Longer listens: Townes Van Zandt

By Salon Staff
April 4, 2006 12:30AM (UTC)
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"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that," the singer Steve Earle once proclaimed. Earle is not exactly an impartial observer. In "Be Here to Love Me," a brilliant documentary on Van Zandt released on DVD last month, Earle tells of their long friendship (and of once watching Townes load a revolver with a single bullet, put it against his head, and pull the trigger three times). But you don't have to take Earle's word for it. As legend has it, Dylan himself once requested a private audience with Van Zandt and sat listening in admiration. Perhaps best known for "Pancho and Lefty," a song Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made into a chart-topping single in 1982, Van Zandt died of heart failure on New Year's Day in 1997 at the age of 52. During his short life, Van Zandt put together a catalog of folk and country tunes that have been covered by Emmylou Harris, the Cowboy Junkies and Nanci Griffith, among others -- and cherished by a great many more.

"Be Here to Love Me" treats Van Zandt -- his genius, his charm and his failure in the face of addiction -- with a delicacy fitting to things that bear little explaining. It is one of the saddest movies you'll ever hope to see. In this interview (12:21, Real Audio) with radio veteran Felton Pruitt from TownesVanZandt.com and recorded before a show in February of 1995, Van Zandt tells the story (also told in the movie) of writing "If I Needed You" in his sleep. "I had this dream, another one of those vivid jobs," he says, "and I was a folksinger ... and that was the song I played. And I woke up and I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor and there was a paper and a pencil there and I just rolled over in the middle of the night and wrote it down exactly and remembered the guitar part exactly." Van Zandt also tells of all the songs that got away: "I write a lot at parties, you know, pickin' parties. And they're played once and never again -- good songs, but there was no tape recorder and no paper."


-- Ira Boudway

Salon Staff

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