Monday, March 07, 2005

Turnstyled, Junkpiled

"Railroaded, too."

Today, March 7, commemorates the birthdate
of The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. I would
join Steve Earle naked in cowboy boots on
Bob Dylan's dining room table to bear witness
to Townes being the greatest American folk
song writer since Woody Guthrie.

I missed the fifth, which found Gabriel Garcia
Marquez celebrating his birthday, along with
Lou Reed on the second. I suppose the lesson
here is that the Fish reigns supreme. (We are
the oldest souls, you know.)

Townes has been one of those profound influences,
the kind that has caused me to follow -- sometimes
to my detriment.

The first person to act upon me in this fashion
was Joseph Conrad. I was so full of Conrad,
I joined the Navy. Thanks, Joe!

Blind Willie McTell and Tampa Red influenced
time in Georgia.

I was in Lincoln, Nebraska when I really got into
Townes. I was driving a 1983 Cadillac Coupe de Ville
(still my favorite car) with a cassette deck, rotating
Woody, Lyle Lovett (Ensenada) and Townes.
Every night after work we'd have a pickin' session,
as they say, usually culminating in either "White
Freightliner Blues" or "Heavenly Houseboat Blues."

It wasn't long before the Caddy was loaded up,
broken down ("No Deal" hadn't any influence on that,
just bad luck) and the wife and I found ourselves
in Wise County, Texas. This was just a few miles
from Mr. Van Zandt's final resting place in Dido.
No small coincidence there. I wasn't aware of the
whole "dry county" phenomenon (even though I'd
lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky which is surrounded
by perpetual drouth -- but I worked at a liquor store,
after all!) and was not pleased when I finally broke
down and asked a gas station attendant where in the
hell I could get a twelve pack of beer. (This was while
gassing up the U Haul!) He told me "Lindsey."

"Alright, how do I get to Lindsay Street?"

"No, Lindsey's about twenty miles thataway."

Never has the phrase "You have got to be fucking
kidding me" rang more truthfully.

Well, one advantage was that I made it a habit to
do my beer run in "good ol' Denton" Texas (the
Right Oner capital of the low plains) which was
a cultural island from the whole DFW metromess
and footwashin' rural atmosphere. The road
I took went through Sanger, and from what evidence
I can gather, by the motel in which Townes wrote
"Pancho and Lefty." At this time in life the only
thing in my Ford Festiva (yes, if you're wondering,
the de Ville to the Festiva will adjust one's driving
habits significantly) was a copy of "The Late,
Great Townes Van Zandt" (Side A) and "High,
Low and In Between" (B).

Enough of the personal stories, now to the man
himself.

Townes is special for a number of reasons. His
distinctive voice, his skillful guitar playing, and
most of all his gift for songwriting. There are only
a few songwriters who have been given the title
"Poet" not only by fans and peers, but those
outside folk circles. Woody, of course. (He is our
Robert Burns, after all.) Many say Dylan. I'll
accept that. Guy Clark, surely.

But what separates Townes is the way he wrote.
Take a song like "She Came and She Touched Me."
There are precious few who would put such an
adventurous scheme in a love song. (If you could
ever call one of his songs such.) Simply put, Townes
scans better than any other songwriter this nation
has produced.

Further, he forged his own mythology. The holy
writ of Townes Van Zandt can be found in
Our Mother The Mountain. There is a mysticism
that runs throughout. A Comanche Sufi lamenting
fast women and in turn consoling them; bridging
the sacred and the profane throughout (see: "St.
John the Gambler" for the primary surah); and
the power and spirit of nature in the mountains
themselves. Townes was an American of two
citizenships. Steve Earle would pardon me for
asserting that he was both a Texan and a
Colorado mountain prophet.

Recently, Townes has been receiving more
attention. Though purists tend to bemoan
the popularization of "one of their own"
(myself included in this: I finally landed
a copy of the once vinyl-only two lp
Live at the Old Quarter, the best live
album ever made, for what it's worth...
two years later they release the damn thing
on CD! Now that's just cheating!) Townes
deserves his place on the turntable of any
serious fan of music or poetry.

So, if you haven't come to know the Tao
of Townes, I'd suggest running to the nearest
record store and acquainting yourself, and
joining us "purists" in March 7 festivities from
here on out. If you are already a devotee,
pour a big glass of jug wine and drink one to
him. Pick a guitar, get a friend with a fiddle or
mandolin, and don't forget to end the night with
this, remembering the C run at the end:

"I'm goin' out on the highway,
listen to them big trucks whine
I'm goin' out on the highway,
listen to them big trucks whi-hine.
White Freightliner won't you haul away my mind.

Bad news from Houston,
half my friends are dying.
Bad news from Houston,
half my friends are dying
White Freightliner won't you haul away my mind.

New Mexico ain't bad, lord
the people there they treat you fine.
New Mexico ain't bad
the people there they treat you fine
White Freightliner won't you haul away my mind.

Lord, I'm gonna' ramble 'til I
get back from where I came.
Lord, I'm gonna ramble 'til I
get back from where I came
White Freightliner, won't you haul away my brain.

I'm goin' out on the highway,
listen to them big trucks whine.
I'm goin' out on the highway
listen to them big trucks whi-hine,
White Freightliner won't you
Haul away My Mind."

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