Dissonant Notes

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why I Do Not Like Townes Van Zandt



If you spend most of your adult life reading, playing and thinking about music, the name of Townes Van Zandt is bound to impose itself onto your consciousness. Phrases like "poet" and "songwriter's songwriter" abound, giving the impression of a misunderstood genius forever banished to the fringes for being just a little too good. Real music fans are expected, as with other cult figures, to bypass the general public apathy and embrace the wayward artistic creativity implicit in every scribbled blurb about Van Zandt. Here is a man, or so it is proclaimed, whose talents were perhaps just too subtle to be welcomed into the mainstream. Despite eagerly devouring the music of every other acid casualty, recalcitrant troublemaker and unfairly ignored maverick, I somehow resisted Van Zandt for many years, before finally dipping my toe into the waters, though not without some reservations.

        In truth, I expected my reservations to be swept aside as I succumbed to his lyrical genius. As my CD of High Low and In Between/The Late Great Townes Van Zandt span for perhaps the seventh or eighth time I realised I was no closer to embracing the music of Van Zandt. Where I anticipated poetry I was greeted with what I could only describe as third rate Dylanesque observations welded to trite country n' bluesisms that reeked of laziness. I gave up, consigning Van Zandt to the realm of the overrated, a fourth circle of artistic hell reserved for the likes of Elvis Costello, Gram Parsons, The Who and more recently Bright Eyes. For some reason though, a nagging doubt persisted. What if I were wrong? What if I hadn't given him enough of a chance? I let my doubt rest, thinking I could always go back and give him another chance.

         Fate had plans in store for our very own songwriter's songwriter though, in the shape of a documentary entitled "Be Here To Love Me". After much avoidance, I finally decided that if anything was going to change my mind about him, it would be the above mentioned documentary. Within thirty minutes I found myself not only disliking Van Zandt, but actively despising him. There is something very instructive about the story his first wife tells of their first home together. Everything was paid for by Van Zandt's affluent parents, with Townes only having to earn money for partying. Separated from the reality of work that others must face each morning, Townes hid himself away for many hours in a closet to write a song. And what did he emerge with? "Waiting Around To Die". Could there be a better summing up of everything wrong with Van Zandt?

       It's at this point I admit that my anger is not only with Van Zandt himself, but with a general trend in American music of which Van Zandt and Gram Parsons are undoubtedly the patrons. Both came from affluent backgrounds, but seemed determined to adopt the trappings of the American underclass. Affluence feels it can have whatever it wants, and the actions of Van Zandt and Parsons show a sense of entitlement that many members of such a class exhibit. Seeing a man whose family had a county named after them getting fucked up on whiskey and shooting off rounds like some kind of cliched redneck reeks of the worst kind cultural appropriation. And why would such an affluent person adopt such trappings? Authenticity. Read almost any article on an artist like Morrissey, especially in America, and words like "mannered" and "theatrical" can pepper the pages, the idea of performance and acting being apparently self-evident. Read an article on Van Zandt, however, and we experience no such (supposed) insight. Van Zandt's tragedy is played out one more time, adding fuel to the fire of his authenticity. There goes Townes, walkin' down the road feelin' bad, when the reality is he hurt and abandoned almost every human being he encountered, choosing a life without responsibility. He did not stand for or against anything. His words were an extension of the lazy appropriation that coloured his entire being.

           Now of course we have the perpetual rebirth and rediscovery of authentic American music, or Americana as it is unhappily referred to. Artists both great and woeful have returned to the so called source, using Americana as a springboard for some kind of authentic songwriting journey. Pedal steel implies realness, a true songwriter (a songwriter's songwriter perhaps), a troubadour preachin' from the sidelines. The fact that Americana is simply the grandest appropriation of working class mannerisms to couch lazy, affluent lifestyle choices does not deter Rolling Stone magazine from viewing the whole exercise as some kind of worthwhile exploration of the heartland, or as an extension of the old, weird America that Greil Marcus tiresomely introduced to musical terminology. Let's spin another punk / country comparison shall we? My Morning Jacket stand bearded and proud beside CSN & Y on magazine racks and the difference is minimal. Millions are convinced that George W. Bush, son of a President and heir to a fortune, was some kind of good old boy standing up against elitism. The confusion at the heart of the American experience is an enigma that should fuel some truly penetrating and thought-provoking works of art but instead the same old persona's are adopted without question. The fact that almost none of the people producing Americana come from genuine working class backgrounds speaks volumes about how comfortable America really is with class issues.

        Van Zandt is a hero to every overstimulated suburban brat who dreams of being an authentic shit kicker. At the core there lies some incoherent desire for an authentic life, and by extension an authentic artistic output. It's a shame that the music which is seen as the most representative of the American heartland is a sham. That's not to say that no great music has emerged from such self-delusion. On the contrary, musicians I love from CCR to The Gun Club have to an extent bought into the idea of authenticity and Americana. But as long as fans of this music refuse to recognise the overt performance aspect and cultural commandeering that lies at its very heart then we will never escape the pratfalls and false notions of authenticity that plague not only music and music writing, but also society in general. Van Zandt will, for me, be forever trapped in a world of failed profundities, idle plagiarisms and tired stabs at emotional string pulling. The fact that he was a hard drinker who seemed desperately depressed does not inform his music with any kind of greatness. He seems more to be pitied for his lack of fortitude.

14 comments:

  1. agreed. 100%.. been living in austin, texas off and on for 25 yrs, and i dont understand the whole towns van zandt cult...well, i do , actually. and you summed it up pretty well. theres a whole string of fake Americana acts he inspired, unfortunately.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes of course you can take his privileged background and undermine his music and his "authenticity". However cant we listen to Townes songs as objective forms of reality in their own. Do we half to associate the hack with the songs. I mean perhaps Martin Heidegger’s work should be thrown away or disregarded because of his Nazi background. Should Peter Kropotkin’s work be tossed aside in Anarchist theory because of his royal background or even Gandhi for that matter who was of a privileged crop. Were they too trying to live an authentic lifestyle of the noble, romanticized(poor-working)class? And if so is there something wrong with that? You could say that these historical figures aren’t comparable. They fought against tyrannical systems of oppression (aside from Heidegger) and stood for poor/working class liberation. And Townes got drunk and wrote songs in response to his emotional reactions of his chosen lifestyle. Kropotkin and Gandhi sacrificed there life for a more just world. Townes sacrificed his life to songwriting. But the similarities are there; I could point my finger at Kropotkin and say "you don’t know the plight of the working class...rich boy" or I could relate to and agree with his critique on capitalism: Just as much as I could relate to a Townes van Zandt song. Yeah he’s a rich boy, I get it. But he sure was a sad rich boy and wrote some pretty powerful songs that this poor boy can appreciate. Thanks for appropriating my class so well Townes. Do it again anytime you feel.

    But as far as America being a lifeless unauthentic ironic shit-loop; That doesn’t stand for anything but, escapist, indie music and crymeafucking river, bo hoo hipster, bi-polar, I don’t know what to do with my artistc privliged lifestyle…yeah I can meet you there.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nice thought provoking writing. I don't get the VanZandt thing either. But man do the hipsters like to throw his name out there like it's supposed to mean something to me. The talent he may have had, he wasted. It's sad, and nothing to envy, respect, or glorify.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeah, I think BobbyD has a very valid point. I have really loved the music of TVZ for a couple years, but know almost nothing about his personal and past life. I also didn't know he had such a large following. I can see how some people's charisma for a certain person can feel overwhelming to others who don't find the same connection to an artist. I don't look too deep into things. I take things for what they are. Human nature is what it is. It is prideful, lazy, lying, deceitful, manipulative, and selfish. This will come through eventually in any artist's works. You can pick things out that you don't like about an artist, and maybe you have others that you prefer to hear out, but if you look deep enough into anyone, you can justify some sort of reason that their art is not truly authentic and that they're abusing some sort of power in favor of themselves. You can practically dig up anything you want to on anyone and accuse them of something you don't like about them. Maybe you prefer to single certain ones out, but your accusations are only a subtype of thousands of reasons someone might not like someone else, or not like the artistic creativity of someone else. Art is such a complex and fluid expression and it often isn't based 100% on reality. It has to do with how you see the world and even yourself. Maybe TVZ came from a rich and spoiled background, but even if he did, and he didn't see himself that way, that obviously is going to change the entire feel of the artistic content. Much art in the world comes from people who are not necessarily steeped in the upbringing or culture that the art implies. Is there a universal law against that? TVZ is not a hero to me, he is not a someone that i admire for any personal traits, I just like his music. But if you want to accuse artist's expressions as invalid because their lifestyle or past didn't really back it up, you are just moving further and further away from just taking the music for what it is. If you want to discredit a musicians work for something other than the music itself, than doesn't that open up a door for all people to despise all musicians because they can always find something they don't like about them personally? Than what's the point of even appreciating any music at all?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Wallace Wylie you're an asshole

    ReplyDelete
  7. TVZ was amazing, and he lived for the moment. My favorite album was In The Beginning by Townes Van Zandt. Gram Parsons was also amazing. There are books on both of them. TWENTY THOUSAND ROADS
    The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music.
    By David N. Meyer.
    Illustrated. 559 pp. Villard. $29.95. And the book on TVZ is The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt. Here is something you may not have known, one of Townes girl friends was murdered in California back in the early 70's and Townes had to live with that for the rest of his life. Read the book...RIP TVZ and GP....

    ReplyDelete
  8. lets hear your tunes wallace pal

    ReplyDelete
  9. take your stupid skirt and go back to your stoopid island, ya daft cunt

    ReplyDelete
  10. I do love Townes Van Zandt. I'm no shitkicker and probably only slightly redneck (I'm a native Texan, after all.) but the things he writes and sings about...loneliness and isolation and pain...I think those were real and I think you could experience those as an affluent person or as a poor person. His directness about his pain reminds me of ES.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Oddly enough, I have the exact same thing, but then with Bob Dylan. There are very few notes played or sung by Bob Dylan that feel real to me and I thus could connect to, whereas I'm able to connect to a lot of Townes' early work.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Can't stand this article...... You sound like one of those ass holes who calls Elliot smith a pussy. You obviously need to read some America literature or maybe learn about the history of American novelists and poets before you start insulting drunks who die early or kill themselves. Our country has been shaped by those desperately depressed (aware) men and women.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Just because you don't connect with an artists music does not make it unatuthentic. Just because an artist comes from an affluent background of drinks himself to death does not mean that his lyrics aren't from the soul. John Fogerty was from California but represented himself as a man from the bayous of Louisiana. Don't poopoo a musician beacause you don't get it.

    ReplyDelete