Originally published in the Austin Chronicle, March 11, 2005.
“It seemed to me that there were a lot of people that had a kind of a morbid curiosity to see what it’s like to watch someone fall from a great height.”
– David Olney, in Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt
The greatest height the pop career of Townes Van Zandt ever reached was in 1982. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were working on a duet album together and they needed one more tune; at the last minute they decided to cover Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and were so pleased with their recording they titled their album after it and made it the leading track. The song became a smash hit, resulting in something like financial security for the man who wrote it, America’s best-loved utterly unknown songwriter.
Be Here to Love Me, Margaret Brown’s haunting documentary on Van Zandt, includes some footage from the television program “Nashville Now” in which interviewer asks Van Zandt about Nelson and Haggard’s cover. Instead of expressing his gratitude towards the two country legends, Van Zandt mocks them. He makes fun of their album concept. He takes a dig at the showbiz shtick of their cover image, where the duo are dressed like the dusty cowpokes of the song, posed in front of a desert sunset that looks like a painted backdrop.
In contrast to the whiff of showbiz phoniness that he perceived in Nelson and Haggard’s cover, Van Zandt’s version of “Pancho and Lefty” – like almost all of Van Zandt’s songs – exudes “realness” to a somewhat disquieting degree. It’s stark, gorgeous, melodic, and entirely devoid of hope. The characters seem indelible, and the narrator smothers them in a tender, loving resignation. The plain and graceful tune seems uncannily like it’s always existed; the lyrics might be addressing the songwriter himself:
You weren’t your mama’s only boy,
but her favorite one, it seems.
She began to cry when you said good-bye
and sank into your dreams.
The portrait of Townes Van Zandt painted in Be Here to Love Me is that of a curiously detached man who sank into his dreams so easily and so gratefully that it seemed like that was all he had ever intended to do. He went from the favorite boy of a moneyed Texas family to the black sheep; his concerned family tried to rein in his behavior (later diagnosed as manic depression) by giving him electroshock treatments that he claims erased all memory of his childhood. He chose early on to eschew a conventional career and devote his life to the pursuit of writing perfect songs, telling himself, “I could really do this, but it takes blowing everything off…Get a guitar and go.” Over the ensuing years, a small and vocal fanbase started calling him “America’s greatest songwriter.” His attitude to everything else – family, stability, his own physical well-being and even the success of his musical career – seems to often have been characterized by a neglect that bordered on self-destruction. For most of his life, Van Zandt struggled with alcohol and heroin addiction; Be Here to Love Me includes a scene in which his lawyer, Peggy Underwood, describes seeing him shooting up bourbon for kicks, as well as a story he nonchalantly tells about sniffing so much airplane glue that he passed out and all but his front teeth had to be hammered out at the hospital. One of the most notorious incidents in the Van Zandt legend has him at a party leaning backward out of a fourth-story balcony and then allowing himself to fall down to the pavement below to “just see what it felt like.”
I tell you, my soul’s like running water:
hot or cold, now, one or the other.
I guess I lean towards the excessive,
but that’s just the way it is when you’re a manic-depressive.
– Daniel Johnston
The term “Outsider Art” was created to categorize the output of social misfits like Adolf Wolfli and the brilliant Henry Darger, the latter a Chicago janitor whose landlord discovered the world’s longest written work – typewritten, single-spaced – when cleaning out his apartment. “Outsider Artists” were praised by critics for being unaware of conventional artistic techniques, uninfluenced by commercial concerns, solely motivated by a wild urgency to express their unique visions. Their work was hailed for its rawness and purity. These artists often arrived at this celebrated purity from art-world savvy through extremely sheltered lives or through mental illness, and unfortunately, they just as often arrived at their celebrity due to the public’s morbid curiosity as their own strange gifts. Since the term was coined in 1972, interest in “Outsider Art” has grown exponentially, more recently giving rise to an invented subgenre, “Outsider Music,” a term coined by WFMU deejay Irwin Chusid.
In Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, the genre’s definition is loose enough to include mentally ill musicians, such as manic-depressive Daniel Johnston and schizophrenic Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, drug casualties such as Johnny Arcesia, totally unschooled performers such as child band the Shaggs and the mysterious recluse Jandek, and even relatively famous eccentrics like Captain Beefheart and Tiny Tim. Since the publication of Songs in the Key of Z, Chusid’s book has spawned two spin-off CD compilations, Henry Darger’s work has been adapted into a musical, and the now-grown Shaggs experienced a Hollywood bidding war over the rights to their life story. This escalating interest in Outsider Art has made its impact on the field of documentary film as well, leading to titles like In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger, Jandek on Corwood, and Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A surprising percentage of this year’s SXSW documentaries are devoted to struggling “cult” musicians, three of them – Wild Man Fischer, Roky Erickson, and Daniel Johnston – frequently saddled with the “Outsider” tag. And both Be Here to Love Me and The Fearless Freaks (a biography of indie mainstays the Flaming Lips) are centered around themes – mental illness, severe drug addiction, alienating eccentricities – common to the “Outsider” myth.
“In its purest definition,” says Jeff Feuerzeig, who directed The Devil and Daniel Johnston, probably the definitive word on Johnston’s life and work, “Outsider Art is created in a vacuum. It’s created by people who are making art because they have to, not because they’ve studied art history. Daniel is not an Outsider Artist. He went to art school. He understands the history of mental illness in artists. He’s a great artist, period. The ‘Outsider’ label has hurt him.”
Feuerzeig is not just being combative; Johnston’s fans have often bemoaned the way that the press treats his work almost as a footnote to the outrageous stories about him. Daniel’s severe manic depression, Daniel’s many breakdowns and hospitalizations, Daniel’s many calamitous near-misses with the superstardom it always seems like fate promised him before taking it all back.
By contrast, Feuerzeig’s loving, colorful portrait of Johnston focuses on the serious, compulsively productive craftsman who transformed every aspect of his life into art. Since before adolescence, Johnston has been writing songs (he’s been covered by Beck, Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, and Wilco among many others), painting and drawing, making films and radio dramas, documenting whole years of his life on cassette tape and in hours of audio postcards to friends, and turning his living space into a day-glo museum of his obsessions. Far from a sheltered autodidact, Daniel’s artwork emulates legendary comic book illustrator Jack Kirby, his compulsive productivity and love of pop culture echo Andy Warhol, and his melodic sensibility betrays hours of listening and re-listening to classic Phil Spector sides, to the Seventies rock of David Bowie and Queen, and especially to his idols, the Beatles. Anyone who hears how Johnston took “Hey Jude” and alchemically transformed it into a superior song called “Hey Joe” – part of a three-part suite of self-referencing songs on Johnston’s classic cassette Hi, How Are You? – is forced to re-evaulate any notions about Daniel Johnston the unsophisticated outsider.
“I wanted to elevate Daniel’s image to who he really was,” Feuerzeig continues. “He’s one of the greats and he worked in all mediums. He might not sound or look like a rock star, but I think my film makes people rethink him.”
One thing that The Devil and Daniel Johnston makes clear is that Daniel Johnston had many of the ingredients of a rock star. Seen in footage from 1985 – a wiry 24-year old with a huge mop of curls, eyes dark and starry, and a manner that’s both mischievous and heartbreakingly earnest – Johnston commands our attention. The camera glazes past everyone in the foreground and our eyes fix on him and can’t look away. Perhaps this is why when an MTV film crew, unaware of Johnston, came down to film a television special on the mid-Eighties Austin underground, Johnston somehow ended up being featured prominently, stealing the show in a climactic live performance of “I Live My Broken Dreams.” Even now, having put on considerable weight, his voice lower and wearier than the heliated yip of his youth, his manner more mysteriously walled-off than open-to-anything, there’s something unnervingly compelling about Johnston’s charisma. He could have been a star, and there were several moments – the MTV special, a lucrative and unusually artist-friendly contract from Elektra Records that Johnston nixed (having become convinced that Elektra’s band Metallica were trying to kill him) – when it almost happened, and then it didn’t.
