Thursday, December 3, 2009
Townes Van Zandt - Pancho and Lefty
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John Townes Van Zandt (March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997), best known as Townes Van Zandt, was a country-folk music singer-songwriter, performer, and poet. Many of his songs, including "If I Needed You," "To Live Is To Fly," and "No Place to Fall" are considered standards of their genre. AllMusic has called him "one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation."
While alive, Van Zandt was labeled as a cult musician: though he had a small and devoted fanbase, he never had a successful album or single, and even had difficulty keeping his recordings in print. In 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song "Pancho and Lefty", scoring a number one hit on the Billboard country music charts. Despite achievements like these, the bulk of his life was spent touring various dive bars, often living in cheap motel rooms, backwoods cabins and on friends' couches. Van Zandt was notorious for his drug addictions, alcoholism, and his tendency to tell tall tales. He suffered from manic depression, and attempts to treat it with insulin shock therapy erased much of his long-term memory.
Van Zandt died on New Years Day 1997 from health problems stemming from years of substance abuse. The 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt. During the decade, two books, a documentary film and a number of magazine articles about the singer were created. Van Zandt's music has been covered by such notable and varied musicians as Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Norah Jones, Steve Earle and The Meat Puppets.
In 1977, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas was released. The album showcased Van Zandt solo at a 1973 concert before a small audience, free from the over-production that shackled many of his early records. The album received extremely positive reviews, and is considered by many to be among the best albums that the songwriter ever released. Several points on the album showcased his dry sense of humor, a feature that also showed in some of his songwriting.
According to Susanna Clark, Van Zandt turned down repeated invitations to write with Bob Dylan. Dylan was reportedly a "big fan" of Townes and claimed to have all of his records; Van Zandt admired Dylan's songs, but didn't care for his celebrity. The two first met during a chance encounter outside a costume shop in the South Congress district of Austin, Texas on June 21, 1986. According to Johnny Guess, Dylan later arranged another meeting with the songwriter. The Drag in Austin was shut down due to Dylan being in town; Van Zandt drove his motorhome to the quartered-off area, after which Dylan boarded the vehicle and requested to hear him play several songs.
Van Zandt has been referred to as a cult musician and "a songwriter's songwriter." Musician Steve Earle, a close friend, once said Van Zandt was "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 quote was printed on a sticker featured on the packing of At My Window, much to Van Zandt's displeasure. Van Zandt responded: "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."