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Biography: Townes Van Zandt

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Straight out of Ft. Worth came one of Texas's most celebrated songwriters, Townes Van Zandt.  Like many great artists, he wasn't appreciated in full until after his early death, but the mark he made on music across America will be felt for generations.

 

Townes Van Zandt is legendary the world over for his songwriting and eclectic lifestyle.

 

Born John Townes Van Zandt in 1944, the young Townes grew up in a family that had been prominent in Texas since its republic days.  His ancestor Isaac Van Zandt had served as the Texan ambassador to the United States and had been directly involved in the annexation treaty that led to Texas becoming a state.  Another ancestor, Khleber M. Van Zandt, had been a Major in the Confederacy and one of the founders of Ft. Worth.  Townes father, Harris, was a corporate lawyer and his job required him to move his family on a regular basis.  By the time Townes finished high school, the Van Zandt family had lived in several places including Midland, TX, Billings, MT, and Boulder, CO.  The young boy, like many others of his generation, had his first impression of the power of music when watching Elvis Presley's famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.  He knew then and there that the life of a musician was the only one for him.

 

Van Zandt studied under legendary blues-man Lightning Hopkins while performing in Houston.

 

By all accounts, Townes was a gifted student and went on to start school at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  Unfortunately, he took to binge drinking and by mid-1960s and his family had him admitted to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston where he was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder (known today as bipolar disorder).  There he underwent a brutal treatment known as insulin shock therapy where he was pumped full of insulin until he went into a coma on an almost daily basis for over three months.  Sadly, this treatment was not only ineffective, it caused him large amounts of long-term memory loss that would effect him for the rest of his life.

 

Van Zandt is remembered for penning songs like "To Live is to Fly", "For the Sake of the Song", "Tecumseh Valley", and "Pancho and Lefty".

 

Shortly after his medical experiences, Townes began to perform live in Houston.  There he met musicians like Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark while making $10 a night.  He mostly played covers, but at his father's suggestion began writing his own material.  One thing led to another and he began recording his work with the help of producer Jack Clement.  Between 1968 and 1973 he released five albums, none of which charted.  However, every one of these albums gained a cult following (especially among other musicians) and several of the singles from these albums would later be covered to great success.  For example, his "Pancho and Lefty" became a #1 country hit when covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.  Regardless, Van Zandt had little use for fame or fortune and preferred to spend his time drinking whiskey, shooting guns, doing drugs, and writing songs in a trailer as documented by the 1975 film Heartworn Highways.

 

The live recordings of Van Zandt are cherished by his fans.  This album is considered among his best work.

 

After the release of his 1978 album, Flyin' Shoes, Van Zandt would not release another album until 1987.  During this time, he lived near Nashville and mostly played small shows sporadically.  He lived in a shack outside of town with no plumbing, heat, or telephone and continued his life of excess substance abuse.  Although he briefly sobered up for about a year in 1989, he never really kicked any of his bad habits.  His alcoholism became so bad that doctor's feared that any sort of detox would kill him.  Either way, his health began failing significantly by the early '90s and a hip fracture in 1996 would ultimately lead to his early death.  After falling down some stairs, he waited over a week to see a doctor and several complicated surgeries had to be done.  He left the hospital after his surgeries, against his doctors' wishes, and returned to his home in Tennessee on New Year's Eve 1996.  He began drinking again immediately and on New Years Day 1997 he was found dead by his third ex-wife and their teenage son.

 

Van Zandt preferred smaller venues, but always played a great show.  He died at the age of 52.

 

Townes Van Zandt was a drunk, a junkie, and pretty much everything else you could name - but he was undeniably an excellent musician and an even better songwriter.  Love him or hate him, he had no time for the trappings of modern society and made no bones about it.  Although he always had a cult following, he would be remember as one of the greats of country music and Americana after his untimely death.  Several renowned books and documentaries have come out detailing the life and story of the man including the 2006 Be Here to Love Me.  His songs have been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to the Kings of Leon.  Regardless of his lifestyle choices, he and his music will be remembered for generations to come.  Visit his homepage to learn more about him.

 

Discography:

(1968) For the Sake of the Song

(1969) Our Mother the Mountain

(1969) Townes Van Zandt

(1971) Delta Momma Blues

(1972) High, Low and In Between

(1972) The Great Townes Van Zandt

(1977) Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

(1978) Flyin' Shoes

(1987) At My Window

(1989) Live and Obscure

(1993) The Nashville Sessions

(1993) Roadsongs

(1994) No Deeper Blue