In many ways, the story of Townes Van Zandt is your archetypal story of a country singer: critically acclaimed but commercially unappreciated during his own life-time, battling with the 3-D demons (drink, drugs, depression), of near misses and “What If…?”s.
Born in 1944, he was inspired by seeing Elvis Presley’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan show in 1956, and got his first guitar for Christmas the same year. Years later, he told an interviewer “I just thought that Elvis had all the money in the world, all the Cadillacs and all the girls, and all he did was play the guitar and sing. That made a big impression on me.”
An above average student, he won a place at the University of Colarado at Boulder in 1962, but a year later his parents had to stage an intervention due to his binge drinking and episodes of depression. He was diagnosed with manic depression and was given a three month course of Insulin Shock Therapy (a form of psychiatric treatment where patients are repeatedly injected with large doses of insulin in order to induce daily comas over several weeks) which wiped his long-term memory.
By 1968, he had moved to Nashville and won himself a record contract, and became a prolific recording artist, releasing six albums by 1973 – none of which were successful – but he did earn himself a small and devoted fanbase, amongst which was one Bob Dylan. Dylan repeatedly asked Van Zandt to write with him. Van Zandt, though, didn’t care for Dylan’s fame and celebrity – he had forgotten why he admired Elvis, it seems – and repeatedly declined the invitations.
He had a prominent role in “Heartworn Highways”, a documentary looking at folk and country music singer-songwriters, which was filmed at the end of 1975/start of 1976. But his prominent role was filmed at his run-down trailer home and showed him drinking straight whiskey at noon (he was a full blown alcoholic/all round addict by now) and playing around with guns. The film didn’t get theatrically released until 1981.
His recording career was effectively over by then; he released nothing from 1979 until 1987.
Some brief chances of redemption arose in the late 1980s/early 1990s; he finally met Dylan, but instead of writing with him, he played some songs for him. And in 1990, he toured with and opened for The Cowboy Junkies, which exposed his music to a whole new generation of audience.
He married three times, and around 1993 he and his third wife, Jeanene, separated, but not before she persuaded him to sign over the publishing rights of his entire back catalogue and recording royalties to her and their children. Townes’s only source of income after this was money received from concerts, and often he would visit Jeanene and the kids straight after the gig and empty his pockets out for them.
They divorced a year later, at which point all of his worldly possessions amounted to a car, a motorcycle and a 22 foot boat.
He had been fortunate to get to 1993 with his legacy intact though: he struggled with is addiction to alcohol and drugs throughout his adult life, often performing so drunk that he forgot the words to his songs. At one point, his heroin habit was so intense that he offered the publishing rights to all of the songs on each of his first four albums to Kevin Eggers, his manager, for $20.00. At various points, his friends saw him shoot up not just heroin, but also cocaine, vodka, and a rum and Coke. By 1982, he was drinking a pint of vodka a day.
Mid-December 1996, and the end was nigh. He fractured his hip following a fall down some concrete stairs, but refused medical treatment for several days before finally acquiescing, undergoing surgery several days later on December 31st. Doctors wanted to keep Van Zandt in hospital to recuperate and detoxify, but Jeanene – with whom he had stayed close – insisted that one of Townes’ previous rehab doctors had told her detoxing could kill him. Against the advice of the doctors, she discharged him from hospital the same day. They had not even got to her car when he started experience withdrawal symptoms: her solution was to give him a flask of vodka.
He died in the early hours of January 1st 1997, his death sparking a legal battle between his Jeanene and Eggers, after the latter released fourteen albums of both new and previously unreleased material by the singer, all without consent of his estate, and claimed 50% ownership of 80 of his songs.
But it’s not all bleak. Before his death, his songs had been covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard. Steve Earle considered him his mentor and once pronounced him “the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that”.
Since his death, he has been cited as an influence and an inspiration not just by Dylan, Earle, Nelson, Haggard and Harris, but by artists like Neil Young, Lyle Lovett, Nancy Griffiths, Devendra Banhart, Norah Jones, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Caleb Followill (Kings of Leon), Laura Marling, Stuart A. Staples (Tindersticks), Evan Dando and Frank Turner.
Since he died, his songs have featured in films like “In Bruges”, “Crazy Heart”, “Cavalry”, “Leaves of Grass”, and “Seven Psychopaths” and in TV shows such as “Breaking Bad”, “Deadwood”, “Six Feet Under” and “True Detective”. In 2004 “Be Here To Love Me”, a film chronicling his life and musical career was released to critical acclaim – so he must have been doing something right.
Find out for yourself: