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. Words and 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 whisky 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.