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.

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