Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me
Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why
I guess I’ll keep on a-gamblin’, lots of booze and lots of ramblin’
It’s easier than just a-waitin’ ’round to die
- Townes Van Zandt
Our good friend Matt Redmond just wrote a poignant piece about how the late songwriter Townes Van Zandt has been a voice for him in the wilderness of disappointment Matt’s been walking through lately.
Townes was once asked about his sad songs and he said, “Well, many of the songs aren’t sad, they’re hopeless.”
Maybe that’s why I can’t stop listening to them in this stretch of wondering what I’m gonna do. For some reason all these stark sad…hopeless songs help me along. The music is otherworldly, the words altogether worldly. They are full to spilling of hurt and pain and all the hell there is here on earth.
Today is Ash Wednesday, and thanks to Matt’s prompting I’ve been led think of Townes and his brief life, which was even sadder than his music. Marked as he was by mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, broken relationships, squandered opportunities, and an often reclusive, eccentric lifestyle, some of us might be tempted to shake our heads and turn away, admiring his talent but dismissing him as unworthy of further personal consideration.
In my opinion, that would be a mistake.
I have heard many people, including some I admire, lament that today we in America live in a “culture of death.” Spokespersons at various places along the cultural and political spectrum point to legalized abortion and other areas of medical practice where certain ethics are being challenged, portrayals of graphic violence in our entertainment media, capital punishment, the pollution of our environment, and so on. To listen to some, you’d think we’ve sunk to levels of death-dealing that rival barbarian societies.
For the most part, I think this betrays a hubris of thinking that we live in a unique time and place. As though the “culture of death” today is something altogether different and more serious than in the past. More likely, this is an overheated political case. Do we really believe that those with whom we disagree pose an unprecedented threat to our well being and future by promoting the most deadly practices ever known to humankind? Nonsense. “This world is ruled by violence; but that’s better left unsaid” (Bob Dylan) — and thus it has ever been and ever will be. If you want to talk high points of the “culture of death,” let’s go back and examine, for example, the days when Native Americans were targeted for genocide or when blacks had to endure the bitter fruits of slavery and segregation.
Of course we live in a culture of death — because we are human, and human beings die, and human beings often choose ways that lead to death rather than life. My question is how we deal with this fact.
If anything, our modern society continues to be one that avoids the reality of death. Our government knows how powerful the images of real death are, so they don’t allow television networks to show the flag-draped caskets of our soldiers coming home. Our armed forces rely more and more on tactics like drone aircraft that keep our hands clean when dealing death. We the people will watch violence and death on our TV screens and computer monitors, but we continue to hide our dying ones away in hospitals and nursing homes. We spend the vast majority of our Medicare dollars on futile care in the final days of life because we just can’t face the fact that life will, at some point, end. We’ve turned funeral services for the mourning into “celebrations of life.” Businesses give their employees three days off for bereavement leave and then expect them to be back working at full strength.
We’re not just a culture of death, we’re a culture of death-deniers, a people that tries to hide and avoid the fact that death is real.
That’s why we need to focus our attention on poets like Townes Van Zandt. He was a powerful symbol of death who walked among us. He could not hide the death that was working within him; he smelled of it, and his songs overflow with it to this day. His life represents most everything the righteous turn away from in moral outrage while at the same time his music touches us in deeply human ways. Van Zandt speaks to the death in each of us: the death of promise, the death of stability, the death of our ability to control and manage the vicissitudes of life, and ultimately the ability to hang on to life itself.
We should not avoid looking at people like him. We must not write them off as “depressing,” and unworthy of our time, as losers and fools with nothing to teach us or show us. Together with Townes, we are Pancho and Lefty.
Townes Van Zandt was a man of no ordinary pedigree. He was born into a prominent household in Texas, a rich oil family. His forbears helped found Ft. Worth and an entire county was named for the Van Zandts. His parents were wealthy and generous, caring people. He went to military school, played sports, and was a good student, perhaps even a genius. His family thought he might be an attorney or hold high office some day.
However, major depression, binge drinking, sniffing glue, and erratic behavior began to take over his life in college. Diagnosed with manic depression, he underwent insulin shock treatments that eliminated large portions of his long-term memory. Mental health and addiction problems would dog him the rest of his days. An almost obsessive focus on songwriting took over his life and though there were periods when he performed and recorded successfully, Van Zandt remained mostly a cult figure, well-regarded among critics, fellow musicians, and the small crowds in the clubs where he played. Other artists recorded a few of his songs and made them hits, most notably Emmylou Harris (“If I Needed You”) and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (“Pancho and Lefty”).
The poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty’s livin’ in cheap hotels
The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold
And so the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true
Save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do
And now he’s growin’ old
As we pursue lives that actively affirm life, we must not hide from the death within us and all around us. We generally shy away from calling attention to the symbols of death in this land, but they are there, for those with eyes to see.
I remember one afternoon in the city of Mysore, in south India. We were out for a walk when we saw a small procession coming down the street toward us. Four men were holding poles on which a covered sedan chair was set. On the chair was an elderly woman. As they approached, it became clear the woman was dead! This was a funeral procession and this Indian family was carrying their loved one to the pyre. There we were, on the busy street of a city, and death was in our midst: visible, disturbing, real. Death was allowed a presence among the living. In the most public of spaces, a symbol of death confronted us all and forced us to face reality. A member of my human family had played her part and was exiting the stage for all to see. We could not help but pause.
When I think of Townes Van Zandt and his strange, sad combination of image-of-God poetic genius with personal disarray and dissolution, I get a feeling like I had that day in Mysore. A symbol of death is here, demanding my attention. I cannot, I must not look away until I have seen myself being carried in that chair — or holding that guitar, or grasping that bottle.
Well to live is to fly
All low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
Today, the dust flies. And to dust we shall return.