Throughout his life, Townes Van Zandt claimed Houston, Austin, in and outside Nashville, Boulder and Crested Butte, Colorado, as residences, but his true homes were the stage and the road. Rarely was his itinerary not filled with dates, and this was especially (and alarmingly) true immediately before his death on New Year’s Day in 1997, after finding devoted followings in Western Europe and Australia. Some of his lifestyle stemmed from constantly moving as a child and never finding permanence — his lifelong ability to make new friends easily was only a slight balm — and some of it was a self-fulfilling prophecy as a wandering troubadour who put playing above everything else. Thus, his most defining text has to be a live recording of just him, “Mr. Guitar” and his audience, and Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas is often — rightfully — cited as the highlight of his long, tumultuous career.
He begins the set with his most popular song, “Pancho & Lefty,” though this was long before Willie and Merle made it a smash hit. Townes’ graceful finger-picking, forever an underrated aspect of his brilliance, comes through clear, and his voice is crisp with a weathered touch. Parsing the meaning of “Pancho & Lefty” is difficult and foolish, and to say that Townes took its real origins to his grave would imply that he knew when and where he wrote it in the first place. It’s the first words that are the most impactful anyway: “Living on the road my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / And your breath’s as hard as kerosene.” Townes hadn’t hit 30 when he played this set, but it’s hard not to imagine he might be referencing himself in that opening line.
The air conditioner was turned off that night, and in a tight room in July; what a pit of fire it must have been. Heat’s supposed to expand and drive particles away, yet Townes defies physics with “If I Needed You” and “To Live Is To Fly,” two of his other signature songs that are among his most intimate. They both come at romance from a hard-living eye, yet they don’t romanticize hard living. Townes had a reputation as depression come flesh, but his true genius was not that his most downtrodden songs had glimmers of hope and beauty, rather how those forces existed within his songs. Light and dark do not work as opposing forces in his songs, they are not oil and water. They are competing and often complementary currents, and within them, sweetness and hardness flow together.
Townes’ songs and songcraft are held in the highest regard. This is unquestionable. His recordings before Live at The Old Quarter, though hardly derided, don’t really capture him at his most integral. Townes was a master storyteller with just his poetry and fingerpicked melodies; he often said he took songs from the sky and was more of a conduit, but that sells him short. It’s not accurate to say Townes’ songs are transformed by removing all the strings and percussion and Nashville twang from the records — what’s true is that these are how the songs always should have been. Jack Clement thinks Townes’ first two records are overproduced, and he was the man behind the boards!
“Tecumseh Valley,” one of Townes’ most heartbreaking songs, benefits most from the stripped-down live environment. Its first iteration on his debut For the Sake of the Song is pleasant enough if you don’t listen to the words too closely — and if you’re not listening to Townes’ words, are you listening to him, really? And while the rerecording on Our Mother the Mountain gets closer to the core, this is the definitive version. Again, dark and light coexist rather than clash — Townes sounds as pretty and dejected singing about Caroline’s beauty as he does her eventual fate. There was a chance she could make it, and it’s her proximity to freedom that makes her death all the more painful. He’s not judgmental, he just laments a fucked-up situation, knowing it didn’t have to be this way; the sorrow in his voice isn’t embellished.
If the air conditioning was off that night, in July, in Houston goddamn Texas, how was the audience supposed to get a reprieve, even as they were holding on to his every word? Townes cracked jokes in between sets — the crowd laughs, but there’s a reason you hear him compared to Dylan and not Pryor — and he also fit in some of his older talking blues songs into his sets. Granted, talking blues had been out of fashion for a few years by 1973, but Townes never fit in with a specific musical moment. He arrived at the end of the folk boom in the mid-’60s, never got into psychedelics (despite once briefly being roommates with Roky Erickson) and Nashville never knew what to do with him, even as outlaw country gained currency. Townes is often classified as folk or country, but he was a movement and a genre unto himself.
These talking blues detours were necessary when your repertoire included “Waiting ‘round To Die” and “Tecumseh Valley.” Even his more carefree songs still carried Townes’ darkness, and they’re just as illuminating to who he really was. The “Thunderbird” in “Talking Thunderbird Blues” refers to a dirt-cheap wine notoriously popular throughout history among the houseless, severe alcoholics and those otherwise bereft of luck. Most people only know two things about Townes: 1. He’s one of the greatest American songwriters ever, and 2. he had crushing alcoholism. Doesn’t take a committee to figure out that “Thunderbird” is tragic. “White Freight Liner Blues” is another thinly veiled song about addiction, and one of the only songs on here where there’s any audience participation, folks clapping as Townes wails, “Well, it’s bad news from Houston / Half my friends are dying.” Townes didn’t shy away from pain but rarely were his songs this morbid, even subtly.
Without “Fraternity Blues,” you don’t have “If I Needed You” and “Pancho & Lefty” and every one of Townes’ classics. On its face, it’s Townes’ most lighthearted song in this set, a jaunty romp on failing miserably to fit into Greek life without really trying. Yet it’s the closest thing to an origin story, when Townes became Townes. Except for the fact that he came from a privileged background — he was automatically pledged into Sigma Nu as a legacy because of his father Harris, and the Van Zandts were once a prominent Texas family who were instrumental in developing Fort Worth — he’s the last dude you’d ever expect would even entertain rushing a fraternity.
The only time you hear Townes sneer is when he takes on the voice of a fraternity member, saying, “Kid, we don’t much like the way you walk and you’re gonna have to change the way you talk.” He’s told to “bubble,” to liven up and go with the fraternity flow. If you want Townes to fit into a mold, that’s not gonna end well for you. Townes does “bubble” all right — chugging cheap wine and puking on some of the frat dudes’ dates. The dates didn’t deserve to be humiliated, but the fraternity sure did. Later in his life, he was known (infamously) for giving away his show earnings to the less fortunate, and it certainly wasn’t for a tax write-off. He may have been terrible with money, but he had a heart, and having a shred of decency didn’t cut it in the Greek world.