This last motif runs though several of this year’s SXSW Film music entries, as so many of the artists documented seem to have experienced one brief moment where they managed to ride a wave of sudden, surprising success – a smash hit cover, a big TV appearance, allegiance with a more famous artist – and then the wave crested and broke, leaving them to toil in almost the same obscurity they started out with. Sometimes there’s an element of dumb luck to these career setbacks, other times, as in the case of Daniel Johnston and Elektra, these artists can be their own worst enemies. In Be Here to Love Me, Townes Van Zandt’s longtime producer Kevin Eggers tells the story of how Townes shattered his arm in a drunken bender on the eve of his greatest touring opportunity. “He blew up everything [from] anybody who ever gave a shit about him,” Eggers concludes. “He just blew it up.”
In all of these documentaries, the same frustrated cast of characters return and bump up into each other. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley appears in Be Here to Love Me as the last would-be producer of a drunken and ailing Townes Van Zandt; he also shows up trying to help an increasingly delusional Daniel Johnston in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, just 10 minutes after the part where Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes denies giving Daniel the LSD that triggered his first major breakdown. Haynes returns in The Fearless Freaks, this time to point out just how much the Flaming Lips stole from his band. The Flaming Lips covered a song by Daniel Johnston, who’s shown briefly in Derailroaded, the sad story of kindred spirit Wild Man Fischer. Fischer’s brief moment of cult fame came when Frank Zappa heard him singing on the street for change and subsequently released a double-album of Fischer’s schizophrenic ravings for the amused delectation of Zappa’s California hipster fanbase. The unquiet ghost of Zappa rises again in Rock School, in which an unconventional music instructor teaches kids discipline and self-esteem through shrilly terrorizing them into playing note-perfect covers of Zappa’s most difficult material.
Just as these other documentaries paint portraits of earnest and vulnerable souls obsessed with and tormented by the romantic dream of becoming acclaimed artists, Rock School shows that dream being born in a handful of Philadelphia children. The film introduces us to Paul Green, a frustrated Philadelphia guitar player who decided, after he’d given up on his own dreams of being a rock star, to found an afterschool rock-music academy. Students who enter Paul Green’s Rock School are maligned for their 311 and Sheryl Crow CDs and assigned songs by the likes of Zappa, Black Sabbath, and Dio as homework. Outfitted with mohawks, eyeliner, and black leather, the kids then climb nervously onstage at local coffeehouses to play recitals for their adoring parents. Rock School builds to its moving climax when teacher and students fly to Germany to appear at a German Zappa festival, and a pint-sized, disabled guitarist named C.J. Tywoniak uncorks a solo so incendiary that ex-Zappa flautist Napoleon Murphy Brock bows down to him in amazement. Beaming, the talented Tywoniak later tells the camera that, because of Rock School, his No. 1 goal in life is now to become a rock star, confidently adding that his big debut in Germany “brought me a little closer to that goal.”
Roky Erickson’s greatest success came to him at the age of 19, when he screamed and hollered his way through one of the most important rock & roll songs of all time, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” the first track on the debut album of his band: Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. The Elevators are widely regarded as the first band to describe themselves with the word “psychedelic.” They became a popular cult act, influencing contemporaries like Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin, while anticipating, with their wild and unhinged energy, the birth of punk rock a decade later. A second album followed in 1968, and then things got disastrous: After a series of drug busts (Erickson and his band members’ outspoken endorsements of LSD and pot were constantly getting them in trouble with the law), Erickson was arrested on Mount Bonnell in Austin with a very small amount of marijuana. Rather than serve a short prison term, Erickson pled insanity.
