Friday, February 26, 2010

If: The Townes Van Zandt/Dar Williams Connection

Townes Van Zandt: If I Needed You


My husband and I saw Crazy Heart the other night - the storyline was fairly lame and forgettable... but Jeff Bridges does indeed deserve the Oscar for Best Picture... and the exquisite tapestry of songs woven throughout keeps the mood and the focus on the music... and the life of the musician. I know lots of people like that... driving from town to town in a not-so-dependable vehicle, not quite sure whether the next venue will be a bar or a listening room... and whether the audience will be a handful or a sell-out - it's easy to pendulum from lucky to lonely in the space of 50 miles...

As the hot air balloon scene begins, I heard the first few notes of the tune and elbowed my husband, "that's Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You"... and felt the delight of validation as the lyrics kicked in to prove me right - later, Bad Blake, strumming his guitar, says, "That's the way it is with good songs: you think you've heard them before."

Dar Williams: If I Wrote You


I had never heard of Townes until I saw Dar Williams live for the first time in mid-January 1998 - he had died the previous January, she spoke briefly of him during the concert... and "If I Wrote You is dedicated to the memory of Townes Van Zandt", as she writes in her End of the Summer liner notes. I have been a fan ever since - he's the king of heartache and my words will never do him justice... but I highly recommend the documentary Be Here to Love Me for an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at this talented but tortured songwriter...

From a wonderful, but undated, online interview:

Splendid: To me, both "End of Summer" and "If I Wrote You" seemed to be pivotal points in your songwriting, and that your third album marked a point where you were branching out a lot.

Dar Williams: I think you're right about those two songs, absolutely. Especially on "If I Wrote You". I mean, Joan Baez picked that one up immediately.

Splendid: By the way, I'm a big Townes Van Zandt fan, so I was thrilled when I read it was dedicated to him in the liner notes. But where does he play into the song?

Dar Williams: It's not a song about Townes. My manager was a huge fan, and I did start writing it in Austin, and I was writing it in the South, and it had that kind of vibe. And I think I said to my manager, "The way you described Townes... both personally and professionally, it seems like his songs were like his letters to his us, his postcards to us." It seems like, when you were in his company, it was very hard to relate to him, and so it's almost like you needed him to send these missives, and in that way, it did remind me a lot of him in the song. To my mind, the song's about two people with a substance abuse thing going on. And one of them takes off into a different direction. And writes this song basically saying, "I didn't get straight to mock you or tell you what to do with your life. You know, I'm much happier now, but I'd love it for you to feel that you're special, and I need to be honest about the fact that I'm in a much better place than I was, but I don't want to put you down for being where you're at. I never did." And so that's the kind of song you'd want to sing to Townes, 'cause, you know, he did have a big drinking problem. So maybe the thing you'd want to say to Townes is, "I wish you could understand how great you are, and maybe put down the booze," but, then, I'm not on this planet to judge you. And that's why I would never bring it up.

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