A few years ago Barbara and I watched Be Here to Love Me, a documentary about the life and art of Townes van Zandt. I remember it as being inspiring and harrowing in almost equal measure, for van Zandt’s journey was a troubled one, often apparently derailed by the extremes of joy and pain. When you listen to his albums, however, this capacity for holding extreme, contradictory emotions at the same time, in the same song, is an extraordinary pleasure.
Perhaps this emerges most clearly and starkly on 1972’s appropriately named High, Low and In Between, though I might name a different album if you ask me tomorrow. It contains samples of van Zandt at his most hilariously unrepentant, but also features The Highway Kind, in which the singer seems unable to escape from the prison of his own restlessness: “My days they are the highway kind / They only come to leave / But the leaving I don’t mind / It’s the coming that I crave.” The melody is haunting and narrow, circling its root note to emphasise the sense of being stuck, and the lyrics strengthen this impression at every step: “I don’t know too much for true / But my heart knows how to pound / My legs know how to love someone / My voice knows how to sound. / Shame that it’s not enough / Shame that it is a shame. / Follow the circle down / Where would you be?” In the final verse it emerges that someone else – a potential love interest - is being addressed, but she offers no way out: “You’re the only one I want now, / I haven’t heard your name / Let’s hope we’ll meet some day / If we don’t it’s all the same.”
There is a gesture in the first verse, though, that stands as a kind of response to these days that come and go: “Pour the sun upon the ground / Stand and throw a shadow / See it turn into a night / And fill a spinning sky.” I hear a kind of defiance in this gesture, as if van Zandt is willing to stay with the growing darkness that is so palpable throughout the song. What’s more, after generations of singer-songwriters who have capitalized on their own and others’ suffering, the absence of self-pity and sentiment in van Zandt’s voice is a breath of fresh air.
The title track of the same album explores the same restlessness from a different angle. Here the shadow cast in The Highway Kind is still in evidence, but there is also the possibility of leaving behind a trace that will bear witness to his journey: “What can you leave behind / when you’re travelling lightning fast / and all alone? / Only a trace, my friend, / spirit of motion born / and direction grown. / A trace that will not fade / in frozen skies / your journey will be / and if her shadow doesn’t seem much company / well, who said it would be?”
To Live Is to Fly from the same album shows van Zandt at his most triumphant. It is also a song of leave-taking, but light, almost innocent: “To live is to fly / Low and high, / So shake the dust off of your wings / And the sleep out of your eyes …” The inability to keep still and stay in one place is seen as a virtue here rather than a curse: “Days, up and down they come / Like rain on a conga drum / Forget most, remember some / But don’t turn none away …” The triumph, apart from the sheer beauty of the music itself, lies in this willingness to turn nothing away. He goes on: “Everything is not enough / And nothin’ is too much to bear. / Where you been is good and gone / All you keep is the getting there.”
I’m sure there’s an excellent biography of van Zandt out there, and one day I’d like to seek it out. But what ultimately matters about him is the astonishing body of work he left behind, those traces that will not fade even in frozen skies.