Just under 800 people in the U.S. 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 album sales so closely that it can tell us how many albums an artist sells weekly in each major city. (Van Zandt’s latest weekly sales total in L.A.: fewer than 50 copies.)
One thing SoundScan can’t tell us is who bought those Van Zandt albums, but we can assume that over the years the list has included Bob Dylan, Bono, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Lyle Lovett and Merle Haggard.
They are just a fraction of the honor roll of artists who have saluted the late singer-songwriter, either by singing his songs or testifying to the high quality of his work.
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.
One reason is that he was on tiny labels, which meant he didn’t enjoy the promotional campaigns major labels 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--who was from a celebrated Texas family (one of his ancestors was instrumental in founding Fort Worth)--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.
The eclectic New York label, which has also been home to such varied artists as classical composer Philip Glass and bluesman Albert King, just released the “Best of” album as part of a campaign centered on Van Zandt’s music. At least eight more collections, mostly reissues, are due within the next year. A Van Zandt television documentary and a biography are in the works, Eggers said.
“We’re getting calls from all around the world ... Japan, France,” Eggers says. “Mojo [magazine] in England is doing a cover story on him. It’s interesting to see how things go in cycles. I’ve always believed that artistry would eventually win out. Maybe the public is finally ready to see now what was sometimes hard to see then.”
If Van Zandt, who was born in Fort Worth on March 7, 1944, had just arrived on the music scene, the lanky Texan might well be on Lost Highway Records, and be every bit as acclaimed as that label’s singer-songwriter sensations Williams and Ryan Adams.
Like theirs, 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 work: “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. Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had a No. 1 country hit with it in 1983, and Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt included it on their 1999 album, “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions.”
It’s far from an isolated gem. “Pancho & Lefty’s” soulful edge is matched in Van Zandt’s work by several songs so exquisitely crafted that they seem like pure, unfiltered glimpses of a man’s soul.
There are moments in which Van Zandt celebrates love and life, as in 1971’s “To Live Is to Fly” and 1972’s “If I Needed You.” More often, there is a sense of futility, despair and impending death, summarized in 1968’s “Waiting ‘Round to Die": “Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me/Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why/I guess I keep on gamblin’, lots of booze and ramblin'/Well, it’s easier than just a-waitin’ ‘round to die.”
In these and other Van Zandt songs, the influence he had on other writers can be discerned. John Prine, best known for such early-'70s tunes as “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone,” has long been my favorite folk-oriented songwriter after Dylan, and I assumed his music was shaped almost exclusively by Dylan’s work.
But I’ve never heard a song to match the character study and detail of Prine’s work any better than Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” which was written years before Prine’s first album.
Similarly, there’s a sense of Texas vitality and spirit to “White Freight Liner Blues” that is echoed in the work of one of my other favorite bands--the Flatlanders, a trio made up of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. In the music on “Best Of,” you can also hear Earle, Lyle Lovett, Williams and others being inspired.
“He didn’t write a lot of songs, but everything he did write was remarkable,” Eggers says, with the affection of someone who has championed Van Zandt’s music for three decades. “He crafted each song like it was a little diamond.”
Eggers, a former rock ‘n’ roll booking agent, was looking for acts for his new Poppy label (the name was later changed to Tomato) when he heard a tape of the singer’s “Tecumseh Valley.”
“I was struck immediately,” he recalls.
“Here was someone who was as much influenced by Emily Dickinson and the great poets as he was by songwriters. If you take those songs without the music, they are compelling pieces of literature, and his chief theme, to me, was about how fragile we all are.”
There have been so many colorful, often conflicting stories about Van Zandt’s exploits in the early years that it is as hard to piece together the chapters in his life as it apparently was for him to live them.
Most accounts agree he was from a once oil-wealthy family. As a teenager, he was diagnosed as manic-depressive and underwent months of insulin shock therapy. Inspired by seeing Elvis Presley on TV, he decided to pursue music rather than follow through on college. He started out playing blues and folk numbers in coffeehouses and clubs in Texas, but quickly graduated to writing his own tunes.
According to a posthumous press bio, Van Zandt “pursued the rambling-gambling life to its farthest extreme, performing until he was regularly collapsing on stage from increasing frailty and alcohol abuse.”
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, disputes that account. She said the singer severed ties with Eggers because he was unhappy over their business relationship. She also said she is considering legal action against Eggers because she hasn’t seen royalty statements in years. Eggers denied any wrongdoing.
Whatever the nature of their falling out, Eggers and Van Zandt patched things up a few years later and began working on an ambitious series of duet albums that featured Van Zandt and 60 or so of his admirers singing his songs. They completed some tracks, 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,” which was 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 specifically for the duets project.
Jeanene Van Zandt said Van Zandt always saw his career impact in terms of the future. “Townes didn’t care about his career,” she said. “He knew he wouldn’t be famous until 100 years after he died. 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 jumped to, say, 2,000 a week.
Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.