At My Window by Townes van Zandt

1987

As a child, I was made to endure ghastly family gatherings. These would happen at Christmas, Easter and Bank Holidays. They normally took place at home with a number of my Dad’s siblings. There was always lots of food which was fine but a meal was followed by several hours of conversation. Only one person was ever allowed to speak at a time so everyone else had to listen. My Mum and one of my Dad’s sisters were hopeless at silences so every spare moment was filled with mindless and boring chat. As a child, these days seemed endless.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been aware that I have inherited this feeling of anxiety with a silence in a conversation. My default conversational gambit whenever there is any danger of a gap in the conversation is to ask a question. I have three favourite questions that I used to ask. These days, I’m happier with silence.

My favourite question that I like to ask is “What do you want?” I first saw this in “Babylon 5” when the evil Mr. Morden, the representative of The Shadows (nothing to do with Hank B. Marvin) wants to know which of the alien races on the spaceship is prepared to descend into the darkness to achieve their ends. The first answer to this question can be something like “a cup of tea”, but ask the question again and the answer may move onto something like “A Labour government”. Ask the question again might reveal something deeply personal.

Another question that I do like to ask is “What are you looking forward to?” Again, this can start with “another pint, thank you very much”, before moving on to something more personal and revealing.

The first time I ever met Paddy, I asked another of my favourite questions. These days, when so much music is downloaded and not that many people actually buy whole albums, the question is a bit meaningless but in the late Eighties, it was a good question and it started a musical friendship that has endured over 30 years. Although my reaction to his answer nearly ended our friendship before it started. The question was “What was the last record you bought?” Paddy told me that he had bought a record by Townes van Zandt. Apparently I replied that I was amazed that he had even heard of Townes van Zandt. I mean, I meant that as a compliment, insofar as I recognised that Paddy must therefore have good taste but, being the sensitive soul that he is, he took it as an insult. However, we managed to get over it.

Townes van Zandt was a great songwriter. It’s a bit of a cliché but it seems that whenever a “country” songwriter is asked who their influences were the reply is always something like “Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle. Oh! And Townes van Zandt”. Steve Earle has a quote that was used when publicising “At My Window”. It goes like this : “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” There are quite a few stories about Steve Earle’s relationship with Townes van Zandt, the most shocking of which involves Steve Earle producing a gun, just to show off. Townes van Zandt then produced his own gun and put three bullets in it, spun the chamber, put the gun to his own head and fired three times (without killing himself). Steve Earle wrote a brilliant song called “Ft. Worth Blues” after Townes van Zandt’s death and the live version ends with Steve Earle saying “see you when I get there maestro.” This always brings a tear to my eye. Steve Earle released a record of Townes van Zandt covers, simply called “Townes” and named his son Justin Townes Earle.

Paddy and I were lucky enough to see Townes van Zandt at The Mean Fiddler in Harlesden a year or two before his death in 1997. There were about 200 people there. Paddy and I were amongst the 50 people gathered round the stage whilst Townes played a full set. He didn’t look well; it wasn’t a great gig but it was a privilege to be there. Of the remaining 150 people there, about 50 were downstairs having loud conversations at the bar. The remaining 100 people were upstairs joining in a football club’s celebration which every few minutes included a communal singing of their favourite song. For example “Here we go. Here we go. Here we go.” For about 10 minutes. One of us round the stage asked Townes if he couldn’t get them to shut up but he simply shrugged and carried on. He’d probably played in much worse and more dangerous places.

Townes van Zandt released 10 studio albums before his death. Most of them consist of brilliant songs with a simple guitar backing. Possibly the most famous of his songs are “Panchy And Lefty” and “Tecumseh Valley”. “At My Window” is my favourite record of his because the arrangements are more interesting. The opening song is “Snowin’ On Raton” and when I first heard this song, I had just watched one of my favourite films of all time, “Paris, Texas”. To my mind, the line “come morning I’ll be through them hills and gone” and the sadness in his voice make me think of Harry Dean Stanton walking into the bar at the start of the film having just walked across the desert (and through the hills).

When Paddy and I went to the USA in 2008, we stayed in Santa Fe where, despite it being April, it snowed. After leaving Santa Fe we drove to Las Vegas, New Mexico (where Paddy bought a jacket from someone who used to live in Enfield, Middlesex where Paddy worked and where I was born). On the way we saw this sign which is as close as we got to experiencing snow in Raton.

This record is ridiculously good. It’s sad, bleak and beautiful. The fiddle playing by Mark O’Connor on the title track is astounding. The chorus in this song changes slightly every time he sings it. The first time it’s “Living is laughing. Dying says nothing at all. Baby and I are laying here. Watching the evening fall” Second time round it becomes “Living is dancing. Dying does nothing at all. Baby and I are laying here. Watching the evening fall.” Finally it’s “Living is sighing. Dying ain’t flying so high. Baby and I are lying here. Watching the day go by.” Stunning.

“For The Sake Of The Song” had been released on three previous Townes van Zandt albums but it’s never been better and it’s a terrific song. John Kruth wrote that the song “reveals the complexity of an unrequited relationship burdened by the pitfall of desire. The lyric contains a sophisticated internal rhyme scheme that sings like a country song while reading like poetry on the page.” “That’s where my poetic background comes in,” Van Zandt is quoted in ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’. “It seems a lot of people in Nashville write by phrase, or by the line. As opposed to writing by the word. A lot of my best songs are where every single word is where it’s supposed to be.’For the Sake of the Song’ was written by the word. I once sat down and wrote out the rhyme scheme for that song, and it was amazing. Pretty complex. But it didn’t seem that complex when I was writing it.”

The YouTube clips below are live versions and they are just as incredible as the versions on this beautiful record.

FOR THE SAKE OF THE SONG

Oh, why does she sing her sad songs for me,
I’m not the one
To tenderly bring her soft sympathy
I’ve just begun
To see my way clear
And it’s plain,
If I stop I will fall
I can lay down a tear for her pain
Just a tear and that’s all

Oh, what does she want me to do?
She says that she knows
That moments are rare
I suppose that it’s true
Then on she goes
To say I don’t care,
Ah, she knows
That I do

Maybe she just has to sing, for the sake of the song
And who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong

She’d like to think I was cruel,
But she knows that’s a lie
For I would be
No more than a tool
If I allowed her to cry
All over me.

Oh my sorrow is real
Even though
I can’t change my plan
If she could see how I feel
Then I know
That she’d understand

Oh does she actually think I’m to blame?
Does she really believe
That some word of mine
Could relieve
All her pain?
Can’t she see that she grieves
Just because she’s been blindly deceived
By her shame?

Maybe she just has to sing, for the sake of the song
And who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong

Oh but nothin’s what it seems,
Maybe she’ll start someday to realize
If she abandons her dreams,
Then all the words she can say are only lies
Why can’t she see that to gain
Is only to lose?
All that she offers me are her chains
And I got to refuse

Oh but it’s only to herself that she’s lied
She likes to pretend
There’s something that she should defend,
With her pride
And I don’t intend
To stand her and be the friend
From whom she must hide

Maybe she just has to sing, for the sake of the song
And who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong

“At My Window” and “Snowin’ On Raton” live 1987
“For The Sake Of The Song”

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: