Townes Van Zandt: Whiskey Son of Sorrow

There is only one Bob Dylan, and his name is Townes Van Zandt. I first happened upon Townes while a burgeoning grad student in ‘01. His lyrics resonated with my two fifths of bourbon a week habit. (Yes, I was a poor grad student—I just spent all my money on books and cheap alcohol.) A fellow grad student would regale me over cafeteria lunches with first hand stories about Townes’s drunken performances. His words: “When I saw him, I knew he wasn’t long for this world.”

Townes was not. He died on New Year’s Day 1997. (Historical aside: Hank Williams also died on New Year’s Day—1953.) While his death was premature, it was by no means a surprise. According to the Townes’s documentary Be Here to Love Me, Townes, for shits and giggles, used to shoot Coke (as in Cola TM) and bourbon—maybe rum—into his veins. In addition, when not shooting heroin, drinking heroic amounts of vodka, walking off balconies, or huffing glue in a sock, he was divorcing sundry wives.

Yet. Yet, I can’t think of a finer American songwriter. Testimonies: “For the Sake of the Song”:

She’d like to think I was cruel, but she knows that’s a lie, for I would be

no more than a tool, if I allowed her to cry all over me.

Oh, my sorrow is real, even though I can’t change my plans.

If could she see how I feel, then I know that she’d understand.

How perfectly this captures the realization that availability for another often results in nothing more than self-abuse. Or, “Waiting Around to Die” (written while on his honeymoon!):

Now I’m out of prison; I got me a friend at last.

Well, he don’t drink or steal or cheat or lie.

Well, his name’s codeine—he’s the nicest thing I’ve seen.

Yeah, together we’re gonna wait around and die.

The conversation he and his newly wedded wife must have had during this one. My personal favorite: “None But the Rain” (indulge me to quote in its entirety):

We had our day, but now it’s over.

We had our song, but now it’s sung.

We had our stroll through summer’s clover,

But summer’s gone now, our walkin’s done.

So tell me gently: Who’ll be your lover,

Who’ll be your lover after I’m gone?

Will it be the moon that hears your sighin’?

Will it be the willow that hears your lonesome song?

Will it be the rain that clings to your bosom?

Will it be the sunshine that dries your golden hair?

Will it be the wind that warns of my returning?

Will a rose be in your arms when I find you waiting there?

None but the rain should cling to my bosom.

None but the moon should hear my lonesome sigh.

None but the wind should warn of your returning:

Fare thee well, my love, goodbye.

Whether happily involved in a relationship or not, this song should instruct us that most relationships end gravely, reminding us that we are ultimately alone in our most profound sufferings. Or, “Tecumseh Valley”: one of the most perfect songs (yes, “perfect”) ever written by a ‘Merican.

Jump of tone: In explaining Hegel’s notion of the tragic, Murray Kriegler in his essay “Tragedy and the Tragic Vision” states that “the hero’s vision is necessarily destructive” in that the hero’s devotion to the absolute provokes him to acts in self-destructive ways, functioning as a sacrificial offering in order to bring about a cosmic reconciliation or restoration. Though Kriegler, in the end, argues against the classical Greek (read: Aristotelian) notion of tragedy, this essay brings to mind Rene Girard who argues that “sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence” (author’s emphasis, Violence and the Sacred). That is, once a certain point of tension is reached, a victim must be chosen in order to maintain the balance, lest the violence spill over to into the community.

Why the grad schoolesque literary detour? Stick with me here, brother: I am proposing Townes as a sacrificial victim of sorts. Granted, I do not mean to downplay his own culpability in regard to his vices, but perhaps his devotion to poetry at the cost of all else–namely, his own health and sanity–led to his own destruction, a destruction necessary to offset the offenses of an age that disdains the Beautiful for the sake of the pragmatic.

I believe that as modern society further entrenches itself in the utilitarian and the efficient, more sacrificial victims for the sake of posey will be required in order to maintain a balance that prevents us from the total self-consumption of the tawdry and of the crass.

As for me and my house, I would rather spend the rest of my days writing bits and pieces of Homer and Keats and T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane on walls with sidewalk chalk than discussing congressional districts and Medicare reform and progressive income taxation.

