By James Calemine
“Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum.”
“To Live’s To Fly”
Townes Van Zandt
John Kruth’s latest book on Townes Van Zandt stands as a close-to-the-bone tale about one of America’s most underrated songwriters. Kruth details Van Zandt’s Texas upbringing to his last day. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 7, 1944, Townes Van Zandt came from a wealthy family. His great-grandfather was a founding father of the city of Ft. Worth. Townes Hall, at the University of Texas, was named after his grandmother.
After being diagnosed in his late teens as a manic depressive, Van Zandt was subjected to electric and insulin-shock treatments, which erased most of his childhood memories. Kruth examines Van Zandt’s fascination with Elvis Presley that began in 1956 when Van Zandt was 12. Kruth, a musician, wrote his first book about the blind multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In the midst of a nasty legal battle that rages between Van Zandt’s old friends and business partners—the Egger Brothers—and Van Zandt’s ex-wife over Van Zandt’s recordings and finances, Kruth makes an honest attempt to offer an unbiased account of the facts.
Among many, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris, Freddie Fender, Doug Sahm and Jerry Jeff Walker recorded Van Zandt’s songs. Kruth details Van Zandt’s heroin addiction and fierce alcoholism that raged in the 70s. Kruth, a New Yorker, talked to many of Van Zandt’s closest friends such as Guy Clark (who waved a knife in Kruth’s face and referred to him as a “Little Yankee journalist”), Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Mickey White, David Olney, Jack Clement, Keith Case, Jeanene Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell and Nanci Griffith. The great Sam Shepard wrote a nice blurb for the book. Newsman Dan Rather speaks on Van Zandt’s talent. Other musicians such as ZZ Top’s Frank Beard, The Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins, The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Eric Anderson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely all offer insight to the influence of Van Zandt’s songwriting on their own work.
Arguably, only Bob Dylan (who Van Zandt loved) ranks above Van Zandt’s unforgettable song craft. Dylan, Lightning Hopkins and Hank Williams served as the holy trinity Van Zandt followed. Kruth details Van Zandt’s first five albums and adds flesh and bone to the mysterious facts concerning some of the old stories as well as lost recordings, later albums and Van Zandt’s proclivity for self-destruction. Kruth gives ample background to Van Zandt’s classic recording Live At the Old Quarter. Kruth also offers generous glimpses at Van Zandt’s lyrics throughout this new book.
The book (like Van Zandt’s career) becomes somewhat convoluted in the 80s era. However, Van Zandt’s turbulent final days were well-written by Kruth who reconstructed powerful facts of Van Zandt’s sad death in the book’s last several pages. Kruth’s To Live’s To Fly proves a vital book for any songwriter or Townes Van Zandt fan…