Sales never came for Van Zandt

April 18, 2002|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just under 800 people in the United States bought a Townes Van Zandt album last week, a sales rate that has held fairly steady for about a decade.

That information comes from SoundScan, which monitors such things.

One thing SoundScan can't tell us is who bought those Van Zandt albums, but over the years the list surely has included Bob Dylan, Bono, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Lyle Lovett and Merle Haggard.

Steve Earle, one of today's most acclaimed songwriters, is such a supporter that he once called Van Zandt the best songwriter in the world and vowed that he would "stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots" and tell Dylan so.

Even if you don't join in that colorful evaluation, the just-released The Best of Townes Van Zandt should convince you that the Texan, who died of a heart attack in 1997 at age 52, deserves a place on the short list of great singer-songwriters of the modern pop era.

At a time when pop music is starving for quality writers, it's disheartening to think that Van Zandt's catalog -- about a dozen original studio collections, live albums and retrospectives -- accounts for just 1,000 of the 12 million or so albums sold each week.

The surprise is that during his creative peak in the '60s and '70s, the golden age of the singer-songwriter, Van Zandt sold even fewer -- about 50 to 100 albums a week, according Kevin Eggers, whose Poppy and Tomato record labels released the songwriter's early work.

He was on tiny labels, which meant he didn't enjoy the promotional campaigns mounted for Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and other best sellers.

Another reason is Van Zandt's self-destructiveness.

If you look at his publicity photos from the '70s, there is a gentle, almost innocent quality about him -- a soft, wistful calm.

In truth, Van Zandt was a tortured soul who reportedly suffered from severe depression.

"Townes went through huge mood swings," says Eggers, who discovered Van Zandt in the late '60s. "One moment he could be really happy and working, and then you could find him crying in the middle of the night. I think he also felt humiliated by the fact he was seen by some as a failure."

Eggers recently reactivated the Tomato label after a decade, in part to showcase Van Zandt's music for a new generation.

"I've always believed that artistry would eventually win out," he said. "Maybe the public is finally ready to see now what was sometimes hard to see then."

Van Zandt's folk-, country- and blues-influenced style combines sweet, seductive melodies with poetic images that are both sophisticated and personal.

On the "best of" album, the song that should catch everyone's ear is "Pancho & Lefty," a 1972 composition as evocative and enduring as Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" or Dylan's "To Ramona."

It's a tale of lost dreams and betrayal graced with the poetic imagery that characterizes Van Zandt's best: "Living on the road my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath's as hard as kerosene."

Dylan has used "Pancho & Lefty" as a concert opener. Haggard and Willie Nelson had a No. 1 country hit with it in 1983, and Emmylou Harris included it on her 1977 album Luxury Liner.

"He didn't write a lot of songs, but everything he did write was remarkable," Eggers says. "He crafted each song like it was a little diamond."

Eggers says his relationship with the songwriter fell apart in the late '70s because of Van Zandt's unreliable behavior. Van Zandt's ex-wife, Jeanene, says Van Zandt was unhappy over their business relationship.

Eggers and Van Zandt patched things up a few years later and started on a series of duet albums with Van Zandt and 60 or so of his admirers singing his songs. But Eggers had trouble financing the project and it was suspended.

Some of those tracks -- duets with Nelson, Harris and others -- were included in Texas Rain: The Texas Hill Country Recordings, released by Tomato late last year. Eggers plans to follow it up with more duet packages. Several top artists, from Bono to Lovett, are committed to the project, Eggers says. Their voices will be added to tracks Van Zandt recorded for the duets project.

Jeanene Van Zandt said the singer-songwriter always saw his career impact in terms of the future. "He knew he wouldn't be famous until 100 years after he died," she said. "He was just driven by demons. He had depression attacks so bad that all I could do was hold his head and rock him."

Van Zandt's music is certainly strong enough to deserve the attention of a wide audience. But Eggers is a realist.

In a record industry that usually measures success in gold or platinum albums, Eggers, after all these years, will raise a toast if Van Zandt's album sales just jump to, say, 2,000 a week.

Robert Hilburn writes for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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