"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


music & the movies

After Wilco's ACL aftershow at Stubb's, I had a long conversation with a near-stranger about Ryan Adams. He'd been to one of the whacked-out shows on the Cold Roses tour, during which Adams seemed determined to create a train wreck. The interesting thing, though, is that in the midst of all the drugs and mental health issues, Adams comes up with some pretty amazing music. That he probably wouldn't be able to write if he weren't so messed up. And we agreed that he just seems doomed to die young.

What is it about the people who are in the worst shape being able to create incredible art? Last night we saw a movie about someone else who seemed destined to die young -- or at least that's how filmmaker Margaret Brown sets up the story. The story of Townes van Zandt's life is tragic - drug abuse, the miserable effects of shock therapy, and a series failed marriages all took their toll. But wow could he write songs. Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes van Zandt explores the tension between the artist's life and his music, with the recognition that making truly great art often requires sacrificing family, stability, and normalcy.

The film is wonderful. It's going to end up being one of my favorite music documentaries ever. The cinematography and footage of TVZ throughout his life is perfectly matched with interviews with the people who knew him best. It's just amazing.

What I liked best was the sense of place in the film. Van Zandt spent much of his life migrating between Austin and Nashville and Colorado, but there's something about the film that gives you the sense that he was from somewhere - and nowhere at the same time. A lot of the footage was shot in his homes: a trailer in Austin's Clarksville neighborhood, or an old sharecropper's cabin in Franklin (which will be tracked down over the holidays). The sense of place permeates the whole movie. People aren't interviewed in the normal way: J.T. van Zandt talks about his dad while fly-fishing on a quiet bend in an unidentified river; Guy Clark gives his interview in his home studio while doing shots of tequila. One of the funniest, and most poignant, scenes in the film occurs while Townes is sitting on the porch of his trailer in Clarksville. He's dressed like a Texas boy - boots, a cowboy hat, a shearling jacket, and a denim shirt - and talking about the time he was pronounced dead-on-arrival at a hospital, only to have another doctor try one more thing that kept him alive. So while Townes is sharing this story with undertones of meditation on the whole meaning of life and death, his friend is standing over him on the porch doing target practice with a 12-gauge. It is so funny, and so sad, and somehow sums up a life.

Another great, if painful, moment occurs when Ralph Emery interviews van Zandt on Nashville Now! (wow, we used to watch that on TNN -- the studio was part of Opryland) and points out that his records don't sell and aren't even in circulation anymore. Emery's doing that awful thing that Nashville does to really talented people, but then he has van Zandt play a song and it's as though you can see the fog lifting for the host and the audience. Beautiful.

Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes van Zandt opened this weekend at the newish Alamo South in Austin and will be at the Belcourt in Nashville either this coming Friday or on January 6. You can watch the trailer here. There's a great story/interview about the film's production in this week's Chronicle.

For those of you not familiar with van Zandt's work, there's this amazing recording of a live show he did with Guy Clark and Steve Earle in Nashville a decade ago when I was a senior in a high school 15 miles down that exact road and not old enough to get into the Bluebird and too naive to know what I was missing, Together at the Bluebird Cafe. There are three tracks in a row (13, Clark's "Dublin Blues," then 14, Earle's "I Ain't Ever Satisfied," and then 15, van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty") that just sum up the three artists, their relationship with one another, and their music. Listen to that, see the film, and be glad that you and I are so lucky that we get to listen in on this amazing grace.


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