july 2009

Photo by Jim Herrington
Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt: 'Van Zandt's songs are lyric, personal, and almost hallucinatory. Earle's great strength is as an observer, an incisive glance and a vocabulary sharp as a glass fragment for catching it and summing it up.'

The Old Ghost Must Be Paid

By Christopher Hill

Steve Earle
New West Records

My wife and I were listening to the folk music show on our local public radio station the other Sunday night when we could no longer take one more brawny chanty about plying the Great Lakes on the grand old steamships. So I plugged in my iPod and started to play one of my British folk music playlists. It did the job clearing the air of all the heave-away-haul-away with its astringent northerness. The last song was a majestic and mournful pipe duet called "Kintail" from the great Scottish pipe band the Tannahill Weavers, which sounded like watching your true love pass over the horizon on a ship bound for Amerikay, or Frodo leaving Middle earth at the Grey Havens. About halfway into it, my wife said, "They're always so sad." She meant all of it, all the songs we had just been listening to, all "folk" music. She was right. The folks that folk music comes from, way back when, were by and large people who didn't have much buffer, if any, between them and life. And that also means, of course, between them and death. Folk music is sad all over the world.

As country music grew from its poor mountain roots, moved into the city and started getting a steady paycheck, and a dry summer didn't necessarily mean immediate destitution, country singers, if they were after greatness, still had to invite the ghost to the party. It's not an accident that the greatest country singer of all, Hank Williams, is among the most notably mournful.

The ghost became the blues. The blues were the old hard times, internalized.

Kids like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt were pretty far removed from that as they grew up. Van Zandt was from Texas aristocracy, Earle solidly middle class. They didn't have to be intimate with death, at least not as young men. So they sought it out. Van Zandt, after an apparent suicide attempt in college, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and underwent three months of insulin shock therapy. And self-medicated with alcohol and heroin the rest of his life. Steve Earle's story need not be retold here, except that he was apparently using heroin from age 14 on, lived an ever more squalid junkie life til death and the criminal justice system came knocking on the door simultaneously. Steve chose the cops, and survived.

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"Fort Worth Blues"—Steve performs his tribute to Townes Van Zandt, with Kelly Joe Phelps on slide

I'm not interested in chronicling self-destructive behavior but the subject does suggest itself when you're talking about a collaboration between two men whose lives encompassed such spectacular disasters.

For years, I thought of Steve Earle as (to pinch the Clash's old line) the only guy that mattered. As long as Steve Earle kept plugging away we at least had one person we could point to as an example of what a rocker could mean, a rocker in the old high sense. Someone with a vision of speaking for one voiceless population to those more vocal and affluent; with a remarkable lyric gift; a political sensibility; a large artistic ambition—to weld the two sides of the rock-country coint back together-and someone who know how to fucking rock. And, when he pulled himself together, a songwriter with killer instincts.

Most of us by now recognize the Betty Ford center narrative as part of our cheap discourse of celebrity. You wreck your life (and that of those around you) you check in for rehab, go through purgation, emerge clean and strong (if a little overscrubbed), you achieve romantic happiness and resume your productive career. And there's an extra surge to the applause when you accept your next award. Though people have been trying to put Steve Earle in this mold, I really doubt that he is such a sucker as to buy into this.

There's one thing the Betty Ford Center narrative leaves out, and that's the hell you've wrought in the lives of your nearest and dearest. We want our redemption real cheap.

Norman Mailer once referred to pot as "the devil's grace." Had he not been speaking in the late '50s I'm sure he would have included most other recreational drugs in that description, too. What he meant was that there was nothing phony or artificial about the ecstasy of drugs. But you get the ecstasy by way of a trade-off. Each time you get high, the ecstasy, the intensified life perception and pleasure, is a highly concentrated distillation of your best insights, your most powerful perceptions, your greatest pleasures, your freest energies, all the things that go into good artistic work extracted from, borrowed against your future store-and there's not an infinite amount of it. That's the ingredients of your high.

