Townes Van Zandt died January 1, 1997, his heart betraying him as he lay in the Tennessee night recovering from back surgery. Only the romantic and the fool would suggest that's when the man would have wanted to go, but maybe it was appropriate: He was spared the pain of another year, released from the shackles of agony. After all, here's a man who once titled an album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt decades ago; he may have been surprised the end didn't come sooner--and maybe he drank so goddamned much because he was in a rush to get to the other side, where the bar doesn't close at 2 a.m.
Writing in New Times Los Angeles days after his demise, singer-songwriter Paul K--among the handful of musicians in the world who could put on Van Zandt's boots without losing his feet--wrote that "what Townes really enjoyed soaking up wasn't Booze; it was Misery. His own, other people's, the General Anguish of the World." Van Zandt made a career of writing about the high, low and in between; he believed in God behind the guitar, danced with the devil in the honky-tonks and cheated both longer than anyone ever would have imagined. I saw him perform twice in the months before his demise--at the Sons of Hermann Hall and at the now-defunct Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier--and both times he struggled to remain sober, upright, merely conscious. He stumbled and mumbled through his songbook; he looked like a man in need of a vacation, mostly from himself. Like the song says, maybe he was waitin' around to die.
The task of keeping alive his repertoire has been left to his friends and acolytes, who revere him with religious fervor; they perform his songs like sacred texts, reciting his forlorn words and strumming his heartrending notes without trampling over them. They proceed with care and caution, so as not to wake the ghost. The artists on this collection, among the few worthy of being called a "tribute album," play it straightforward and somber; only Steve Earle and the Duke's "Two Girls," about a man playin' it by ear, and Billy Joe Shaver's barreling "White Freightliner Blues" make any racket. Van Zandt's closest friends and co-workers have come to pay homage to the man, and they've done him right; Poet reverberates with the soft, languorous echoes heard whenever old friends come together to bid farewell to a comrade over a shared late-night bottle.
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Willie Nelson, giving his best performance in a decade, waits for--then says farewell to--a girl like "Marie"; Flatlanders Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore bid their own adioses to a girl who vanished when the "Blue Wind Blew"; Guy Clark makes the case that most of living is but a waste of time in "To Live's to Fly"; Margo Timmons and the Cowboy Junkies mourn the passing of promise as days roll by like the "Highway Kind." The 15 songs chosen for the disc don't reflect Van Zandt's best-known works (save for "Pancho and Lefty," rendered by Delbert McClinton), but they're of a whole: songs about wanting what you can't have and having what you can't keep. They're not so much fatalistic as they are pragmatic: "The end is coming soon it's plain," Nanci Griffith warbles in "Tower Song," echoing the sentiments that permeate this disc like the odor of stale smoke and flat beer. One could choose any line from any song and never miss his intentions: "I don't want nothin'/Can't use nothin'" goes another song channeled through the high lonesome of Lucinda Williams. The man didn't need nothin', perhaps, because he put everything into his music. "I may be gone," he once wrote, "but it won't be long/I'll be bringing back the melody/And rhythm that I find." In the end, perhaps, his was the ultimate sacrifice--the artist suffering for his art, so that it might enrich whoever seeks its truths and revelations. If so, this album, honest and painful, ranks among the ultimate rewards.