- 07 Mar 19
On what would have been the legendary American singer-songwriter's 75th birthday, we're revisiting his classic 1995 interview with Hot Press's Patrick Brennan.
It’s two thirty on a wet and windy afternoon in Dublin. The Harcourt Hotel bar has a few late lunch stragglers scattered here and there. Townes Van Zandt, living legend, has just ordered a vodka. As the first draught steadies him, Townes unhesitatingly orders another.
“Is vodka your preferred tipple Mr Van Zandt?” wonders your innocent awe-struck hack.
“No, ahm, actually I like crocodile piss and alligator sperm. I’m from the Bayou, you see,” replies Townes Van Zandt with the faintest hint of contempt in his voice. Ask a stupid question, have the urine deservedly taken out of you I suppose. He looks me straight in the eye and for one deadly moment there’s an awkward silence. I venture to ask what colour this miraculous potion might be.
“Green,” comes the dour reply.
“Oh we have that over here. It comes in large bottles and goes by the name of Pernod.”
At that, Townes Van Zandt breaks up with laughter and starts to nod his head affirmatively. The ice is broken. Townes orders a second vodka and I swop my coffee for a Guinness.
“Actually I was all set up by my folks to go into real estate but then I saw Elvis Presley on television and so that Christmas I asked and got an electric guitar and that was that really.” Townes Van Zandt is telling me how he first became hooked to music. “My people along with some others were the founders of Fort Worth,” he continues. “They had pretty big ideas for me too but as soon as I got that guitar in my hand I knew I wasn’t gonna ever do anything else. I think I was a big disappointment to them,” he laughs.
On first seeing Townes Van Zandt outside of his performing habitat – he was climbing out of the taxi – I was struck by how urbane and gentle (almost genteel) he looked. Sporting black framed glasses and a long gabardine woollen coat he seemed every bit the ‘Sixties hip English professor. Pale tan cowboy boots under denim jeans and shirt made up the rest of his attire. However, soon as he began to taste the vodka it was as if he had reverted back to the granite-like resilience of Townes, the lonesome stage troubadour, the incorrigible wanderer who rough rides most of the three hundred-and-sixty-five nights of the year.
Shane MacGowan comes up in conversation and Van Zandt confides that one of the songs on the album was written about Shane. Van Zandt sings it there and then at the counter of the bar. There are some beautiful lines. And I can’t help thinking it’s probably as much about Townes himself as it is about Ireland’s favourite bastard son.
After we finish our drinks, Townes and I move up to his room in the hotel to start the interview proper. But it quickly emerges that there’s a problem with the room that Van Zandt will share with his manager, minder and long-time friend Harold F. Eggers Jnr. The problem is that the toilet and bathroom are a couple of corridors away. Harold or “H”, as Van Zandt calls him, contracted a rash somewhere in the region of his genitals the last time he had to share a w.c. so he’s none too happy about having to carry out his ablutions and excretions in a communal setting yet again. To make matters worse, the trip to Ireland this time round got off to a bad start when the previous day Townes and “H” had been left waiting four hours in Belfast airport for their Irish contact to meet them. On top of that it transpires that “H” also managed to get himself knocked down as they emerged from a club in Belfast the previous night.
A certain rancour has arisen between “H” and Townes. Over quite what, though, it is difficult to ascertain. Townes doesn’t mind the room but is a bit pissed off about Harold’s reluctance to give Townes some more money. Van Zandt can be somewhat reckless. As he says later they don’t give him cash because he just spends it. It sounds as if Townes wants to continue drinking but “H” seems to think their budget won’t allow it, at least not by hotel prices. Add to all this the fact that Townes’ Irish shows are the tail-end of a massive thirty-odd European tour which has drained our man’s vital energies and you can begin to imagine how frayed and fragile his nerves seem to be.
“Either make yourself at home or go home,” shouts Van Zandt jokingly as he invites me to sit on the bed opposite him. “That’s what we say down in Texas. Sometimes when I say that to people they get kinda frightened and start to get up to go thinking that I mean they should go home but, of course, it doesn’t mean that at all. It means quite the opposite really.”
It’s getting dark but we don’t turn on the light. “H” is quite busy getting things done. The first thing he and Townes decide to do is ring “H”’s wife back in the ‘States. She isn’t at home. Then Townes decides he’ll try ringing his wife. “H” puts the call through for him and has a few convivial words before he puts Townes on. I feel I should get up and leave them alone but no one seems to mind my presence so I stay put. It’s quite a personal and tender phone call. At one point Townes is close to tears. He tells her that everything is going okay and that he’ll see her soon. The drinking is under control, he promises. Appearances might suggest otherwise.
