How right he was: Van Zandt died on New Year's Day 1997 having just started demo sessions for an album he envisioned but never completed.
Time has done little to diminish the profiles of certain musicians whose lives were cut too short, like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Buckley. When Van Zandt died, he was 52, so he had almost two decades on the oldest of those cats. Consequently, his life gave him the longest musical career of those four, stretching over 30 years while the others' were mere flashes in the pan, comparatively speaking. It would be hard to contest that Van Zandt's career was the least celebrated of the four.
Yet those who profess any respect for that singer, songwriter and guitarist often place him at the top of the trade. It is only in recent years that Robert Plant has come out as one such advocate. Now that he's about to cover Van Zandt on an album for the second time in three years, Plant opens up about what attracts him to the late musician. "The whole enigma and story of Townes Van Zandt continues to open more and more to me on a daily basis," he says. "His whole vision of compromise by just the daily grind about what you have to do to get through was spectacular, and the sensitivity and also the futility of it. You know, does it really matter? Do we take it all in?"
Waiting Around to Die." Its lyrics:
Sometimes I don't know where this dirty road is taking me.I hope he didn't come up with that on their honeymoon.
Sometimes I can't even see the reason why.
I guess I keep on gamblin', lots of booze and lots of ramblin'.
It's easier than just a-waitin' 'round to die.
In any event, "Waiting Around to Die" was released on his debut album, and he rerecorded that track and two others from the debut for his third album. Throughout his years, his discs were constantly out of print and therefore hard for fans to find and purchase. His fourth album included "Nothin'," which was the first Van Zandt song Plant covered. It appears on the Raising Sand album with Alison Krauss in 2007, and it became a highlight of their concert tour the following year.
During one stop on that tour, Plant met the widowed third wife of Townes Van Zandt, Jeanene. It was then that she gave Plant something very special. She recently filled me in on the jaw-dropping back story. She says:
I remember having lunch with Townes in a neighborhood Chinese restaurant around 1990 when an old Japanese folk song come over the intercom and Townes' eyes lit up. "That's it!" he said. "I've had this idea for a song in my head, but I'm having trouble finding the melody for it." The melody we were listening to had triggered something for him.It's notable that with the entire Van Zandt catalog available to him, this would be the one song Plant would put his efforts toward: an unreleased, unfinished demo he describes as "very mournful and very dirge-like." Townes Van Zandt, during his lifetime, released 10 studio albums. (He also had six live albums over the same time, including the 1993 disc Roadsongs, which is a set of cover songs including four by Lightnin' Hopkins. One of them is the song "Hello Central," which influences Plant on his Band of Joy track "Central Two-O-Nine.") But perhaps the one quality of "Harm's Swift Way" that most attracted Plant to covering it is its theme. He says, "The lyric is dumbfounding. It just wipes you out completely."
I asked about the song, and he said the title was "Harm's Swift Way" but that it would take a while to write because, he said, "I have to live it first." He insisted it would be "a good one." Townes was very secretive with his writing and didn't like to share until he thought a song was finished. It didn't make it on to his 1994 album No Deeper Blue, so it wasn't ready then. In 1996, Townes was saying, "I've got one more record in me." He started organizing what material he had on many scraps of paper together into a notebook.
Then he got a call from [Sonic Youth drummer] Steve Shelley asking him if he would be interested in doing an album with Steve producing with his underground band Two Dollar Guitar for Geffen Records. Townes was indeed interested and excited at the prospect of working with these younger musicians, so he went to work on his songs in earnest. Around September 1996, he went into Jack Clement's studio with Steve to lay down tracks for a demo for Geffen including "Harm's Swift Way." They agreed to do the record, and the sessions were scheduled for the end of December.
A week before the sessions, Townes fell and hurt his hip. He refused to get medical help and said he just needed to rest it and ordered a wheelchair to stay off of it. Getting Townes to go to the doctor was not an easy task because when he went, they always wanted to put him in dry-out, and the last time it almost killed him. He just said, "I'm not going, I've got one record left in me and I gotta get it down."
When it was time to go to Memphis to record he was not in good shape and still in the wheelchair, and I asked him to postpone the sessions and please go to the doctor, but he wouldn't hear it. His road manager drove him to Memphis, where they tried to get the songs down but Townes was in too bad a shape to get anything accomplished. Steve called me and said he was going to go to the hotel and tell Townes that they would have to try again when Townes felt better.
When Townes got home, I was finally able to talk him into going to the hospital. There, we discovered that his hip was broken. That's how badly he wanted to get that record done; he had lived with the pain for eight days! He made me promise that they would fix the hip and let him go home -- no alcohol treatment! I promised, and the surgeon agreed. We got him home the next day, and he seemed fine. Five hours later, he died of a massive, sudden heart attack.
When I called Steve to tell him Townes was gone, he said he would send me what they got down but that he didn't think there was anything there. But when the recordings arrived, the demo he recorded at Jack's was with it, and the best thing on it was "Harm's Swift Way."
When Robert and Alison were touring in support of Raising Sand, they came to Nashville and I got a backstage pass to meet them. I brought gift bags full of Townes' stuff for them, and on the top of the pile I put a copy of "Harm's Swift Way" and burned onto the disc "Townes' Last Song." When the family met Robert, he was talking about "Nothin'" and the way he had performed it that night. I said, "Oh Robert, we are just so happy you did it." He says, "I bet!" Then I told him about "Harm's Swift Way." He recorded it with Alison on a follow-up album, but the project fell apart. Then he recorded it again for Band of Joy.
Plant was beaten twice by others releasing their versions of "Harm's Swift Way."
- The first came from Paul K. and the Prayers, on their 1999 album Saratoga for the Alias record label. Jeanene Van Zandt confirms Paul K. was a close friend of her husband's.
- The second released version of "Harm's Swift Way" came earlier this year from David Broza on his album for the S-Curve label, Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt. Gary Graff explains in a piece for Billboard published last December that although Van Zandt met Broza only once, he bequeathed to him one shoebox full of lyrics that hadn't been fleshed out into music for public consumption. Broza said, "I only hope I've done those lyrics justice, turning that poetry into song as Townes would've liked."
In an interview published last month by the Arkansas Times blog Rock Candy, Plant says the new arrangement has changed the feel. However, he denies that it's "happy-ed up" -- his words, not mine. "It’s not a very happy tune in its original form. And basically it’s not happy-ed up now, but at least it’s got a driving beat and sounds like it just dropped off Sweetheart of the Rodeo," referencing the 1968 country album by the Byrds.