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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Townes Van Zandt finally came to life on Live At The Old Quarter

Illustration for article titled Townes Van Zandt finally came to life on Live At The Old Quarter

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

There was a time not long ago that the live record was actually taken seriously. It wasn’t an add-on tacked to the back half of some super-deluxe edition re-release, and it wasn’t just bundled as a limited Record Store Day exclusive or dumped onto an infinitely expanding Internet database. The live album had impact. It was a way to show off another side of an artist that wasn’t coming across from within the confines of a recording studio.


Before the release of Alive, Kiss was considered by many to be a band of Kabuki makeup-wearing New York Dolls wannabes floating around the margins of the overstuffed ’70s rock scene. Before ‘Live’ Bullet, Bob Seger was just a regional Detroit hero who could sell out all 12,000 seats of Cobo Hall one night, while barely packing a theater down the road in Chicago the next. Before he came alive, Peter Frampton was the former guitarist of Humble Pie who some felt may have made the wrong move by going solo. In each of those cases, the live record gave listeners a new perspective on an act that many felt wasn’t worthy of larger consideration before.

Live At The Old Quarter didn’t break cult-country hero Townes Van Zandt in the same way, but it had a similar effect. It revealed a side of Van Zandt as an artistic persona that hadn’t been translating with his studio albums. The live release was almost certainly a last-ditch effort to jump start a career that never took off in a larger commercial way. But Live At The Old Quarter also cemented his latter-day legacy as one of the most inspired and creative singer-songwriters in country music and still stands as the most accessible way to reach him. It helped prove the point that sometimes the artist can be just as, if not more, interesting than the art they create.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1944, Van Zandt began his music career performing nightly in small clubs and juke joints around Houston. In those darkened, sweaty rooms, he rubbed shoulders with some of the great blues and country performers in the state, all while earning $10 a night playing sets of well-worn covers and the occasional original composition. At some point in the late ’60s, he made friends with fellow fledgling singer Mickey Newbury, who introduced him to acclaimed Nashville producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement, who agreed to take him under his wing.

Van Zandt’s debut album, For The Sake Of The Song, was released in 1968 and was a complete commercial flop. So were his follow-up record Our Mother The Mountain, which came out the next year; an eponymous album the year after that; Delta Momma Blues the year after that one; and then High, Low And In Between and the Late Great Townes Van Zandt, both released in 1972. But despite his prolific talent as a songwriter, Van Zandt wasn’t connecting to a larger audience, even with a proven mass audience for his type of music.

The ’70s are considered one of the golden ages of country music. This was the outlaw era when Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard each brought a measure of harsh, dark reality to their music and their public image. By all accounts, the hard-drinking, fast-living Van Zandt fit into this mold better than anyone this side of David Allen Coe, yet it still wasn’t happening for him.

By 1973, Van Zandt had become embroiled in a bitter dispute with his producer Clement about the status of the master tapes for his just-recorded album Seven Comes Eleven. Clement demanded payment from Van Zandt and his manager Kevin Eggers for the recording sessions for the album; after Eggers sharply refused, Clement threatened to erase the tapes. Perhaps in an effort to try anything to turn around his waning professional prospects, Van Zandt decided to get back to his roots and record a live performance album in one of the small Houston nightclubs where he’d first tried to break into the music business so many years ago.


Across five nights in an 11-foot by 38-foot room in front of just over a hundred paying customers, Townes Van Zandt recorded the seminal work of his career. The almost-hellish setting of the scene was captured rather beautifully by producer Earl Willis in the album’s liner notes. “One could hardly find room for a deep breath, much less get to the restrooms upstairs, or to the ‘toking area’ on the roof,” he wrote. “If you know Houston in July, then you have an idea how hot and humid it was in that room, and leaving the door open did little good, except perhaps to improve the clarity of the sound of passing buses from the nearby bus station.”

Live At The Old Quarter opens with an announcement, presumably from the promoter, about bathrooms, pool tables, and cigarette machines. Van Zandt then takes the stage, greeted by a small but enthusiastic clatter of applause. He starts to introduce the song “Pancho And Lefty,” then stops himself to apologize for the club’s lack of air conditioning before picking out the first few notes on his guitar. In an instant the formerly playful, irreverent atmosphere is cut short by some of the most bewitching chord melodies and affecting vocal lines ever captured on tape.


