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February 27, 1997

Townes Van Zandt: For Moody Folk Poet, an Unmournful Tribute

J.T. Van Zandt at the Tribute


NEW YORK -- Sunday's tribute at the Bottom Line to Townes Van Zandt, the influential Texas singer and songwriter who died of a heart attack Jan. 1, was powerful and moving. But it wasn't any more powerful or moving than Van Zandt's own performances.

A folk and country equivalent of Kurt Cobain in Nirvana, Van Zandt was a restless poet with a self-destructive streak, writing himself epitaphs while still living.

Though others took his music to the top of the country charts (most famously Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's version of "Pancho and Lefty") and his songs influenced such musicians as Neil Young and Emmylou Harris, Van Zandt was often too busy living his depressive songs to follow them to success.

In his music he was obsessed not just with alcohol, gambling and rambling, but also with breath and time and how each gasp or tick was an oppressive, irreversible eternity -- one that he usually wasted.

"I guess I'll keep a-gambling, lots of booze and lots of rambling," Joe Ely sang in one of Van Zandt's best-known songs at the Bottom Line. "It's easier than just waiting round to die."

Joining Ely in the tribute were friends and relatives of Van Zandt, including one of his children, John Townes; musicians who were collaborating with him on an album at the time of his death, including Two Dollar Guitar, featuring Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, and a few of the many songwriters he influenced, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gillian Welch, Rosie Flores, Paul K, Chip Taylor and members of the Cowboy Junkies.

Van Zandt's old guitar sat in a corner of the stage, and plaques on either side of the stage memorialized him not as a singer, guitarist and songwriter but as a poet. Surely it was Van Zandt's words that enabled his ballads to sound just as good from the mouths of rock bands as they did from melodramatic pop vocalists like Jonell Mosser and shaky, flat-voiced recovering gamblers like Taylor, the composer of "Wild Thing."

One of the most spellbinding performances of the night was the songwriter David Olney's versions of "Dollar Bill Blues," a chillingly blunt miscreant's tale, and the fatalistic "For the Sake of the Song." Tension and melancholy were so palpable in the room afterward that when Van Zandt's son took the stage and began with a corny joke that his father used to tell, the room erupted with laughter for several minutes.

Perhaps now that it knew what it felt like to be released from Van Zandt's pain, the audience understood that the night was not to mourn but to celebrate.

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