He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent the next 31/2 years in a series of mental hospitals, where he was subjected to extensive electroshock therapy. The Roky Erickson who was released from Austin’s Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane was very different from the 22-year-old who’d gone in. Erickson promptly returned to rock & roll (he told Rolling Stone, “I feel like a caged animal when I’m not playing music”), but the hard rock material of his new band, the Aliens – and Erickson’s increasingly strange, horror-movie-influenced lyrics – did little to win him back his old audience. During the subsequent decades, his mentally unstable state exploited by those close to him and his music less and less understood by a diminished cult following who sometimes preferred to laugh at him more than to listen to him, Erickson’s recorded output tapered off. Today he lives in federally subsidized housing, having seen little or no money from the royalties of his classic work with the Elevators. He has stopped making music entirely.
“I think Roky, as an artist, is one of the five best blues singers ever, and one of the few genuinely unique songwriters in terms of lyrical approach,” says Keven McAlester, director of You’re Gonna Miss Me. When asked why he decided to make a movie about Erickson, McAlester says, “He is an insanely talented musician who also has a tragic side to his life. There’s something all too human about the struggle of an incredibly talented person versus what it takes to succeed, and what it doesn’t take to succeed.”
“When we first started Be Here to Love Me,” Margaret Brown recalls, “the first editor I had was really scared of the footage. He kept saying, ‘It’s a train wreck, it’s a train wreck.’ But I thought there was something really uplifting about his music. He made this decision, and he lived with it, and this was his life. And I think there’s a lot of beauty in this, and I don’t think it’s a train wreck. … There was a lightness inside him.
In the late 1970s, Van Zandt’s then-manager, John Lomax III, placed a three-line ad in the classified section of Rolling Stone:
AMERICA’S GREATEST songwriter, Townes Van Zandt fan club. News, pictures, rumors, lies. Box 12542, Nashville, TN 37212.
“I didn’t really think anything much would come of it,” says Lomax in Be Here to Love Me, “but we got several hundred letters within a month. Just over and over, these deeply wrought messages would be coming in. And I felt like, ‘Man, this music is therapeutic.’ All these letters that people would send, saying that his music had saved their lives, that they had been close to suicide and they had listened to his record and it brought them back, [that] a loved one had died and they’d listened to his records all night.”
It has been 22 years since Willie and Merle’s cover of “Pancho and Lefty” shot to the top of the charts, and the Photoshopped megastars who currently reside there might make even Van Zandt nostalgic for Pancho and Lefty‘s hokey old painted sunrise. When Ashlee Simpson – a singer whose connections enabled her to put out an album of songs about herself that she didn’t write, accompanied by instruments she didn’t play, sung in a voice that had been digitally auto-tuned so drastically that it could hardly be described as her own voice anymore – was exposed lip-synching onSaturday Night Live, magazines and websites were filled with Simpson’s defenders arguing heatedly with champions of the old-fashioned romantic notion of the pure, tortured artist. These debates seem to come and go in cycles: parent-friendly crooners vs. early rock & roll, arena rock vs. punk rock, MTV slickness vs. grunge.
“Jeannine told me that Townes used to say, ‘I’m the fungus that grunge grew out of,'” Brown says. “I really think it’s a male paradigm: this tragic hero who sacrifices everything. … There are always these examples in literature and art, and Townes was just a more modern one.”
“I don’t envision a very long life for myself,” Van Zandt says at the beginning of the film, “like, I think my life will run out before my work does, you know? I’ve designed it that way.”
You can romanticize the myth of Townes Van Zandt – falling backward from a height of four stories, writing his first song, “Waiting ‘Round to Die,” shut in a closet, blowing up his biggest tour opportunity in a drunken spree, nodding off and writing “If I Needed You” in a dream. He certainly would have wanted you to. You can cling to his purity, the devotion to his songs that drove him, enveloped him, and, in a way, killed him. Or, if you’re sick of looking for purity and devotion, sick of deferring to biographies and re-circulating old myths, you can just trust your own ears. You can just listen to those songs. All night. And dream. “The Tower Song.” “When Your Dream Lovers Die.” “Flying Shoes.” Or Our Mother the Mountain, Brown’s favorite Townes record, and mine. Pull open the sleeve. Blow clean the smooth, dark skin of the vinyl. Lower the needle. And dream.
This article has been sightly revised since its original publication.