Media Be here; I’m gone

Townes Van Zandt was a musical genius with a deep drug-fueled loneliness

Maybe it’s the fallout of too many Apprentice-style corporate fantasies and a culture in which monetary success is the only yardstick used to measure human worth. But there’s been a small backlash of loser-chic in film recently, from Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know to Thumbsucker to the depressed eggheads of The Squid and the Whale. In a culture more ersatz by the minute, authenticity, even the screwed-up, suicidal kind, has become more and more appealing.

Townes Van Zandt left behind a middle-class Fort Worth existence to pursue a lifestyle conducive to genuine blues music.

The hall of infamy hung with misunderstood, chemically addicted musicians like Atlanta’s Benjamin Smoke and Dig!’s Anton Newcombe finds its newest sad-eyed babe in glue-sniffing, shock treatment-survivin’, suicidal Townes Van Zandt, an alt-country legend who trumps even the hard knocks of the country circuit with its busted-up marriages and amphetamine fogs.

Van Zandt’s life story, which peaked in the groovy late ’60s and post-groovy ’70s, according to Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, traffics more in the vernacular of the deep blues, full of economic hardship, an aching soul sickness, and a repertoire of whatever’s-at-hand drug addiction that ran from booze to heroin to airplane glue. (Van Zandt’s jones was so intense his front teeth had to be busted out when he overdosed with tubes of glue clenched in his mouth.)

Van Zandt’s story began promisingly enough, when he was born into a well-adjusted, well-to-do Fort Worth, Texas, family. But filmmaker Margaret Brown suggests that Van Zandt’s wayward sensibility strayed from the comfortable road map of his class. His hero worship of blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins meant rejecting his cozy setup for a more precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, even after his parents had set up him and his new wife, Fran Petters, in a rent-free apartment.

But Van Zandt’s determination to live off the grid turned tragic and imprinted the rest of his life when a doctor suggested Van Zandt undergo shock treatment. A genuine tragedy for a songwriter, the treatments scorched Van Zandt’s memories of his childhood, rendering his past a blank slate. Be Here to Love Me suggests shock treatment as the definitive tragedy of his life, rendering an already wayward soul hopelessly lost.

Interviews testify to the Van Zandt legacy. His precociously solemn three children weigh in, along with musicians including Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and roustabout Guy Clark — doing a.m. tequila shots on camera — who sing Van Zandt’s praises and trade stories of the various degradations that stood in the way of his deserved rocket trip to greatness.

Be Here to Love Me
Dir. Margaret Brown

There are plenty of indications that Van Zandt was hell to live with. His eldest child, J.T., remembers his psychological game playing (“He could be really cruel to the people he loved”), and home-video footage captures Van Zandt fooling around with booze and a gun shoved down his pants for kicks. Be Here to Love Me paints a heartsick picture of what people loved and admired about Van Zandt, a love wounded and sad because of the way drugs and, perhaps, mental illness made true connection difficult.

By definition, being a cult figure means never achieving economic success in your chosen field. Despite the various country stars who covered his songs (“If I Needed You” recorded by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, No. 1 hit “Pancho & Lefty” by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), Van Zandt never grabbed hold of the brass ring. Be Here to Love Me is an affirmation that for many artists, the usual measures of success do not apply and every effort to domesticate their rangy spirits will inevitably end in disaster. The film feels most authentic when it talks about the exhilaration and the freedom Van Zandt and other musicians feel when they cut off ties to family and home to make a songwriter’s life on the road. Instead of making us pity Van Zandt, those moments in Be Here to Love Me make us understand, even envy, the charged, intense power of the artist’s life.

Brown’s tribute to this obscure talent can feel unfocused, glancing over the decades of Van Zandt’s life until his death from a heart attack in 1997. But Townes, in keeping with his cult mystique, remains a mystery. Was he as heartbroken and sad as this documentary makes him appear, or content to live on his own terms? There is interview footage with Van Zandt, as well as performance footage and home movies, but it all only gets you so close. Maybe the distance that Brown documents was the central heartbreak of Van Zandt’s life — a loneliness no amount of love and talent could ever remedy.

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