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About Bourbon Apocalypse: A Whiskey Son of Sorrow

"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." ~ Kingsley Amis
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6 Responses to Townes Van Zandt: Whiskey Son of Sorrow

  1. Christopher Eubanks says:

    Hi Josh. My take on Townes: I don’t think he was culpable in regard to his vices, at least not directly. I’m no mental health professional, but I am associated with one who lives with bi-polar disorder, so I have at least a secondary experiential understanding of mental illness. Considering his behavior, and some details of his biography, I would suggest that he was mentally ill, and was self-medicating. He once said something like he sometimes felt as if he could cut off his hands his mental anguish would stop. Also, the connection between certain mental illnesses and creative genius is at least anecdotally documented. In particular, my bipolar acquaintance is a writer, and says that during manic phases, the poems pretty much came out complete, and there was a sort of compulsion to write them. So, perhaps his demon was also his muse, and his self-destructive behavior was a learned coping mechanism that ceased working, and eventually did him in. I know this is not nearly as romantic, but there you have it, my friend.

  2. I agree that his bi-polar disorder played a significant role in his lifestyle choices/manifestations (and I doubt the shock therapy he underwent helped him too greatly). I won’t go as far as to say that this disorder released him from all culpability in regard to the ways he chose to cope; however, I don’t believe this is quite what you are saying either.
    The indirect quote from Townes baffles me in that it seems like an absurd thing for him to say, comparable to believing that sexual desire can be cured with the removal of a special member. Granted, lopping off hands would have made most activities much harder to accomplish, but the root causes (but not the, err, root efficiencies?) would still very much remain.
    Yes, art may have been a coping function, and to the degree that he was able to cope through his music he may have been able to stave off complete self-destruction. Yet, the degree to which art functions in this manner and the degree to which certain people with particular disorders may simply be more receptive to Beauty–especially when this concerns societies that attempt their damnedest to keep her in the cellar –remains unsolved, if not unsolvable. My two cents.

  3. Jason says:

    Josh, I enjoyed this entry. I read a book by Dr. Nancy Andreason that addresses the connection between mental disorders and creativity: _The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius_ is the title, if I remember correctly. What I do remember is that she is unable to come to a definitive conclusion; she is unable to say, as a result of her study, that there is a “creativity gene” owned by those who suffer from a mental disorder of some sort. I would also say, in response to your comment about electro-shock therapy, I am not sure this wasn’t helpful to Townes – at least with regard to his songwriting. Where some may write songs based on personal remembrances, I think it may be that those who have no clear “memories” (as a result of shock treatments) may find it easier to create them out of thin air – and thus write about them with a different, less personal (and less guarded) approach. That’s just my theory, though… Anyway, I am glad you wrote about Townes, but I am disappointed you didn’t mention “Rake.”

  4. Thanks. Perhaps for some, like Townes, shock therapy may have assisted. For others, like Frances Farmer, perhaps not. How much prior “material” is needed for an artist to produce? I suppose if one believes that an artist merely arranges and “produces,” then quite a bit. But, if one believes that an artist may be a conduit–in some way or another, then I suppose that a clearing away of certain memories may be beneficial. I don’ know. These entries are simply my thoughts in progress.

    As for my song selection, I realize that no one will be pleased–namely, me. I can’t get ’em all, for I’m just one blogger…

  5. Jason says:

    Oh, trust me, I know – it wasn’t meant as a criticism! We could go on for hours about Townes’ lyrics, but the last two lines of “Rake” are haunting to me, for some reason.

    And now the dark air is like fire on my skin
    And even the moonlight is blinding

    With regard to electric shock treatments, I am not familiar with Francis Farmer and his treatments (and results). I do, however, think they (shock treatments) directly led to Papa Hemingway’s decision to off himself. He admittedly had no will to live after the treatments wiped out all of his early-life memories. What a tragic thing to happen… Anyway, I hope my original response wasn’t taken as a criticism… If it was, I shall apologize – in my boots, on the coffee table of your choice!

    • Oh, you can criticize all you want–I expect someone to fill that role. But, no, I didn’t take it that way.

      As for Frances Farmer: she. Starlet from the ’30s. Google a few pictures of her–I think that you will appreciate the concrete manifestation of the absolute. In other words, “Yowzer!”

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