The vast supply of exuberance that threatened to burst open Guitar Town at the seams didn't outlast that one album. From then on, you could count on a Steve Earle album to deliver two or three things that were absolutely searing, setting off cherry bombs under some of the most deserving haunches in the nation, facing hard racial truths as in "Taneytown" from El Corazon. Standing up to the war on terror in "John Walker's Blues," giving a young rocker a lift on a rainy night to the accompaniment of what sounded like the Ramones. It kept you coming back. Smart, intensely rocking, cinematic, with a lyric gift for compressed expressiveness I've never heard anywhere else, with his casually piercing insights into the down side of white America—the good stuff was so good, good in a way that recalled the biggest ambitions of the '60s rock and roll pantheon (which is where we all expected him to take his place in the first euphoria of Guitar Town).

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Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho & Lefty," 1993, American Music Shop (TNN)

But interesting projects, that sounded like they should have been great, like The Mountain, his bluegrass collaboration with Del McCoury, were kept afloat by the suggestion of potential in "Harlan Man" and one or two other cuts. On his last several albums, and especially here on Townes, it sounds like he's doing a disappearing act, gradually effacing himself like a Clint Eastwood hero, the voice so low and quiet that there are moments when you swear he's stopped singing entirely.

Van Zandt has been called a songwriter's songwriter. One thing that can mean is that the musician in question is out there mining territory following one particular vein of ore farther than most anyone has followed it before. They become the authoritative voice of their particular stretch. This is of interest to other writers, who have to dig a fresh ditch every time a new song is required. But it's a source of frustration to fans, since the mastery of one particular zone of the heart often limits the audience to one particular strata of the public. Van Zandt spent his years wandering in a country that we can recognize easily enough as one of the many districts of Melancholy, a town where there's a dried rose pressed in the pages of every book. It's ground that's been fertile for songwriters since at least the Troubadours. Melancholy is a dark stream in which it's refreshing to cool your feet occasionally, but Van Zandt's melancholia emptied out into some place much more arid and ultimately dangerous. While each song may provoke a pleasant frisson of sorrow or loss, when you step back and look at the work as a whole, you see there's no way out of this world, and the sky is very low.

Van Zandt's songs are lyric, personal, and almost hallucinatory. Earle's great strength is as an observer, an incisive glance and a vocabulary sharp as a glass fragment for catching it and summing it up. One thing Earle can still learn from Van Zandt, and apparently does on this album, is the art of the first person lyric. When Earle starts in on a love song or some other first person musing it's typically where you begin to check your watch. It's not his best mode. Whereas Van Zandt is a natural poet of the first person, the confessional mode, albeit much leaner and tougher than most singer-songwriters, where Van Zandt is king.

Townes Van Zandt performs "Rake" at a private concert, filmed in Houston, 1988, at a Holiday Inn. The song is included on Steve Earle's new album, Townes.

So one thing this record does is lead Earle in the most moving and effective work with the subjective mode he has ever done. He takes from Van Zandt an easy native's way with the truly interesting things in the interior world.

The art of interpretation, doing a worthwhile cover, is to hear something, one of the things, that a song wants to be, and let it try being that. Earle brings the noise to Van Zandt's "Lungs," turning it into an apocalyptic Copperhead Road style rocker, which you can tell its crying out to be. "White Freightliner Blues" is transformed from a high lonesome road song into a kind of dusty ramble. "Loretta" shows the marks of the master-apprentice relationship Townes and Earle had. Its grip fits so naturally into Earle's hand, it cold easily be one of his own.

Earle's tortured vocal chords make these songs sound superficially more desperate and on the edge than Van Zandt's versions did. "No Place to Fall" is more fatalistic than the original. Earle's voice seems to say despair, but on further listens Earle's sandpaper moan is there to tell you he's the one who's alive Earle came through the fire, whereas Townes didn't. But he paid a price. It isn't just youthful exuberance Earle left behind in Guitar Town. The song "Rake" contrasts the Byronic figure he (and Earle) cut in their youth, against present decrepitude. "Now the dark air is like fire on my skin and even the moonlight is blinding," says the aging rake. The old ghost must be paid.

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