March 7 was the birthday of the late, great Townes Van Zandt, one of the most influential songwriters in contemporary Americana music. Van Zandt never had significant commercial success. What little success he did have was squandered in a haze of drugs and alcohol. He was never able to overcome the demons that haunted him, leading to his premature death in 1997, at the age of 52, after years of drug and alcohol addiction.
But Van Zandt’s legacy lives on through music of people like Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Justin Townes Earle, Emmylou Harris, Nancy Griffith, Willie Nelson, John Prine, and others who were inspired by TVZ and sang his songs. Even if you have never even heard of TVZ, you have heard his music covered by these and other artists: “Pancho & Lefty,” “If I Needed You,” “White Freightliner Blues,” “Waiting Around to Die,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Marie,” “Tower Song,” “To Live is to Fly,” “Lungs,” “Loretta,” and too many more to list.
Van Zandt’s songwriting prowess is demonstrated in such lyrics as, “Living on the road my friend/Was gonna keep you free and clean/And now you wear your skin like iron/And your breath’s as hard as kerosene,” from “Pancho and Lefty” and, from from “Lungs”:
Won’t you lend your lungs to me?
Mine are collapsing
Plant my feet and bitterly breathe
Up the time that’s passing
Breath I’ll take and breath I’ll give
And pray the day’s not poison
Stand among the ones that live
In lonely indecision
And, from “Tower Song”:
You close your eyes and speak to me
Of faith and love and destiny
As distant as eternity,
Truth and understanding
This year, the memory of TVZ is even more poignant for me, as Steve Earle’s first son and TVZ’s namesake, Justin Townes Earle, died last September at age 38, succumbing to the same demons that defeated TVZ. This leads one to wonder if TVZ’s and JTE’s demons and their artistic brilliance were inseparable. I guess that’s a perennial question about tortured artists and other geniuses which, like all such questions, will probably remain unanswered.
On her album, Relish, Joan Osborne wrote a song about Ray Charles, called “Spider Web,” suggesting the counterfactual that Charles was not blind, but that he also didn’t sing any more. “Since I got my eyesight back, my voice has just deserted me,” he explained in the song. And the narrator sings:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he sees
Just like him best the other way
It would be monstrous evil to prefer TVZ’s illnesses with his music to a long, healthy, happy life without it. But we can’t help but wonder if he would have written the songs he did without his addictions, or the dark places that drove those addictions? Or did the songs drive him there? Or some indecipherable combination of both?
Guy Clark wrote a song suggesting that:
Some days you know just how it goes
Some days you have no clue
Some days you write the song
Some days the song writes you
This could be an echo of TVZ’s song, “Waitin’ Around to Die,” in which he wrote:
Sometimes I don’t know where
This dirty road is taking me
Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why
I guess I keep a-gamblin’
Lots of booze and lots of ramblin’
It’s easier than just waitin’ around to die
I’m grateful for the songs, especially those that expose the fragility and vulnerability that all of us experience to some degree or other, even while we wonder if the same genius that produced them also killed him. We cannot deny the responsibility that comes with moral agency. We also cannot ignore those things that claim us, against which our agency struggles. As Van Zandt wrote in “To Live is to Fly”:
We all got holes to fill
Them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own
The choice is yours to make
Time is yours to take
Some sail upon the sea
Some toil upon the stone
In any event, about 18 years ago, I learned not to judge—or even to try to understand—TVZ, JTE and others who inhabit the same dark places that haunted them. Rather, I’ve tried to learn to be present; to thank God for their lives and music, and to pray that they have found the rest that was so elusive in their lives in this world. RIP JTE and TVZ. Thank you for the music, and for the lessons.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.