Saturday, July 10, 2010

Currently listening to: Townes Van Zandt

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"Days full of rain
Sky coming down again

I get so tired of these same old blues

Same old song

Babe it won't be long

till I'll be tieing on my flyin' shoes"

The Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997 aged just 52 after a long struggle with mental illness and addiction, is considered by many (me included) to be one of the finest contemporary songwriters.

Despite not being well known, Townes Van Zandt is revered and admired by musicians and musical aficionados alike.

He wrote songs of such immense beauty, sadness and pathos and his songs draw from both conscious and unconscious experience and from historical and personal events. He could write songs of tragedy and sadness, like Marie, perhaps the finest song ever written about homelessness and poverty, and songs of despair and sorrow in the face of the pain and struggle of daily life, such as A Song For (which mentions my home town Perth, Australia)

He also wrote many songs that drew on his own struggle with mental illness and addiction, such as Sanitarium Blues, The Rake and The Hole.

But Townes Van Zandt also write beautiful and life affirming songs of daily life, of love, of the cycles of nature and the landscape and environment, and of his reflections on the experiences of being human.

Townes Van Zandt was one of the most evocative lyricists in contemporary music. His skill as a lyricist is rivaled only by Bob Dylan. There is a timeless poetic and deeply philosophical quality to his lyrics. His lyrics stand as poetry first, then as music. For Townes Van Zandt it was essential that songs worked as poetry first and he worked tirelessly to craft his song lyrics.

Van Zandt wrote so many fine songs. Other than Bob Dylan I know no other contemporary singer songwriter who composed so many magnificent and profound songs.

I think his finest song and one of the great songs of all time is his song Flyin Shoes. Van Zandt wrote the song about a Confederate soldier dying on the battlefield during the US Civil War Battle of Franklin. At the time he wrote the song, Van Zandt was living on a farm outside Nashville where the Battle of Franklin had been fought and he claimed that there were still signs of the battle on the farm. The song reflects his ruminations about the landscape, the battle and a dying soldier.

Lyle Lovett regularly covers the song and you can hear his live version and recorded version.

For those interested in knowing more about Townes Van Zandt there is an outstanding documentary Be Here to Love Me and a number of books, including A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt, as well as various websites.

Van Zandt was a compelling and charismatic, but erratic live performer, but when "on song" he could deliver performances of immense power. Here is a link to a live performance recorded 2 years before he died. Powerful stuff. Around 43 minutes into the You Tube concert clip he explains how the song Flyin' Shoes came about and then delivers a powerful live performance.

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