Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt, the elegant Texas troubadour who authored some of the finest songs ever written over the course of his 52 troubled years, was always quick to make it known that he was very much in on the cruel joke of his destiny. During a checkered, if frequently brilliant, recording career — often derailed by label concerns, production difficulties and Townes’ own recalcitrance — he produced a handful of outstanding albums possessing gallows humor titles like The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. Johnny Cash once famously bragged in song about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Townes seemed committed to a similar experiment on his own physical being, drinking with such masochistic abandon and candid reportage that he made himself a veritable art project of personal desiccation — he would carefully record the minutes as all of us watched him die a Kafkan death. As inarguably exceptional as the body of work that Van Zandt left behind, it can feel ferociously dedicated to the depths of human despair, to the point of inaccessibility. Even a devoted miserablist like Lou Reed will occasionally allow that, “Anyone who ever had a heart/ wouldn’t turn around and break it.” Townes Van Zandt was the exception to the rule: He had a heart and smashed it into a million wretched slivers.

It is interesting to consider Townes’ trajectory as compared with his rough contemporary Gram Parsons — similarly a Southern child of privilege, gifted with extraordinary ability and cursed with a taste for excess. Both Parsons and Van Zandt shared a love for the great pioneers of early country and ’50s honky-tonk, while never fitting in with the more conservative tendencies of Nashville. Both rendered remarkable takes on the tradition, which were bound to be ignored by a plurality of rock and country audiences alike. But in other ways they were as different as they were similar. Parsons’ work was sweeping and ebullient, panoramic in its capacity to convey effervescent joy, crushing tragedy and heart-rending nostalgia. By comparison, to borrow a phrase, Van Zandt’s songs ran the emotional gamut from A to B. Even at its most irreverent, his vision was one of a capriciously nasty existence characterized by endless compromise and ceaseless yearning — the Albert Camus to Parsons’ Marcel Proust. That is not to value the work of one titan over the other, but rather to illustrate the iron-skinned dissolution that rendered Van Zandt’s work so difficult and indispensable.

That phrase — “Now you wear your skin like iron” — figures in Van Zandt’s most famous song and only bona fide chart success “Pancho And Lefty,” first released in 1972 and only a hit after a spit polished version rendered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard bulled its way to the top of the Country charts eleven years later. Ostensibly an Old West yarn concerning two desert bandits with a brotherly bond fractured by betrayal, it is in the spirit of Robert Altman’s great McCabe And Mrs. Miller — a demolition of frontier nostalgia that recasts the mythos of Western movie heroism as feckless, farcical and endlessly futile. As Lefty turns on his friend, leading to Pancho’s demise and the still worse, guilt stricken living death of Lefty, Van Zandt can’t help but twist the knife one turn further: “All the Federales say/ they could have had them any day.” These heroic jokers weren’t even all that good as outlaws.

“Pancho And Lefty” was, of course, also a thinly veiled metaphor for the life Van Zandt had chosen as a traveling musician — all the seeming romance and nobility gradually made null and senseless by dint of deprivation and drink, industry myopia and increasing audience indifference. As his career sputtered, Van Zandt’s legend amongst fellow songwriters grew exponentially — his close rapport with the great Guy Clark and mentorship of Steve Earle was part of the early story -but soon his talents were emphatically acknowledged by the heaviest of heavyweights — Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and others. All of that and two bucks would have gotten him bus fare. Being an obscure figure admired by those far more influential and famous must have been a weird purgatory. Townes treated it as such.

In the final analysis we are left with a difficult figure — a writer of transcendent beauty and skill who leaves us both enriched and depleted in complicated ways. To spend time with the music of Townes Van Zandt is to engage with our darkest suspicions about our own time on this earth, with the faintest hint of silver lining. Unfailingly, he told the truth of his life. That was okay enough, but the scary part is wondering: was he telling the real truth of our lives as well?

Anyway, here’s 10 of his best tunes.

10. “Waitin’ Around To Die” (from For The Sake Of The Song, 1968)

The carefully finger picked, minor key lament “Waitin’ ’Round To Die” is a typically efficient summation of Townes’ jet black worldview, replete with tales of romantic catastrophe, chemical excess, and perhaps most tellingly an unsparing recollection of domestic abuse more hurtfully candid then any this side of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. There is no special drama or change in his voice while he relays the details: “One time, friends I had a Ma/ even had a Pa/ He beat her with a belt once cause she cried.” Van Zandt sings these words like a man reading the 6 o’clock news. In under three minutes of this harsh and strangely unsentimental masterpiece we come to understand why it is that the artist perceives his work as little more then a distraction from his inevitable demise.