Townes’ college antics (there’s an oft-cited legend of him falling four stories from a balcony, which Townes never did much to confirm or dissuade) and drinking concerned his parents, and they had a name to uphold. In March 1964, they pulled him out of CU, took him to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and made him undergo insulin shock therapy. This, as Townes’ friends, associates and biographers agree, was his point of no return. Townes was supposedly cured of what ailed him, and all it cost him was memories of his childhood. In fact, whatever depression that simmered within him before only came to the fore following the treatment. He moved to Houston, wed his college girlfriend, Fran, attempted to go to law school at the University of Houston and tried to lead a somewhat normal life.
Townes would eventually go on to become the most well-known Van Zandt, but that sort of bar was never in the cards. A “normal life,” however you wish to interpret it, was never a possibility. It’s that time in Galveston that haunts what is arguably Townes’ defining performance. It’s why he sounds so world-weary even though he’s not that far into adulthood, how he can conjure up the most grandiose of tragedies in fewer than three minutes and how he could never escape the depression that both bolstered and undermined him.
Live at The Old Quarter’s second half doesn’t have as many moments of levity its first half does, and the contrasts between light and dark he wielded only get more profound. It begins with “For The Sake Of The Song,” his classic where, even though he’s talking about a woman, he’s really prophesying the sacrificial being he would become. He brings the tempo down, almost as a warning to the audience of the gauntlet ahead. “Loretta” is a barroom fantasy of getting swept off your feet by a dazzling woman. Its starstruck beauty is the source of his agony: “Loretta” is so beautiful that she’s a mirage, she’s just out of reach. Like in “Tecumseh Valley,” it’s the proximity to the light that makes the darkness more enveloping. Just when the audience gets sucked into Townes’ heavenly trance, he goes into “Kathleen,” a song consumed by a desire to escape. The change in pace is almost startling, a one-two punch where the second punch lands softer but ultimately causes more pain over time.
That’s nothing compared to the four-song stretch near the end of his set. “Tower Song” was written in response to his declining relationship with Fran, and “a warm bed just ain’t worth the pain” has got to be one of his most devastating lines. “Waiting ‘round To Die” acknowledges that life often doesn’t end in a flash, but in a long, grueling bout with age and decline where the house always wins. Of all the songs he lived out, this is the one he lived out the most, next to “For The Sake Of The Song.” Then comes “Tecumseh Valley,” and though he said that would be the last song in his set, he immediately busts into “Lungs,” where decay is most manifested. Its jaunty rhythm can’t conceal its hopelessness, one of the few songs where the darkness fully takes over.
In Christianity, the “vale of tears” refers to the struggles that one has to go through in order to enter heaven. Townes often spoke of this, especially later in his life. Though Harold Eggers, his tour manager from the late ’70s up until Townes’ death, remembers it as the common mishearing “veil of tears,” both of those terms embody Townes’ journey. Townes lived in a veil of tears, his outlook forever shaped by his treatment in Galveston and only hardened by the life he led. He drapes his audience in that veil, and they only get a taste of the vale he walked through. A collector of Gideon Bibles, from years of being on the road, didn’t turn him into an evangelical, yet his path felt perversely divine. Townes gave himself up, for the sake of the song.
Live at The Old Quarter was Townes at the height of his powers, if not exactly at the height of his influence, and it was the end of his most creatively prosperous period. It came out just a year before Flyin’ Shoes, the first studio album since 1972’s The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, and Shoes was followed by a long recording drought before 1987’s At My Window. If Old Quarter is as close to a perfect Townes setlist as it gets, it’s because his fiendish songwriting pace did not hold when he left Houston. Drinking and gigging became higher priorities, which took a toll on him. Being a touring musician wears on the soul and the body, and though it’s a more common realization now, nobody took it to the extent Townes did.
Two years after the record came out, The Old Quarter shut its doors for good, like The Whole Coffeehouse and The Jester Lounge and everywhere else Townes developed both his craft and his mythos. It had survived a fire, but it couldn’t survive a declining interest in folk music. Townes’ performance defined the club as much as the club defined him, and in a more forgiving universe, it would be Townes’ Stone Pony or First Avenue.
In 1996, Rex “Wrecks” Bell, one of the co-owners, re-opened The Old Quarter as Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe in Galveston. Townes played the reincarnated venue’s grand opening on May 10 of that year and another show on October 5 just a few months before his passing. There’s a shrine of Townes in the cafe rife with posters and old photos (including one with Bell and Blaze Foley, the only man who could make Townes look sober and composed), and a big sign featuring Townes grinning hangs over the entryway. Every New Year’s Day, there’s a wake held in Townes’ honor, where folks come from all over to pay tribute by giving their best shot at “Pancho & Lefty.” It’s peculiar that the “new” Old Quarter is in the same city where Townes’ course ultimately changed, the city that literally shocked the youth out of him.
For years before his death, Townes frequently said that his end was near, and the people around him didn’t have much reason to doubt it. He wasn’t on the verge of death on this recording, yet “Only Him Or Me” is the most poignant choice for a closer. Even though the pain of what happened in Galveston never left him, he offers these bits of wisdom: “You’re gonna drown tomorrow / If you cry too many tears for yesterday,” and later, “Heaven is the way she is / Rain falls and rivers flow.” The only way out is through. Though his playing is a little softer, his voice is still as vibrant as when he kicked off the set with “Pancho & Lefty.” An hour-and-a-half later, we made it through the vale. He says we’re gonna miss him in that song, and though most of us have never met him — boy, is that true.
Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas.