The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
|The Late Great Townes Van Zandt|
|Studio album by Townes Van Zandt|
|Recorded||Jack Clement Studios, Nashville, Tennessee|
|Producer||Kevin Eggers, Jack Clement|
|Townes Van Zandt chronology|
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt is a 1972 studio album by Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. It was the second album that he recorded in 1972, and a follow-up to High, Low and In Between. The album is considered by many to be his best and features two of his most covered songs, the Western outlaw ballad "Pancho and Lefty" and the gentle love song "If I Needed You". The album also includes several cover songs, the definitive version of "Sad Cinderella", and Van Zandt's most experimental track, the darkly psychedelic epic "Silver Ships of Andilar".
The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt would be the singer's last studio album for the ailing Poppy Records. It was produced by Van Zandt's manager Kevin Eggers and Jack Clement, with Eggers telling Van Zandt biographer John Kruth in 2007, "Jack produced the basic tracks to 'No Lonesome Tune' and 'Honky Tonkin'. I cut all the basic tracks to everything else and mixed it. The strings on the 'Silver Ships of Andilar' were arranged by Bergen White, one of the few black musicians in Nashville who happened to be the top string arranger in those days." According to the book To Live's To Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, Eggers had wanted to overdub drums on "Pancho and Lefty" but Van Zandt vetoed the idea.
The album includes what is Van Zandt's signature tune, the enigmatic "Pancho and Lefty". In an interview that appears in the book Songwriters on Songwriting, Paul Zollo asked if he remembered writing the song, to which Van Zandt replied, "Yes. I was in Dallas. In a hotel room. That one kind of came from not having anything to do and sitting down with the express purpose of writing a song. I took one day and then I played what I had that night at a gig. And a songwriter told me, 'Man, that’s a great. But I don’t think it’s finished.' So I went back to my hotel room the next day and wrote the last verse. The only thing I remember thinking about while I was writing it was consciously thinking that this is not about Pancho Villa." The song tells the story of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and a more mysterious character, Lefty, and implies that Pancho was killed after he was betrayed by his associate Lefty, who was paid off by the Mexican federales. In the 1984 PBS series Austin Pickers, the singer elaborated: "I realize that I wrote it, but it's hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it's a real nice song, and I think I've finally found out what it's about. I've always wondered what it's about. I kinda always knew it wasn't about Pancho Villa, and then somebody told me that Pancho Villa had a buddy whose name in Spanish meant Lefty. But in the song, my song, Pancho gets hung. 'They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose' and the real Pancho Villa was assassinated."
Emmylou Harris covered the song on her 1977 album Luxury Liner, and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took the song to number one on the country charts in July 1983 on their duet album Pancho & Lefty. In the biopic Be Here To Love Me, Nelson states that when he asked Van Zandt what the song was about Van Zandt replied that he didn't know. Nelson also recalls how his album with Haggard was nearly completed but he felt they didn't have "that blockbuster, you know, that one big song for a good single and a video, and my daughter Lana suggested that we listen to 'Pancho and Lefty'. I had never heard it and Merle had never heard it." Lana Nelson returned with a copy of the song and Nelson cut it immediately with his band in the middle of the night but had to retrieve a sleeping Haggard, who had retired to his bus hours earlier, to record his vocal part. Van Zandt appears in the video for the song playing one of the Mexican federales. "It was real nice they invited me," Van Zandt told Aretha Sills in 1994. "They didn’t have to invite me and I made I think $100 dollars a day. I was the captain of the federales. And plus I got to ride a horse. I always like that. It took four and a half days and that video was four and a half minutes long...The money goes by a strange life, or elsewhere. I mean it doesn’t come to me. But money’s not the question. I would like if I could write a song that would somehow turn one five-year-old girl around to do right. Then I’ve done good. That’s what I care about." The royalties would provide Van Zandt with some badly needed income, though by all accounts he remained impervious to the song's success. One story involving the song that Van Zandt loved to tell was when he got pulled over for speeding in Berkshire by two policeman, the first a blue-eyed Aryan type with a crew cut, and his partner a bronze, dark eyed Mexican. Although his driver's license was up-to-date, the inspection sticker had expired, and the bedraggled singer found himself in the back of the police cruiser. As Van Zandt recounted on Austin Pickers, "We got stopped by these two policeman and...they said 'What do you do for a living?', and I said, 'Well, I'm a songwriter,' and they both kind of looked around like 'pitiful, pitiful,' and so on to that I added, 'I wrote that song Pancho and Lefty. You ever heard that song Pancho and Lefty? I wrote that', and they looked back around and they looked at each other and started grinning..." The policemen explained that their police-radio code names were Pancho and Lefty and they let Van Zandt off with a warning. The song is probably Van Zandt's most recognizable and has become a staple for aspiring folksingers and country bar bands alike. Steve Earle told John Kruth in 2007, "You won't find a song that's better written, that says more or impresses songwriters more." In the film Be Here To Love Me, Kris Kristofferson recites the opening lines of the song – Livin' on the road my friend was supposed to keep you free and clean, now you wear your skin like iron and your breath's as hard as kerosene – and then marvels, "And I could think, 'That was me!'" Bob Dylan, whose album The Times They Are A-Changin' had a major impact on Van Zandt, performed the song as a duet on television with Willie Nelson at Nelson's 60th birthday concert in 1993, which Andy Greene of Rolling Stone remembers as "the highlight of the night".
Although "Pancho and Lefty" is the song most associated with Van Zandt, "If I Needed You" is his most covered composition. A lilting portrait of undying love, the song was first recorded by Doc Watson on his 1973 Grammy-winning album Then and Now and later taken to number three on the country charts by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams in 1981. The characters Loop and Lil mentioned in the song were actually a pair of parakeets that Van Zandt carried with him. In an interview on the show Nashville Now, Van Zandt insisted to Ralph Emery that he wrote the song in his sleep, dreaming the melody and writing down the words when he woke up. In the Be Here To Love Me documentary, Van Zandt's first wife Fran Petters states when he first played it for her she thought it was "the most beautiful song I'd ever heard" but it wasn't until years later that she was certain he had written it for her when Van Zandt called her in the middle of the night in 1981, long after they had parted ways, and exclaimed, "Babe, we finally made it!", a reference to the Harris/Williams duet that was riding high on the charts.
The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt includes the singer's take on two country classics: "Honky Tonkin'", originally written by Van Zandt's hero Hank Williams, and "Fraulein", which had been his father's favorite country song. Van Zandt also recorded the Guy Clark-penned "Don't Let The Sunshine Fool Ya" and co-wrote the lullaby "Heavenly Houseboat Blues" with Clark's wife Susanna. The lascivious "German Mustard (A Clapalong)" was a collaboration with guitarist Rocky Hill (formerly of the 1960s Houston band American Blues and brother of ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill) and features a prominent slide guitar and what sounds like improvised Van Zandt lyrics. "Sad Cinderella" first appeared on Van Zandt's debut For the Sake of the Song but, like several other cuts on the album, was later rerecorded by the singer, who remained unhappy with the overproduction on his first LP. The album's closing track "Silver Boats of Andilar" is a Van Zandt epic which contains seven verses about a dying man who, out of desperation, slips a message into a bottle. Guitarist Mickey White told Van Zandt biographer John Kruth in 2007 that the mournful ballad "Snow Don't Fall" was written about Van Zandt's former girlfriend Leslie Jo Richards, who had been murdered the year before.
Album title & artwork
In the 2007 biography To Live's To Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, the theory is put forth that the album's title was inspired by a night in 1972 when the singer "died twice in one night" on the way to the hospital after an heroin overdose, an event his former wife Fran describes in harrowing detail. However, manager and producer Kevin Eggers told Van Zandt biographer John Kruth that he conceived the album's title in the hopes that he could draw attention to Van Zandt's career with a Beatles-inspired "Paul is Dead" type hoax and goes on to lament that his client's fan base was "zip, zero, nada. Townes had no commercial success. He was a blip on the radar screen. He worked very hard at being professional and had enormous exposure, but it was like we gave a party and nobody came. I never made any money on him. Nothing happened with 'Pancho and Lefty' for ten years." Eggers also reveals to Kruth that an exasperated Jack Clement nearly had a fistfight with Charley Pride trying to get him to record "If I Needed You", something the country star refused to do. Milton Glaser, who had devised surreal covers for 2nd Row, 3rd Left for painter and folksinger Eric Von Schmidt and I'm A Stranger, Too for Chris Smither, designed Van Zandt's album cover to resemble an old-world funerary card with Gothic lettering across the top of the sleeve. The photograph itself was snapped by Steve Salmierie and features Van Zandt solemnly posing alone with his guitar in Kevin Eggers's Brooklyn Heights townhouse. The back cover features another photograph taken by Salmierie of the happily wasted singer giving the photographer the finger.
