Music biographies too often call to mind Elvis Costello’s “dancing about architecture” aphorism. In the case of 'My Years with Townes Van Zandt', consider the likely outcome if a literary agent wrote and recorded an album about the career of his star author.
There is, mercifully, no trend for recounting the exploits of novelists in song and perhaps the same caution should be applied to writing about musicians – especially ones as gifted and troubled as Townes Van Zandt, the singer-songwriter extraordinaire who died in 1997 at age 52, leaving behind a timeless body of work that mingles country, folk and blues.

Harold Eggers, who co-authored 'My Years…' with writer, journalist and ethnomusicologist L.E. McCollough, was Van Zandt’s manager then business partner for twenty years so he has plenty of stories. Eggers’ (perhaps unconscious) difficulty is that he can’t settle on how to tell them.

The book’s personality starts to split right at its opening line, which claims: “This is one of the scariest books you’ll ever read.”

Its “scariness” amounts to tales of drugs, guns, and booze. Which were undoubtedly traumatic for those involved but, on the page, are heartbreaking rather than frightening.

'My Years…' makes a few things clear: Townes Van Zandt was a luminous, sensitive, gifted artist – as songs like 'Pancho & Lefty', 'If I Needed You' and 'Tecumsah Valley' remind us. He was also a sensitive, wounded human being who suffered from mental illness and the consequences of subsequent self-medication.

He was unpredictable and self-destructive in ways that are routinely mythologised as “rock’n’roll”, but the idea that self-harm – whether by violence, substances or bad decisions – is sexy or enviable is always uncomfortable. Here, it is utterly unpalatable.

Eggers gives tantalising glimpses of Van Zandt’s life but never digs deep, resulting in a biographical surface-skim. We learn he came from a well-to-do Texas family and that, as a teenager, his parents subjected him to electroshock therapy. This had lifelong effects, including erasing many of Van Zandt’s early memories, but Eggers doesn’t delve into its implications.

As is often the case with music biographies, 'My Years…' is long on anecdote and short on analysis. Critical life events, such as marriages, divorces, and children, are mentioned in passing, without much attempt to convey how Van Zandt felt, or was influenced by them. This leaves a hollow at the heart of the story. How can you better-understand an artist when the events that gave his life emotional texture are flattened into a few lines?

Eggers, seeming to realise he’s flirting with superficiality, fills in blanks by talking about his own life. This doesn’t illuminate Van Zandt, and the chopping between two stories is indecisive. The author might have done better to leave Townes out of the title and write a straightforward autobiography.

There are also points where Eggers holds back. His brother, Kevin Eggers, owned Tomato Records, the home of Van Zandt’s early work. In 1978, at the end of a tour, Kevin dropped the singer.

“For Townes, losing the affiliation with Tomato was like a teenager being kicked out of the family home. He sank into a deep despair and shrank into himself,” Eggers writes. Then, with curious coolness: “As for me, just waiting ‘round wasn’t my style. I got busy… and began charting a new course.”

No explanation of why Kevin dropped Van Zandt, nor reflection, nor – apparently – empathy. It’s an odd, jarring note in a book that otherwise, if nothing else, expresses Harold Eggers’ affection and respect for the singer.

Uneven as it is, 'My Years…' does one thing brilliantly: it makes you want to listen to Townes Van Zandt. Start with his classic (not-posthumous) album 'The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt' and 'Sky Blue', a new collection that includes covers and original material. There, in the music, you can still encounter Townes in all his sweetness, sorrow and strength.








Related Links:

http://townesvanzandt.com/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Townes_Van_Zandt


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