2:08 PM on January 5, 2012

Probably worth drawing attention to the top YouTube comment on the private performance clips:

i dont know how you got this footage ,but im the guy who filmed it. a law suit by his x family took away any chance i had of using this work,and spoiled a deal with universal music for the dvd and a cd soundtrack. his x's said the quality was not good enough for them. i am glad to see my work on youtube ,but if i put this up i would surely be sued .i hope everyone who sees it enjoys

hank sinatra
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:30 PM on January 5, 2012

Thank you, mudpuppie.

"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."
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:35 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Awesome post!
posted by alteredcarbon at 2:42 PM on January 5, 2012

My favorite is "To Live is to Fly." An amazing songwriter.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:50 PM on January 5, 2012

Thanks for this. I've tried to get into TVZ several times in the past, and I haven't been caught like I assumed I would be. The Televised Solo video is really working for me, though.
posted by OmieWise at 3:22 PM on January 5, 2012

That site wouldn't let me out.
posted by kenaldo at 3:30 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

"The dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth"

That, in my opinion, is quite simply one of the finest things anyone has ever written. Poets spend entire careers trying to do that. And Townes probably scribbled it down on a damp cocktail napkin while drunk and forgot about it until he went looking for his lighter the next day. Goddamn.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:38 PM on January 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

That dust Pancho bit down south will end up in all our mouth's someday.

That's the way it goes!
posted by bukvich at 3:55 PM on January 5, 2012

Steve Earle, covering "Rake". Feels even sadder, in light of that interview.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:05 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm with BitterOldPunk - Pancho and Lefty is one of the greatest songs ever written.

It's also remarkably under-analyzed. Taken literally, it's somewhat straightforward. Lefty was an idealistic young radical/musician who followed his dreams, moved to Mexico, and lived like an outlaw with Pancho, a well-known bandit. Lefty ultimately turns Pancho over to the cops (although the police perhaps could have had him anyway). In exchange for turning over Pancho, the cops give Lefty money to go home to Ohio. Pancho's death lies heavy on Lefty and he's lost his art.

On another level, this is a song about the failures of an idealistic American Left after the 1960s. The opening invocation is not to Lefty but to the Left in general. Despite high hopes, the Left's been battered and beaten. Internationalism and cosmopolitanism seemed like great ideas at the time, but instead a good deal of Third World countries in shambles after insufficient support from these same idealists, who often formed coalitions with repressive regimes. Written four years after the Tlatelolco massacre, the desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold and we're stuck in the hell of permanent Nixonianism.

There are also pretty heavy gay overtones, most notably when talking how Pancho wore his gun in a manner for the world to feel. It's a song about experimentation, random things ending up in people's mouths, and making your mother cry.

Ultimately, I tend to think there's a combination of the "left" critique and a parable about maturity. As we go through life, we watch as our dreams fail, as we cause damage, we fail our parents, we lose our ability to see things in black and white. And that's why the ending is so painful, that we are supposed to save our pains for Lefty as well. In some sense we all do what we have to do and we slowly go old.

And this is all in 262 words. Bob Dylan is no slouch, but each verse of Chimes of Freedom is that long. The whole thing is just beautiful.
posted by allen.spaulding at 4:21 PM on January 5, 2012 [9 favorites]

I love those lines of verse that make you step off and realize, an ordinary person just could not write that.
posted by thelonius at 4:32 PM on January 5, 2012

"The dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth"

That's a great line. As a writer, I'm quite jealous of "your breath's as hard as kerosene."
posted by Bookhouse at 4:58 PM on January 5, 2012

For sheer, unsettling, pants-shitting terror, there's nothing like "The Hole."
posted by notsnot at 6:02 PM on January 5, 2012

Great article.
posted by saul wright at 6:14 PM on January 5, 2012

Thank you so much. If I Needed This, It Would Come To Me.

Such a transcendent artist. Such a fucking chaotic human being.
posted by spitbull at 6:20 PM on January 5, 2012

Hey Bookhouse, in introducing "Pancho and Lefty" Townes used to say that it "just blew in the window one day while I was sitting on the couch."

Met him once. Heard him live half a dozen times.
posted by spitbull at 6:22 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Townes Van Zandt is my favourite writer, mostly for his untouchable meloncholy and his allegorical politics--oh and the song Lungs, I would give up several children for the song Lungs to exist.
posted by PinkMoose at 6:55 PM on January 5, 2012

"Bein' born is goin' blind"
Thanks for the reminder.
posted by kneecapped at 11:44 PM on January 5, 2012

Townes was a tortured genius. I was lucky enough to see him perform with Guy Clark. Talk about two guys with stories to tell.

Townes has been covered by a lot of folks. James McMurtry has recorded rocking versions of Rex's Blues several times (I can't find it on youtube, but well worth searching out- Steve Earle performs Rex's Blues a lot, too) Nanci Griffith's version of Tecumseh (mentioned above) is achingly beautiful, and Willie Nelson's version of Pancho and Lefty is the bomb.

Also, here's John Gorka (another great songwriter in his own right) performing Snow Don't Fall.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:10 AM on January 6, 2012

Thank you, looking forward to the links!
posted by yarly at 1:03 PM on January 6, 2012

I got to see Jolie Holland just *kill* Rex's Blues last summer here in Austin, at some steakhouse she played for some reason. I cried, how could you not? What a desperately - emphasis on the desparate- sad man. I can't even listen to say "A Song For", hardly ever. How can you write a song that says so much, so eloquently, about having nothing left to say?

Quoted in the article, from Rex's Blues, qft again:

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
posted by hap_hazard at 1:51 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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