The song, a tall tale about a Mexican outlaw named Pancho who was fatally betrayed by his supposed friend Lefty, has an almost jaunty quality on the studio version. The rhythm section drives and elevates the track and, along with a splash of reverb on Van Zandt’s vocals, adds a high-gloss finish to what’s supposed to be a sad story. At the Old Quarter with just his dry voice and old guitar, Van Zandt gives the story a level of sparseness and emotional depth of feeling so lacking on the original version. Van Zandt’s tired, boozy voice and taut guitar strings completely embody the actual sense of loss for Pancho’s betrayal and demise.

The entirety of Live At The Old Quarter is styled in this manner. Songs that were buffed a little too hard in the studio are allowed to rust over. “To Live Is To Fly” is another track that carries particular affectation, as is “For The Sake Of The Song” and “If I Needed You.” In the clearest sense, the album works as a precursor to the rash of Unplugged records that came to follow two decades later.


But lest you think Van Zandt a morose, Nick Drake/Elliott Smith-type, the record is peppered with a diverse smattering of lewd and corny jokes as segues from one song to another. Van Zandt is a consummate performer, preternaturally aware of when he needs to lighten the mood and reconnect with the crowd. The jokes themselves aren’t funny in the classic sense, but the crowd eats them up gratefully. They also give the actual listener a certain measure of the man himself, a semblance of personality also missing from Van Zandt’s studio efforts.

Ninety minutes after the record begins, Van Zandt brings it to a close with a performance of “Only Him Or Me.” Over these 26 songs, Van Zandt takes the listener on a journey of love and loss, of good times and friends remembered, of key influences and eclectic genres. In five nights in Houston in the summer of 1973, he somehow managed to encapsulate the most raw and base elements of country, folk, and blues music in a manner that has never been duplicated and was outside of his power to manufacture in a studio.


Live At The Old Quarter wouldn’t actually see release until 1977. In the meantime, Van Zandt didn’t really do all that much besides film an appearance in the outlaw country cult-classic documentary film Heartworn Highways, where he damn near stole the entire show with his performance of “Waitin’ Around To Die” with his friend “Uncle” Seymour Washington.

When the album finally did hit the shelves, it was met with near-universal acclaim from all corners and brought new levels of exposure that Van Zandt had never enjoyed before. In an interview with the Omaha Rainbow just a few months after Live At The Old Quarter came out, he reflected on this newfound opportunity. “Getting that record out on Tomato [Records] meant to me that all the mire that the business end of my career got wedged into was finally evaporating,” he said. “I was out of the chute on a brand new horse, right?” Sadly, Van Zandt’s new horse didn’t make it very far out of the barn.


The next year, Van Zandt followed up Live At The Old Quarter with Flyin’ Shoes, composed mostly of the material held hostage by his old producer Jack Clement that had been thankfully saved at the eleventh hour by his then-manager. It was another commercial failure, and it would be another nine years before Van Zandt released another record.Within that near-decade, he sunk further into the grip of addiction to alcohol, cocaine, and heroin.

In that time and for nearly the rest of his life, Van Zandt maintained a somewhat financially stable living for himself off a steady touring regimen and some rather sizable songwriting royalties; he scored a big check in 1983 when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard turned “Pancho And Lefty” into a hit. But he never made it to the level that a man of his songwriting acumen and outsized personality should have. Van Zandt died at the age of 52 on January 1, 1997, from cardiac arrhythmia after falling down some concrete stairs and fighting a subsequent battle through some heavy chemical-dependency withdrawal symptoms.


Not every artist is capable of being captured in their best light from within the confines of a recording studio while working under the direction of a well-intentioned producer. Some people and some songs need to be felt and experienced in their most raw and elemental fashion. Live At The Old Quarter wasn’t a multi-platinum bestseller, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of power and importance that the live record has to strip away the bullshit and reveal the beauty at the core of great songwriting and indelible personality.