There is only one Bob Dylan, and his name is Townes Van Zandt. I first happened upon Townes while a burgeoning grad student in ‘01. His lyrics resonated with my two fifths of bourbon a week habit. (Yes, I was a poor grad student—I just spent all my money on books and cheap alcohol.) A fellow grad student would regale me over cafeteria lunches with first hand stories about Townes’s drunken performances. His words: “When I saw him, I knew he wasn’t long for this world.”
Townes was not. He died on New Year’s Day 1997. (Historical aside: Hank Williams also died on New Year’s Day—1953.) While his death was premature, it was by no means a surprise. According to the Townes’s documentary Be Here to Love Me, Townes, for shits and giggles, used to shoot Coke (as in Cola TM) and bourbon—maybe rum—into his veins. In addition, when not shooting heroin, drinking heroic amounts of vodka, walking off balconies, or huffing glue in a sock, he was divorcing sundry wives.
Yet. Yet, I can’t think of a finer American songwriter. Testimonies: “For the Sake of the Song”:
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 plans.
If could she see how I feel, then I know that she’d understand.
How perfectly this captures the realization that availability for another often results in nothing more than self-abuse. Or, “Waiting Around to Die” (written while on his honeymoon!):
Now I’m out of prison; I got me a friend at last.
Well, he don’t drink or steal or cheat or lie.
Well, his name’s codeine—he’s the nicest thing I’ve seen.
Yeah, together we’re gonna wait around and die.
The conversation he and his newly wedded wife must have had during this one. My personal favorite: “None But the Rain” (indulge me to quote in its entirety):
We had our day, but now it’s over.
We had our song, but now it’s sung.
We had our stroll through summer’s clover,
But summer’s gone now, our walkin’s done.
So tell me gently: Who’ll be your lover,
Who’ll be your lover after I’m gone?
Will it be the moon that hears your sighin’?
Will it be the willow that hears your lonesome song?
Will it be the rain that clings to your bosom?
Will it be the sunshine that dries your golden hair?
Will it be the wind that warns of my returning?
Will a rose be in your arms when I find you waiting there?
None but the rain should cling to my bosom.
None but the moon should hear my lonesome sigh.
None but the wind should warn of your returning:
Fare thee well, my love, goodbye.
Whether happily involved in a relationship or not, this song should instruct us that most relationships end gravely, reminding us that we are ultimately alone in our most profound sufferings. Or, “Tecumseh Valley”: one of the most perfect songs (yes, “perfect”) ever written by a ‘Merican.
Jump of tone: In explaining Hegel’s notion of the tragic, Murray Kriegler in his essay “Tragedy and the Tragic Vision” states that “the hero’s vision is necessarily destructive” in that the hero’s devotion to the absolute provokes him to acts in self-destructive ways, functioning as a sacrificial offering in order to bring about a cosmic reconciliation or restoration. Though Kriegler, in the end, argues against the classical Greek (read: Aristotelian) notion of tragedy, this essay brings to mind Rene Girard who argues that “sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence” (author’s emphasis, Violence and the Sacred). That is, once a certain point of tension is reached, a victim must be chosen in order to maintain the balance, lest the violence spill over to into the community.
Why the grad schoolesque literary detour? Stick with me here, brother: I am proposing Townes as a sacrificial victim of sorts. Granted, I do not mean to downplay his own culpability in regard to his vices, but perhaps his devotion to poetry at the cost of all else–namely, his own health and sanity–led to his own destruction, a destruction necessary to offset the offenses of an age that disdains the Beautiful for the sake of the pragmatic.
I believe that as modern society further entrenches itself in the utilitarian and the efficient, more sacrificial victims for the sake of posey will be required in order to maintain a balance that prevents us from the total self-consumption of the tawdry and of the crass.
As for me and my house, I would rather spend the rest of my days writing bits and pieces of Homer and Keats and T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane on walls with sidewalk chalk than discussing congressional districts and Medicare reform and progressive income taxation.