9. “No Deal” (from High, Low And In Between, 1972)

The jocular folk ramble of “No Deal” finds Townes at his most light hearted, enumerating his reluctance to follow the supposed good intentions of medical doctors, auto salesmen and a would-be teenaged lover. Cheerfully debased and filled with great punchlines, it is the sort of rollicking shaggy dog tale that reminds us of the acid wit that was the mitigating flipside to Van Zandt’s crushing misery. When in the last verse he promises to choose hell over heaven, if there might be more whiskey in the former, it is an act of comedic, spiritual subversion worthy of our most treasured heretics. No deathbed confessions for Townes.

8. “Kathleen” (from Our Mother The Mounain, 1969)

The tense emotional apocalypse that is “Kathleen” begins with the typically Townes-ian sentiment: “It’s plain to see the sun won’t shine today/ But I ain’t in the mood for sun anyway,” and circumstances only darken further from there. As the narrator wrestles with encroaching insanity, waves of pain and panic, and a seemingly malevolent natural world of roaring oceans, prophetic swallows and a menacing firmament, the only apparent respite is death or the titular Kathleen. As the song progresses, so too does the suspicion that these things are one in the same. This is Townes at his most harrowing — a beautifully and genuinely frightening window into a fractious, tortured psyche.

7. “You Are Not Needed Now” (from High, Low And In Between, 1972)

Sounding for all the world like a lost outtake from The Band, the gospel-tinged, piano-driven “You Are Not Needed Now” belies its depressing title with a message of hope. “Lay down your head awhile, you are not needed now,” Townes beautifully and effortlessly soothes – it’s not your time to work, it’s not your time to suffer, it’s not your time to die. It is the rare Townes song that could be genuinely interpreted as optimistic – and it’s a cautiously optimistic beauty.

6. “Snake Mountain Blues” (from Our Mother The Mounain, 1969)

Just when you thought that Mick Jagger couldn’t be any more transgressive with “Some Girls,” here comes Townes, almost ten years earlier with sentiments like “Love of a blackskin woman, she won’t do you no wrong/ Yellow headed woman brings nothing but pain.” But while Mick and the Stones’ problems seem to start and end with their women’s material and … other appetites, Townes’ beguiling, dobro-assisted Tex-Mex shuffle seems steeped in more spiritual and existential concerns.

5. “Nothin’” (from Delta Momma Blues, 1971)

Nasty, brutish and short, the spare, finger-picked, cruel-to-be-cruel kiss off “Nothin’” is as immediate and powerful as a cannonball to the chest. What it lacks in charity it makes up for in its brevity, and it is devastating from its opening: “Hey mama, when you leave, Don’t leave a thing behind/ I don’t want nothin’” to its final sentiments “Sorrow and solitude, these are the precious things/ And the only words that are worth remembering.”

4. “Poncho & Lefty” (from High, Low And In Between, 1972)

Essentially the demolishing 3:40 antidote to every clichéd “I’m a cowboy/bad ass singer on the road” song ever written, this crushing tale of two outlaw friends driven apart through betrayal and deprivation is made all the more sad for the fecklessness with which the characters are portrayed. Over one of his loveliest ever melodies, Townes introduces us the two would-be mythic title characters — road warriors who live outside the law to maintain their freedom. A few well constructed verses later, Pancho is dead, Lefty is drinking himself to death in a Cleveland flop house, and the authorities, who simply paid one to turn on the other, were never all that concerned with them in the first place. Rarely has a song spelled out the true facts of America’s Old West mythology so plainly — it’s all such bullshit.

3. “No Place To Fall” (from Flyin’ Shoes, 1978)

The desperate lament “No Place To Fall” appears at first the libidinous appeal of a desperate man who is quick to admit that he “Ain’t much of a lover,” and is furthermore “here then I’m gone/ and I’m forever blue.” Or that is to say, not exactly a catch on And yet as this gorgeous Neil Young-styled quasi waltz evolves, what is conveyed most is the sense of a deeply damaged soul in need of refuge — any sort of refuge — intellectual, spiritual, physical, or just a fucking place to crash.

2. “For The Sake Of The Song” (from For The Sake Of The Song, 1968)

The fetchingly lovely “For the Sake of The Song” originally appeared on Van Zandt’s debut album of the same name and was later recut for his self-titled third record. It is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of creativity, and perhaps a plea to the muse for a peace of mind that he would sadly never be afforded. “Why does she sing her sad songs for me?” the first line goes, the narrator seeming resigned to his place as a both receptacle for and manufacturer of vast oceans of melancholy. As the unhurried five minutes and twenty two seconds unfold, Van Zandt sings of shame and bondage, sorrow and pride, and most of all a welter of pain both unwanted and undeserved. The best he can figure by way of consolation is that it is all for the sake of the song. And so it would go for the remainder of his life and career.