Release & reception
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt was released in 1972 and has since made several critical "best of all-time" lists. Stereophile included it as one of 94 honorable mentions that just missed their list of "The 40 Essential Albums". AllMusic states, "This is the second perfect album Van Zandt cut in 1972, a complement to High, Low and in Between. Together they contain the highest points of his brilliant but erratic career. The Late Great may be a bit stronger, with classics like 'Pancho & Lefty', 'No Lonesome Tune', and 'If I Needed You', but there's not a weak track here." Amazon.com calls it "Van Zandt's perfect storm" and declares, "The Late Great, Townes Van Zandt might be his masterwork...a release that should be in every collection of great American music." John Kruth writes in To Live's To Fly that former Warner Brothers publicist Bill Bently gave Elvis Costello a cassette of Van Zandt songs to play as the punk rocker learned how to drive and Costello "was so moved by 'Sad Cinderella' that he was said to have curbed the car and could only listen in awe" while Jack Clement marveled to Kruth that "Silver Ships of Andilar was "more like a movie than a song."
Several of the songs on The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt have been recorded by other artists, most notably "If I Needed You" and "Pancho and Lefty". "If I Needed You" has been recorded by Tom Astor, Ray Benson, Bonnie Bishop, Ginger Boatwright, Phil Cody, Dashboard Confessional, the Dead Ringer Band, Richard Dobson, Fireside, Enzo Garcia and Rhonda Harris. Emmylou Harris recorded the song as a duet with Don Williams and later with Van Zandt himself. "Pancho and Lefty" has been recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Sally Barker, Johnny Bush, Pete Charles, the Cumberland Trio, Richard Dobson, Steve Earle, Cleve Francis, Dick Gaughan, Hawke, and Hoyt Axton. The Axton recording meant a lot to Van Zandt, who later recalled in an interview in Omaha Rainbow, "I learnt to finger pick from one of Hoyt Axton's records...He's always been a favorite of mine. I played with him a couple of years ago. It really blew my mind when he recorded 'Pancho and Lefty.'" "No Lonesome Tune" has been recorded by David Bavas, Saul Broudy, Guy Clark, Mark Dvorak and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. A duet of the song featuring Van Zandt and Willie Nelson can also be found on the 2001 release Texas Rain: The Texas Hill Country Recordings.
All lyrics and music by Townes Van Zandt unless noted otherwise:
- "No Lonesome Tune" – 4:21
- "Sad Cinderella" – 4:15
- "German Mustard (A Clapalong)" (Van Zandt, Rocky Hill) – 2:55
- "Don't Let the Sunshine Fool Ya'" (Guy Clark) – 2:25
- "Honky Tonkin'" (Hank Williams) – 3:44
- "Snow Don't Fall" – 2:27
- "Fraulein" (Lawton Williams) – 2:42
- "Pancho and Lefty" – 3:40
- "If I Needed You" – 3:44
- "Silver Ships of Andilar" – 5:07
- "Heavenly Houseboat Blues" (Van Zandt, Susanna Clark) – 2:51
Arranged by Chuck Cochran
- Townes Van Zandt – acoustic guitar & vocals
- Joe Allan – bass
- Jack Clement – mandolin
- Vassar Clements – fiddle
- Chuck Cochran – piano, keyboards & arrangements
- Jim Colvard – guitar
- Rocky Hill – slide guitar
- Kenny Malone – drums
- Produced by Kevin Eggers & Jack Clement
- Executive producer – Kevin Eggers
- Engineer – Garth Fundis
- Production coordination – Kevin Calabro, Katja Maas, & Tyson Schuetze
- Remastering – Gene Paul
- Milton Glaser – art direction, design, & cover design
- Steve Salmieri – photography
- Kevin Eggers & Lola Scobey – liner notes