Townes Van Zandt’s song “If I Needed You” is one of the most quietly sad laments I know of, an asking for help, even while not quite asking. In a session posted on World Cafe on Friday, the Mumford kids take a shot at this song and wring out all the latent desperation that underlies the words. On the last verse, when Marcus cranks it up to a wail, it no longer becomes a polite request, but more of an exhortation yelled into the unresponsive silence of an empty room.
Last night I watched the Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here To Love Me for the first time, after having it sit by my TV for far too many months now. After two bands coming through here in the last few days both put it on within minutes of arriving (and I was too busy flitting around to sit), I decided I needed to devote some time. I am so glad I did. My insides feel like they’ve been soaked in this vinegary sadness.
There’s a deeply affecting part of the movie where Townes’ voice is heard talking about a song he wants to write that’s just all about birds. He doesn’t sound to be in very good shape, although his spirits are high, and the thought of avian lightness seems to cheer him. “Let me tell you about the other one I’m gonna write; boy, my hand doesn’t work fast enough,” he tells his road manager. “There’s gonna be nothing, nothing in it but names of birds. It’s gonna start off with bluebird, and then something else, another bird, another bird, another bird …verse. Maybe a bridge. Nothing but birds.”
Then this morning, this Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song came on my shuffle, out of the thousands. It sounded to me like Will Oldham did almost exactly what Townes wanted, what with his lyrics of robins, doves, lovebirds, bobwhite, whippoorwill, seagulls, and hawks. I can’t find any direct connection between the two, but in my mind, it is a perfect bookend. Or I’d like to think it is.
“When we hide our feelings we may as well fly away”
After watching the biopic, I also decided to do some research into Townes’ Colorado connections. I’m now soliciting partners in crime for a TVZ roadtrip.
Yesterday felt like full-on summer crouching outside my door. I even went for a run so hard and lovely that I almost threw up. Awesome. Today is grey and rain just started falling on my office window, little rivulets gathering speed by the minute. I am wishing I didn’t wear open-toed shoes.
But the good thing about this weather is that it needs some pensive tunes to go with it, and I have just the one — the perfect song for this and all grey days. As I previously mentioned, Steve Earle is releasing a full album of covers of songs written by his friend Townes Van Zandt. Townes may be one of the greatest songwriters of the last generation, with so many hidden gems that I am still uncovering.
We got the sky to talk about
And the earth to lie upon
Days, up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away
Everything is not enough
And nothin’ is too much to bear
Where you’ve been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there
Well, to live is to fly
Low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
The album features appearances from Allison Moorer (she must provide the lovely harmonies on this track), guitarist Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine and recent folkier project The Nightwatchman), and for the first time on one of his dad’s records, Justin Townes Earle. Considering his name, this is a fitting album for Justin to be featured on.
In a Rolling Stone article published last week, Steve Earle talked about his relationship with the late singer-songwriter iconoclast Townes Van Zandt, and revealed that he’s currently putting the finishing touches on an entire album of Townes covers.
To get you thinkin’ in that direction, here are some live versions Earle has done of songs either written or performed by Townes the years.
And by “here” I mean in front of your computer, because now you can watch the entire 2004 film for free from those SnagFilms folks (like the Dandys/BJM one). Rad.
ABOUT BE HERE TO LOVE ME Perhaps one of the most underrated songwriters of the last century, Be Here To Love Me chronicles the fascinating and often turbulent life of Townes Van Zandt with a simple unpredictability that mimics the way the artist lived his short life. Directed by Margaret Brown, this haunting and lyrical film combines emotional interviews with Van Zandt’s immediate family and such luminaries as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Guy Clark with rare footage of Van Zandt at home and on the stage.
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
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