"Leaving Townes" by Richard Dobson
As posted to the about-townes mail list by Marq
January 2nd, 1997: Two AM as I struggled from a dream with the
phone ringing by my head, and I let it go on ringing, thinking it's
probably a fax from Switzerland when a voice came on the phone
speaker in the other room. Not a fax, I knew the voice: Harold
Eggers, Townes Van Zandt's long time road manager. Still
struggling to awake I heard Pat clanging down the circular stairs to
pick up the receiver. "Oh no," he said. I heard him hang up the
phone, waiting as he walked to the door behind which we lay
trembling. "Townes is dead," he said. "He died last night in
We lay silent in the dark as Pat climbed back up the stairs; holding
on to each other, alive and warm and breathing. Sometime before
dawn we drifted off to sleep. When I got up around nine Pat was
already up with coffee. The phone started ringing soon after; calls
from Houston, Austin, Nashvlle, Santa Fe, from Buffalo,
Wyoming, and Seattle.
Pat and Edith and I drove through the fog to a building supply
store. I was happy we had work to do, thinking it was better to
keep busy. The store didn't have the plumbing connections we
needed so we drove to another place on the far side of the island.
Life going on as usual, I felt like we were handling things pretty
Later I called Andy, my ex-wife. I thought she would want to know
about Townes, also Johnny Guess, an old running buddy of ours
who lives with her. Andy knew Townes from when he and Harold
used to stop by Galveston on their way through, fifteen years ago
and counting. I remember he scared the hell out of my kid once,
blowing on a saxophone. Townes stories: there must be a million of
them. Andy took the news hard, then I came undone. I vowed not
to be the messenger again. I had been thinking of calling Roxy and
Judy Gordon up in Dallas. Roxy was looking for some property
for Townes to buy out in Coleman County, to raise
donkeys...another story. Somebody else could call them. Edith put
her arms around me. "It's okay," she whispered. After awhile I felt
Later Rex came over, and Lee Ann who lives across the highway.
Rex taking it hard. On the wall of his house there is a picture of
him and Townes and an Austin songwriter named Blaze Foley. I
reminded Rex that of the three he is the only one still breathing.
"Well, Townes is the one person I did kind of feel like I might
outlive." Townes played his last US gig at the Old Quarter, Rex's
club. I opened the show and thought he looked like a ghost. Then
we both left for Europe, playing some of the same places.
Somehow we made it through the day. The phone rang off and on.
Pat worked long after dark, keeping it all inside. We went to bed
without showering. the water shut off. Friday morning a patch of
sunlight broke through the mist. Another day to get through, not
so hard as the first. Edith and I drove to Wal Mart to have some
film developed then drove to a downtown bank to cash in some
Swiss Franks. The dollar is strong, bad news for us.
Bill Cade, his girlfriend Lauren, and Gary, who plays guitar with
him were down at the old Quarter Friday night. Rex had Townes
CDs playing on random selection between sets. We toasted to
Townes. Later I did a short guest set and sang 'Snowing on Raton'.
Rex sang 'Rex's Blues', a song Townes wrote for him.
Saturday, January 4th: Pat came back from Houston this morning
and resumed work on the plumbing. Bill and Gary fixed a big
breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns. With Green
Bay and the Forty-Niners on the tube, I supposed this could be
taken for a normal day. But I never called Roxy, I figured it could
Edith and I last talked with Townes a couple of days after
Christmas. He said his last European tour was a rough one but he
was happy to be going back into the studio again in Memphis.
Edith talked awhile and handed the phone back to me. "She was
whispering to me," he said. We reached an end of our
conversation. He seemed happy for me and Edith. "Take care of
yourself," I said. The words jumped out of my mouth--I knew
better than to try and preach. There was a barely perceptible pause
before the last words I heard him utter: "Yeah, well Adios."
"Adios." I turned to Edith after I hung up. "What did Townes
"He said you were whispering to him."
"Yes, he sounded so ... I don't know the word... zerbrechlich ... "
"Yes, I think so."
Bill and Lauren and Gary left awhile ago for Houston. Green Bay
won the game. Pat is still cutting and gluing pipe. We've got a
votive candle going , one of those Mexican Novena candles. We
didn't light it for any reason in particular. This one is red and
devoted to San Martin Cabillero and reads in part 'Oh blessed
saint, raise your voice in this dungeon where I am, and protect me
from all the affliction of evil....' I went to the bar and poured
myself a shot of vodka; of Popov, a sufficiently cheap variety. For
Townes, of course. I know what he would have said: "Blow it off
man, let's have a drink."
Saturday 11 January: Up before dawn, we made coffee and drove
to town with the sun coming up over the Gulf, down to the Old
Quarter to meet Rex. I swiped a couple of beers out of the cooler
for the ride up to Houston where Jet had a rent car ready for the
ride up to Fort Worth where we were to meet up with the funeral
party at the Worthinqton Hotel. A cold, bright morning under high
cirrus cloud; tawny yeilow fields and bare trees; Tom Waits on the
tape player. With a stash of brownies left over from the batch
Sergio and I cooked up back in November, three in all. I gave one
to Michele, Jet's friend, the Gothic songwriter who was riding with
us. We found the hotel where we retired to the bar to wait until the
party had assembled. A line of cars began a long, circuitous drive
through ethnic suburbs of Forth Worth. Townes' last joke, I
thought. At length after much turning and backtracking we came
upon a small country cemetery with a number of cars parked
around a gravel lot. Someone produced a key to open the door to
a small frame building like a one-room schoolhouse. Stomping and
whistling from the cold the mourners gathered inside where there
ensued a round of hand shakes and abrazos. It was not my
intention to chronicle this event so much as it was to get through
it. I was happy I had remembered the brownies which were
beginning to render a pleasant effect. So much so that awhile later
I was feeling really good standing in the cold wind while Townes'
sister in law delivered a prayer. Townes' ashes had come in a kind
of plastic container which his ex-wife, Jeanene tore open and
poured directly into the hole. "Townes wouldn't want to be buried
in plastic," she said. Dust rose up like smoke from the hole.
"Look, he's trying to escape," she said as a ripple of laughter
passed through the graveside crowd.
Back inside Townes' younger brother Bill delivered the eulogy, a
sampling of anecdotes and family history. J.T., Townes' oldest son
from his first marriage, played his Gibson guitar. Tall and good
looking like his father in earlier days, he sang 'If I Needed You'.
And it wasn't only the similarity in looks, but in his voice which
sounded eerily like his dad's.
There were cookies and hot coffee and more rounds of handshakes
and abrazos as the assembly made ready to return to the
Worthington, but we made our goodbyes and headed back to
Houston where we left the rent car with Jet, returning to the Island
in Rex's Toyota. We pulled into the lot behind the old Quarter a
little after eleven o'clock, some fifteen and a haif hours after
leaving. Sunday I watched the Green Bay Packers win their
championship game, then the New England game which I scarcely
bothered to watch. The cold followed us down from Fort Worth
and beyond, bringing a major ice storm down across Texas. It was
not on this day but the next, with a raw wind and the surf
pounding desolate outside when the tears finally came. Edith put
her arms around me as I cried for our old amigo who had left us
just as he always promised he would.