Saturday, July 14, 2012

Songs that work as poetry: the genius of Townes Van Zandt

The music of Townes Van Zandt has featured on this blog before (here and here). For me Townes Van Zandt is along with Bob Dylan the finest American male singer songwriters of the last 4 decades.

But this piece from the music blog Just a Song is one of the best pieces I have read about Van Zandt's musical gift. It focuses on just one song, Rake from his 1971 album Delta Momma's Blues.

The following extract is from the piece on Just a Song:

"The song's almost an Old Testament parable. A powerful and timeless tale. A story that's impacted down the ages and that shall eternally impact. There will always be wantonness and there will always always be a Prodigal Son!

The lyrics are spiked throughout with Townes' trademark melancholia. A melancholia that emanated from Van Zandt's pained troubled soul. An essential and undeniable part of his essence, of his songwriting. Never maudlin though. Never false. On the contrary, immensely powerful, impactful, unforgettable.

A melancholia of the type described by John Donne that "leaves behind a kind of sorrowing to the mind." A type that's tortured many other great musical artists in recent times, such as Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain and Elliot Smith - all who inevitably sadly succumbed to it's incomprehensible force. A type we still see in the work of artists such as Shane Mac Gowan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits.

All songwriters compelled to express their inner pain through art, perhaps in order to thereby attain some modicum of relief. All songwriters whose work is laden with what Federico García Lorca called Duende.

What Lorca meant by that was true soul, a raw inherent sadness, a heightened awareness of death. An inherent quality of art, most usually musical art, that is most clearly found in, for example, the old traditional music of Portugal and in ancient Irish traditional music - particularly in the "Sean Nos" keening songs.

Federico García Lorca in his essay "Play and Theory of the Duende" wrote; "Duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation."

Lorca also wrote "This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio's siguiriya ..... Duende brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm."

By Townes Van Zandt

I used to wake and run with the moon
I lived like a rake and a young man
I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds
my laughter the devil would frighten
The sun would come up and beat me back down
but every cruel day had its nightfall
I'd welcome the stars with wine and guitars
full of fire and forgetful

My body was sharp, the dark air clean
and outrage my joyful companion
whisperin' women how sweet they did seem
kneelin' for me to command them
And time was like water, but I was the sea
And I'd never noticed it passin'
except for the turnin' of night into day
and the turnin' of day into cursin'

You look at me now, and don't think I don't know
what all of your eyes are a sayin'
Does he want us to believe these ravings and lies
they're just tricks that his brains been a playin'?
A lover of women he can't hardly stand,
he trembles, he's bent and he's broken
I've fallen, it's true, but I say unto you
hold your tongues until after I've spoken

I was takin' my pride in the pleasures I'd known
I laughed and thought I'd be forgiven
but my laughter turned 'round, eyes blazing and
said "my friend, we're holdin' a wedding"
I buried my face but it spoke once again
It's the night to the day that we're a bindin'
and now the dark air is like fire on my skin
and even the moonlight is blinding

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