1. “To Live Is To Fly” (from High, Low And In Between, 1972)

Van Zandt was known to his peers to possess a kind of effortless gift for songwriting — one which seemed to flow freely through him despite his persistent attentions to self-immolation. “To Live Is To Fly” is perhaps the greatest example of that effortlessness, a swift, breezy and beautifully bridgeless three minutes that floats by with seemingly impeccable grace and ease. It is also a song of wonderful philosophical and spiritual clarity — an instance of near Zen calm amidst the feverish storm of the singer’s life. Lyrics like “Everything is not enough/ and nothing’s too much to bear” come across here less as bitter and yearning, and rather like a sympathetic acknowledgment of our collective human predicament. In the end, Towne’s advises “It don’t pay to think too much on things you leave behind.” He was right of course- sage advice only too difficult for him, and all of us, to follow.

Listen to the Spotify playlist here.

Comments (42)
  1. Oh man, tough list. No point in arguing though… Townes means very different things to different people.

  2. Ah, yes. Townsvaaza (voice trails)…they were very good. What’s that? Ha, yea, I meant he. My favorite song? All of them, probably. Can’t choose one.

  3. Good call on the “You Are Needed Now” / Band thing – never thought of that before but you’re spot-on. It’s like a lost Manuel tearjerker!

    Great list!

  4. The groove on Standin’ kills me. Amazing lyrics, too. I would have to have Be Here To Love Me on my list as well.

  5. So good call on number one, but for me, “Lungs” is a close second.

  6. I’d like to see you do a 10 best Daniel Johnston songs. Waiting Around to Die is my #1 Townes song.

  7. Great list!

    A couple of these are on the Live at the Old Quarter and are very much worth listening to. I wish you guys had included references to those recordings.

  8. Nice to see “Nothin’” make the cut. That song is bleak, but very powerful.

  9. To live is to Fly would have been my #1 too.
    A lot of these songs are on the Live at the Old Quarter album, higly recommended!
    He was way better live, on his own, than in a studio…

  10. This is my favorite list that you guys have done so far, though If I Needed You would be in my to 5 for sure. With that said this is mostly pretty great. Can you please do a Jerry Jeff Walker best of next!!!!

  11. Awesome to see a list of this guy. Some of his stuff just cuts me in two.

  12. Marie, from his under-appreciated last record, is about as harrowing as they get. So is The Hole.

  13. Not a bad list at all, but Tecumseh Valley really needs to be on there

  14. “Only Him or Me” makes me want to kill myself just to have it played at my funeral sooner. And I mean that in a good way. So that’s my pick.

  15. Tecumseh Valley & I’ll Be Here in the Morning, but most importantly RAKE!!!

  16. Maybe the toughest list you’ve done… I’d have to make room for Flying Shoes, Tecumseh Valley, Two Girls and Catfish Song.

    • Personally, I’d have put ‘Pancho and Lefty’ at number one, since it’s one of the greatest country songs ever written by anyone, ever. That being said, I can’t find much fault with the rest of this list. Even so, I feel like an honorable mention is due for his version of ‘Dead Flowers’. Far and away the best version of that song.

  17. TVZ has so many great songs, and so many versions of those songs, which makes it difficult to create a list to suit everyone. However, I’d keep Pancho and Lefty and For The Sake Of The Song (the first time I heard the latter was when it was covered by Azure Ray, and a very good version it is too) and would also have included: If I Needed You; Snowin’ On Ration; At My Window; Buckskin Stallion Blues (“this song is half about a horse and half about a girl…I still miss the horse”); Catfish Song (piano version) and Rex’s Blues (very nicely covered by Entrance). And including some covers: Fraulein; The Shrimp Song and Dead Flowers (with all those versions taken from the Rain On A Conga Drum live album).

  18. Great list and write-up, well done – I got all of the albums in one hit with the Texas Troubadour set a year or so ago, and even after spending a lot of time with them, I couldn’t even begin to whittle all of it down to ten tracks.

    - ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is from the Late Great Townes album…
    - ‘Waitin’ Around To Die’ and ‘For The Sake Of The Song’ are great songs, but I do prefer the simpler re-recordings for the superb self-titled third album. ‘Waitin’ Around To Die’ is more affecting without the production attempting to transport us into a Leone western. Jack Clement talked him into some pretty fussy arrangements on that first LP, hence the re-recordings. ‘I’ll Be Here In The Morning’ was also greatly improved…I feel like most of Townes’ songs are at their best with just Townes and his guitar, plus perhaps some slide or harmonica.

    Jim L: I hadn’t heard his ‘Dead Flowers’ before, it’s a great version…I need to pick up Sunshine Boy.

  19. Tecumseh Valley, Highway Kind, Talking Thunderbird Blues should have been on there. Should have been a longer list.

  20. There isn’t a day goes by I don’t listen to ‘Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel’. Am I alone?

  21. Spotify-less in Canada.

  22. My top 10 (in not particular order):

    Pancho & Lefty
    Colorado Girl
    Tecumseh Valley
    If I Needed You
    My Proud Mountains
    Don’t You Take It So Bad
    Mr Mudd & Mr Gold
    For The Sake of The Song

    RIP Townes.

  23. Very subjective, but how can you leave out: Flyin Shoes? Ditto most of the other songs listed above, but Man oh Man ‘Flyin Shoes’.

  24. Leaving out “Flyin’ Shoes” and “High, Low, and In Between” have me scratching my head.
    1.) Flyin’ Shoes
    2.) High, Low, and In Between
    3.) Be Here To Love Me Today
    4.) For The Sake of the Song
    5.) Nothin’
    6.) To Live Is To Fly
    7.) Pancho & Lefty
    8.) No Place To Fall
    9.) Highway Kind
    10.) Brother Flower

  25. Rake and Rex’s Blues need to be on this. And you can’t say 10 best Townes songs, cmon.

  26. Definitely “Tecumseh Valley” and “If I Needed You.” Also, “Two Hands.”

  27. It is pointless to argue which song is “best” or even “better”.
    First and foremost, TVZ was a superb songwriter. He wrote songs that touched people.

    The Hole was one of those songs that touched me.

    Another was Snowin’ on Raton.

    Another was Waitin’ Around to Die.

    In the end, it was Townes’ ability to write simple songs that went straight to people’s hearts that made him great. In interviews with other songwriters that knew him, they all are in awe of the ease with which Townes did that. Most hope to write a handful of truly great songs in a career. We cannot even begin to narrow it down to ten songs in TVZ’s career.

  28. “Pancho and Lefty”…not “Poncho and Lefty.” Come on, it’s his most famous song, get it right.

  29. agree with Courtney u guys need a proofer, a “poncho” is a garment.

    but To Live is to fly is always gonna get a majority vote for #1

    If I Needed You” I don’t see how that didn’t make the list, not a matter of tastes when it comes to that one

    you don’t have be a songwriter to understand there is nothing harder to write than simple!
    and a simple love song. without a touch of smarmy is a high art.
    good comparison to Graham Parson If you had included Greensboro Woman you could have mentioned Parsons “Blue Eyes” Rexs Blues is not just one of Townes best, it is like the best of the sixties with his compadres Dave Van Ronk, Jerry Jeff and Guy, Ramblin jack, old school folk song
    thanks when do we get to Steve Goodman, and Roy Harper

  30. How did Tecumseh Valley NOT make the list?? That is one song that touches my heart every time I hear it. I went so far as to try and figure out where Tecumseh Valley is. I’m from Indiana and the Jr. High school was Tecumseh. Only difference we said it Te-come-see or Te-come-sa….. where Townes came up with his pronunciation?? I’ll never know. In those say 4 minutes we are introduced to a young woman, grow up with her, and feel her die. I’d love to know where the story came from………… Townes mind I guess………………………he still lives on

  31. This is gonna be one of those lists where no one will agree with that small little ten percent, that one song being there or not being there, and that makes all the conversation go around. I’ll throw down for Pancho and Lefty, Snowin’ On Raton, Marie, his cover of Dead Flowers, Rex’s Blues, The Highway Kind, Tecumseh Valley, No Deeper Blue, Rake, and The Hole.

  32. Not including Tecumseh Valley I’d say invalidates this list.

  33. How do you select at top ten of Townes music. A brilliant songwriter who evokes the listeners feeling by the beauty of the music.

    Such beautiful poetry, such beautiful music. Perhaps it was his pain, his grief that made him so great. Beautiful words, beautiful music.

    We are all doomed. The older you get the more aware of what is up the road. He lived the life he wanted to live. Maybe the good lord wanted another Austin songwriter with an angelic voice who could pick to hang around with him.

  34. On the 18th anniversary of his death: More than any other top ten list, this page is too short. As said earlier, “Tecumseh Valley”, “Lungs”, “Flyin’ Shoes”, “Rex’s Blues”, “The Highway Kind”, “Marie” (the saddest song ever), and “Rake” should be here. I would add “Loretta”, “Pueblo Waltz”, and my favorite that never seems to get any love, “Snow Don’t Fall”. Wow. Even though I don’t necessarily disagree with your list, i just created a whole different one. The greatest ever. I’ll get off the coffee table now.

  35. Hi Low and In Between, You are not Needed Now, and a live version of Dollar Bill Blues are my top 3, but you cannot go wrong with any of these lists. Probably the most under appreciated artist of all time

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