“We’ve been touring for months now. It’s been like twenty thousand miles since we started. Now I’m sure I look and I know I feel bone exhausted,” confesses Townes. “The only difference is tonight it’s show time. Yet everything is the way it should be. People aren’t there to know what it took for us to get here. They’re there just to hear good music. It’s gotten to the point where I’m awake for twenty-two hours of the day and for nineteen of those hours it’s just checking into hotels, making sure the gear is okay, the luggage and the food, blah, blah blah is in order. Then for two hours it’s ccrrassh! (makes motion of noise with guitar). So we’re down into that stage big time. Sometimes I might write on the road but on this particular tour it’s gotten to where it’s concentration just to keep you going on. I’m playing tonight. In the morning it’s to the airport to Heathrow I guess. Then driving. It’s hard enough to concentrate on changing the strings of the guitar, shaving, things like that. Lines come, though. I’ve finished half of a new song since I’ve been here.”
When Townes Van Zandt talks, it’s slowly and with great deliberation as if even in speech he’s trying to be economical with words and his flagging energy resources. “H” comes back into the room briefly to get something. On his way back out Townes calls him.
“Listen H why won’t you let me have that?”
“It’s okay. I’ll take care of it. It’s all done.”
“What if you get hit by a car or something.”
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll be back. I’ll see ya later.”
Enigmatic exchange over we continue to chat. Ireland happens to be quite a favourite haunt of Townes Van Zandt. So much so that he recorded his latest disc, No Deeper Blue, in our fair Emerald Isle. The only thing more remarkable than the album itself is Towne’s story of how No Deeper Blue came to be recorded here.
“I lived in this place called The Rock And Roll Hotel in Nashville,” recounts Van Zandt. “I was asleep and I had this dream. And it said ‘You have to go to Ireland and cut your next record. Philip Donnelly’s going to produce it’. When I woke up it was real vivid in my mind still. So I went through to the other room where the phone and the light was. I had my hand on the desk and my finger on the light bulb, trying to get the light to work. I was still asleep and had no clothes on. I picked up my hand and there’s Philip Donnelly’s phone number, who I hadn’t called for two years. Philip played on Flying Shoes and an album that was never released. He’s such a player but in the meantime he’d turned into a producer also.
“Anyway, there’s his number and it’s, like, twenty numbers. It’s three thirty in the morning and I have this dream telling me this is what I’m supposed to do. I hit all these numbers. (Van Zandt makes dialling noise with his tongue.) And Philip answers the phone. ‘Cause it’d be nine-thirty here. He’s at home. So I say ‘This is Townes.’ ‘TOWNES!’ and so on shouts back Philip. ‘How’s everybody?’ ‘FINE! SPLENDID!’ ‘Look I have a plan if it’s okay with you. I want to record my next record in Ireland. I want you to produce it. You pick the players. What do you think about that?’ ‘SPLENDID! LOVELY!’ So I said ‘Well, okay, it’s going to take me a while because I have to write five or six new songs. I have to get money together to get things going as usual. I’ll be in touch with you.’ ‘OKAY!’ Then I went back to sleep.
“Well, we came over. I think it was one day in May and we stayed in this great big beautiful hotel. It was cold like all the rest of them but it was beautiful. Then Philip Donnelly drove us up at about sixty Ks to Limerick and we did two songs a day and stayed in a real nice hotel in Limerick. I wish I could remember all the names of the people who played an the album but they were all good, top of the line players. Donovan played harmonica. That was the first time I ever got to meet Donovan. He’s a really good guy and a very fine harmonica player. The whole ten days were a real treat. And it was just me and Harold and the boys. After that Harold and I went on a twenty day tour of Ireland and over into England and then back home. And Philip got down to the mixes and stuff like that.”
The aforementioned Harold has just returned with a brown paper bag package. Hence the conciliatory reference after the bickering of earlier. Townes gets up and takes three cans – two of Seven Up and one of Canada Orange – out of the bag, opens the window of the hotel room and places them on the window sill. Then closes the window again before he takes up where he left off.
