Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Look, Ma! No politics————Townes Van Zandt: Close Encounters of the Musical Kind


Two of my favorite Townes Van Zandt songs are "Second Lover's Song" and "Don't You Take it Too Bad" because they defy the chorus/verse form and create an organic meander to a gentle profundity.

I first stumbled upon Townes's music in 1969 while going to college in Chico, CA, when I found his first album in a supermarket cut-out bin for 10¢. I bought it because it was produced by Jack Clement. In both his playing and his writing, I instantly recognized in Townes a kindred spirit.

Six or seven years later Townes was booked into the Roxy in LA (odd venue for a folk singer). The opening act was Dianne Davidson (the first to cover "Delta Dawn") and Tracy Nelson (whose powerful "Down So Low" is another big favorite of mine).

Their first set was great, but about halfway through Nelson and Davidson's act, Howard and Roz Larman (I had played on their Folkscene radio show and performed for their big Folk fair fundraiser for KPFK a few months earlier) asked me and my wife if we wanted to meet Townes. I jumped at the chance. He was very gracious and fun to talk to. He invited me to come back after his set before the second show of the night and the next night as well. As much as I admire Tracy Nelson and love her work, I do not regret having missed two nights of her sets in order to have spent those hours talking about music and  songs with one of my musical idols.

I was fortunate enough to see Townes play a few times many years later at McCabes, several times sharing the bill with Guy Clark. I spoke to Townes fleetingly a couple of times out in the lobby, but I never mentioned those two nights and how much they meant to me. I wish I had.

Though I wrote two songs about the tragic death of Phil Ochs ("Heroes are Hard to Find" and "Come This Far") and one about Maury Muehleisen (Jim Croce's musical partner who was killed in the same plane crash—my song is titled "Second String Songman"), I still have not written one for Townes despite my being a huge fan.

How huge? It's not just that I own more Townes Van Zandt recordings in my 10,000 LP and CD collection than any other artist, or that I have several copies of his songbook and all of his available videos (plus all of my Beta and VHS recordings of his TV performances). It's not that for the last thirty years, the only two posters that have hung in my office are two, huge, framed Milton Glaser posters, "From Poppy with Love" and "The Poppy Foundation: Townes Van Zandt and The Mandrake Memorial." (Needless to say, my wife, Carolyn, is a very understanding woman). It's not that my wife's aunt (only a few years older than us), when she heard that Townes Van Zandt was one of my favorite songwriters, said, "Really, he's a songwriter; why, I went to junior high school with him in Boulder, Colorado." Nope, it's more than that.

In 1974, I quit my tenured teaching job to pursue songwriting and performing. To make ends meet, I worked in a record store in Whittier, CA. One day, while working at the store, I got a call from John Lomax III, Towne's manager, who wanted to talk with me personally. I was not the owner or the manager of the store; I just sold records. However, I had just ordered six copies of Towne's songbook (for me, my brothers, and a couple of friends). Lomax informed me that our little store, Lovell's Records, in Whittier, sold more Townes Van Zandt records than any store west of the Mississippi. This, of course, was because I played his albums all the time when I worked and talked him up to anyone who asked who that was on the player. Being a college town, many kids and locals were intrigued by his music.

During that phone call, Lomax asked if I wanted to be the West Coast distributor for Townes's songbook. Since I was again starting to substitute teach (long story about love and serendipity), I didn't think that I would have the time—besides, in all honesty, Lomax seemed like kind of a sleazy character—still, in hindsight, I do wish that I had pursued that opportunity if only for the chance that it might have brought more personal contact with Townes.

Who knows, I may still write that song for Townes someday.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On the Self-made Man...


On Sunday, when I turned 64 and quipped that the iconic Beatles song would no longer be applicable, several of my witty FB friends chimed in. Ove suggested that the song might be saying, "When I'm Six Feet Four." I agreed that this kept the song relevant for me, since this was a height which I have not and am not likely to attain.

My friend, Charles, suggested that this was a height that I could easily reach by standing on a chair. (Former student, Bertha retorted that at 64, it wasn't getting up on the chair but getting down safely that was the problem.)

Charles's solution got me thinking about politics—because pretty much everything these days gets me thinking about politics—and it prompted this answer.

Charles, I think your chair solution explains the Romney/Ryan philosophy of "self-reliance" and "self-respect": however, standing on a chair doesn't make you taller (Look, Ma, now I'm six-feet-four") any more than trampling on the lives of thousands (perhaps, millions) of others in your rapacious lust for personal gain while using all the advantages of wealth and privilege to rig the system and justify fraud and malfeasance make you a "job creator" (Look, Pa, I just raided a corporation with a hostile leveraged buyout that garnered me and my cronies millions while we ravaged the company, left it with insurmountable debt, drove its employees into the street—causing many of them to lose their homes, their pensions, and their life savings— and bankrupted both the employees and the shareholders, then merrily skipped off with our ill-gotten gains to do it again and again). [Yep, that is, indeed, one very long sentence, and look out, here comes another one....]

If, by "self-made," Romney/Ryan/and the far-wrong wing of the Republican Party mean someone who has used all of the infrastructure and social, economic and legal systems put into place by your fellow citizens—including millions of dollars in government "bail-outs" (see "Romney's Summer Olympics" or Ryan's own government pension plan)—if, by "self-made," they mean someone who forfeits his conscience and morality in favor of unfettered personal greed—if, by "self-made," they mean someone who, having done the aforementioned, can, without intended irony, brashly claim that those that you have trampled over and cheated do not "take personal responsibility" or "care for their lives"—then I agree that in order to be that crass, craven, clueless, and conscienceless, a Romney or a Ryan or a Cantor or a Koch or a Rove or a Bush or a Bachmann or a Palin or a Coulter or a Limbaugh or a Murdoch are, indeed, self-made, immoral monstrosities.

And yes, the foregoing is definitely invective (unkind though not uncivil), and it would be an "ad hominem" attack except that the characterization is directly relevant to the claim of these so-called "self-reliant," "self-made" women and men.