For most of us, summer is well out the door by now. Autumn is on its way in with its crisp leaves and bittersweet apple cider. Hot on its heels will be winter and the aptly named “seasonal affective disorder,” aka SAD. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that World Mental Health Day, “with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world,” just so happens to fall on every October 10th. With all that in mind, I’m not certain if this week will be either the best or worst time of the year to recommend watching Margaret Brown’s 2004 documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, but recommend it I will.
“Aloneness is a state of being whereas loneliness is a state of feeling. It's like being broke and being poor... I feel aloneness all the time and loneliness I hardly ever feel.”
There are few figures in the history of the music industry whose story is as tragic as that of Townes Van Zandt. Widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters to have ever put pen to paper (at least among other songwriters), his whole life was one big mess of manic depression, sheer stubbornness, and restless discomfort. It’s strange to contemplate the phrase “he couldn’t catch a break” but then double back and see that, yes, he did catch breaks. So many of them in fact. But he was unable to capitalize on them or, as Steve Earle says: “I think he shot himself in the foot every single fucking chance he got.” You hear so many stories about musicians who were chewed up and spit out by their record labels, but with Van Zandt, it was life itself that seems to have ground him down by means of self-sabotage until he died on New Year's Day 1997 at the age of 52.
There are a lot of pitfalls that Margaret Brown could have stumbled into while putting this movie together, but thankfully she steers clear of any of the schmaltziness that would have resulted from leaning too far into playing up the admittedly aching sadness surrounding Van Zandt’s life. Instead Brown simply gets out of the way and lets his friends, former band members, friends, and reel after reel of archival footage tell his story.
“Breaking even is ending up in Purgatory as far as I can tell. I figure there's heaven, purgatory, hell and the blues. I'm trying to crawl up from the blues, purgatory for me would be... Home Sweet Home!”
Musically, Van Zandt’s body of work fits as easily (if not moreso) into the category of blues as it does in the folk or country section where you’re much more likely to find him filed at your local record store. Every country musician since Hank Williams has had a song or two that was guaranteed to put “a tear in your beer” but it’s hard to imagine anyone but a bluesman coming right out of the gate with a track as gut wrenchingly bleak as “Waiting 'Round to Die,” which is exactly what Van Zandt did. Sure, the B-side was the comparatively lighthearted “Talkin Karate Blues,” but you only got to that after being emotionally bulldozed by an a-side that’s second only to Ralph Stanley’s “O Death” in its ability to stop someone in their tracks and send a shiver down their spine.
It’s an interesting trick to present such a complex person as Townes Van Zandt so thoroughly while never pushing any oversimplified agendas on how we’re supposed to digest the narrative we’re being fed. The guy wrote incredible songs, but he was a terrible father whose son says point blank that his father “could be really cruel to the people he loved.” As a child, Van Zandt was administered electroshock therapy enough times to permanently damage his long term memory, and he would later be diagnosed by one doctor as “a manic depressive who had made minimal adjustment to life,” but here he’s left, non judgmentally, to stand on his own two feet by the filmmakers in the same way that his friends seem to have handled him while he was alive.
“How come most of your songs are sad songs?” “I don’t think they’re all that sad. I have a few that aren’t sad, they’re like… hopeless. Totally hopeless situation. And the rest aren’t sad, they’re just... the way it goes.”
Some artists put sadness in their songs as a means of exorcising it from themselves, in the same way you sometimes just feel better after a good cry, but for Van Zandt these were just the lyrics that flowed out of the headwaters of how he saw the world. He tells a TV host that one song came to him in a dream, fully formed, in need of zero polish once it had been committed to paper, and nothing about the story rings false. Somehow in spite of (or possibly because of) his mental instability he was simply locked in on whatever it is that makes someone a perfect vessel for songcraft, and he rode it all the way from the crossroads to his grave. This is a great film about a uniquely fascinating musician that is more than worth the effort of tracking down, but maybe make sure you’ve got a light therapy lamp handy when the credits roll.