“It’s quite an album,” resumes Townes without any trace of inflated pride. It’s as if he were talking about a record made by someone else really. “All albums are different but it seems to be a shade different than anything else I’ve done because of the dynamics involved. It goes from loud electric guitar to a gentle minuet and all points in between. Irish instruments like the bazouki are used. It was all Irish players except for Stan, the bass, he’s from Croatia. But you get six Irish guys and it’s bound to come up with an Irish feel. That was the idea about the whole thing. I didn’t want it to sound like Nashville or L.A. I wanted to see what could happen. And with Philip and the guys the whole thing was just a joy.”
Did Townes write any tunes while he was over here?
“Most of the songs were pretty much written by the time I got over here. Although I may have touched up one or two of them. It takes a certain amount of time off and isolation to really want to be serious about a song. Other times, at a party where everybody’s got a guitar you just make one up on the spot that’ll never be recorded or never be sung again or anything else. That happens a lot. Those kinds of songs can be serious and not just humorous.
“One of the songs on the new record, No Deeper Blue, called ‘The Nile River’s Blues’ was composed when I was in a studio in Nashville. I was doing a demo. The engineer’s name was Niall. I’d finished a song and I said to him, ‘I can’t think of another song to do. I’d like to write one about a river. Why don’t you name a river?’ He said ‘What about the Nile River?’ Okay. Here we go. And played the ‘Nile River’s Blues’. And not one word has been changed from that version. I don’t even know how it goes. I played it one time in the studio in Nashville and when we played it in Limerick I had the lyrics in front of me. I mean to learn it sometime,” he laughs. “It’s a real pretty song.”
Who are Townes’ big musical influences?
“The people I would listen to, my musical influences would be Lightning Hopkins, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and Elvis. All of the main guys. There’s also Muddy Waters, Blind Willie MacTell, The Rolling Stones. Jazz. Classical music. You can go on and on. When I think about influences, it’s kinda like the miles that you travel or the shape that your tyres are in. Or the colour of this bedspread. You know. Or how much time downstairs. What you ate last night. They’re all influences. It’s hard to pick up on musical influences.”
You knew Lightning Hopkins didn’t you?
“I played with him. Visited his house a couple of times. I knew him when he was a sixty years old black blues player who came through hard times from wandering around the country and from white people who were ripping him off steadily. So he didn’t have much trust in white people. He liked me because I wasn’t there to rip him off. There was only two white people that he really trusted. Mr Lomax, John Lomax II, and Chris Strikewoods of R. Hooley Records. With me it was just like a friendship. You wouldn’t say it was too close but I was welcome at his house. It was pretty deep in that situation. It wouldn’t be like you or I just meeting. Or anything like that.”
Your correspondents’ first encounter with the music of Townes Van Zandt was actually on The Cowboy Junkies’ fourth disc Black Eyed Man. Townes’ contribution consisted of two songs, ‘Cowboy Junkies’ Lament’ and ‘To Live Is To Fly’. He explains how the liaison came about.
“Cowboy Junkies had heard some of my songs and got a hold of my booking agent in the States. They were looking for an opening act and I was solo so that makes it much easier. We became very, very good friends. They’re very, very good people. They’d played here and over in England on a couple of tours at the same time as I had a tour over. I’d see the posters but I didn’t know who they were or what they sounded like.
“It was a nice tour in the States. It was about two months with one big truck for the sound, one bus for the roadies and one for myself and the Cowboy Junkies. We wrote ‘Cowboy Junkies Lament’ in the bus. It’s the only song I’ve ever wrote on purpose for somebody to play. ‘Cause I’ve written songs about people but I don’t think I’ve ever written any for somebody else specifically to play. I wrote it to their rhythm. Bomb-be-bomb-be-bomp! And I would ask Michael (Timmins) ‘What do you think about this line? Is this too corny?’ ‘No, that’s great!’. It was real fine.”
In keeping with an impressive line of interpreters of Van Zandt’s songs which includes Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, last year the wonderfully enigmatic Tindersticks’ haunting cover of ‘Kathleen’ etched the name of Townes Van Zandt ever deeper into pop consciousness.
“I’ve always looked at it that anybody, anybody,” repeats Townes for emphasis, “could be a little Eskimo kid or Cheyenne kid that has a little cigar box with one string on it and plays a couple of words of one of my songs. I love that. Then when Tindersticks or Mudhoney, Emmylou or whoever else, whoever else, somebody sitting around a campfire, if they play one of my songs and if they liked it enough to try to learn it – they don’t have to sing in tune or play in tune – for some reason I feel that if they have done that I have no choice but to like it.
“It’s nice of course when it’s a hit. But if ten or twelve kids in first grade in school are singing my song and clapping along, well, you can’t beat that. Also Willie and Merle recording ‘Pancho and Lefty’ you can’t beat that either. But all points in between. Every song of mine I’ve ever heard recorded by someone else I’ve liked. But it was interesting the way Tindersticks took the original version of ‘Kathleen’ and worked up and down through it. Very interesting.”
Speaking of cover versions, is Townes Van Zandt a wealthy man?
“Comfortable. I make a living for my family. Not wealthy or anything like that. I mean I have to worry about the bills. People who are wealthy don’t have to worry about anything like that. No, but I’ve done really well. I’m very fortunate. I think I’m half fortunate and half persistent. There’s also got to be a shade of talent to do it. Most people can develop that. I’ve done okay. I’ve made a living out of what I chose to do. But I’m not wealthy. ’Course, I throw money away so fast like I was saying earlier, they don’t let me have it anymore. So I don’t know if I’m wealthy or not.
“I’ve a 1989 Chevrolet Pick-Up that I love as much as anything with a bed built in the back where I live quite a bit. My wife and I don’t live together. We live not far from one another. I see her and I see the kids almost every day. But as far as being a family man and coming home from work we decided that because of my lifestyle and tax reasons and insurance reasons and credit reasons – for her to build credit – we had a very loving divorce and we still love one another. I’m not your typical family man.
“I have a feeling, though, that I’ve had a very blessed life. I’ve had so many good friends and loved ones. A job that I like to do and I feel is useful in the world. You can’t do much better than that. And also I’m lucky cause I really don’t care about real money. I have to have a car though. Like we said earlier, that ’89 Chevy Pick-Up that’ll go anywhere except across the ocean. I can’t wait to see it again. I’ll see it in about week. A dog. Three cockatoos. Stuff like that. Other than that I couldn’t care less about money or having things. I don’t need all that much.
The popular perception of Townes Van Zandt is of a fairly eccentric personage. How does he plead?
“I think I’m more or less pretty much normal but most of my relatives think I’m from outer space,” he laughs. “But there’s an old saying ‘Art is a cruel mistress’. It’s killing me, you know. Now I don’t care. If I can bring one smile on a little girl’s face by playing some silly little song, okay, let’s go!
“I’m a real bashful guy. I don’t go downstairs for breakfast. Once the light goes on and I’m on stage I just close my eyes and here we go. It’s really nice and gratifying that people like that though. When I start to go on the stage – doesn’t matter how many people are out there – it’s like I can’t do this, I can’t go out there. Then it kind of clicks in that that is what you’re supposed to do, it’s what you signed up to do. So there you go. Then after the first two steps onto the stage it’s like grazie, thank you, very much. Over here in Europe I like going out and meeting everybody. And I like playing. But the time in the dressing-room before going on it’s like ‘Who signed me up for this? This was just crazy. I’m not going out there. I can’t write a song. I don’t even know any songs. I can’t play the guitar and I can’t sing. I’m supposed to go out there.’ But once your foot hits the stage it changes. But for the rest of the day, though I like meeting people, I’m a pretty serious recluse. Pretty serious.”
So much praise tends to be heaped upon the shoulders of Townes Van Zandt yet he seems relatively unaffected by all the admiration. Guy Clarke, for one, calls him the Van Gogh of country music.
“Actually Guy said that because I have no ear,” he laughs. “The praise is very nice and flattering and I’m very honoured and happy about that kind of stuff but making friends with you means more to me than that. I don’t think about it. Don’t read it. I don’t listen to any of my old records or look at any pictures or anything like that. If a little girl and her ma came through the door and said ‘Uncle Townes!’ and was smiling and hugged me it just washes all that stuff away.”
We haven’t bothered to turn on the light at all throughout the interview so now it’s kind of dark in this narrow hotel room. Townes gets up and switches on a small light in front of the washbasin. He opens the window and takes in one of the cans of Seven Up outside on the ledge. Then he produces a medium size bottle of vodka from the brown bag Harold brought back. Townes commences to drink down a good shot of vodka straight from the bottle, washed down by a sup of Seven Up straight from the can. He lights a cigarette and then has another slug of vodka once again followed by Seven Up.
A final question then. Does he ever feel he has to live up to this idea of ‘the legendary Townes Van Zandt’?
“I’m just lucky to be here, man,” he laughs. “I’m just trying to stay alive. I’m not trying to live up to nothing. I’m just trying to live.”
May the road rise before him.