Monday, March 30 2015
Townes Van Zandt – “Second Lovers Song” from A Gentle Evening with Townes Van Zandt (2002 Dualtone)


If you want, go ahead and scroll to the bottom and let the dulcet tones of this Townes Van Zandt song wash over you, reminding you of everything you love and appreciate about Leonard Cohen and his ilk. While you’re doing that, I’ll explain that this live album was recorded in late 1969 for a label called Poppy Records. As sometimes happens with small labels, however, Poppy became an investment property for larger labels, and the tape of this show was lost along the way, for a time.

Thankfully, it wasn’t lost forever, because human culture is better with Townes van Zandt in it, and so it stands to reason that more Townes is, well, more better. Did you know that Frank Turner has a TVZ tattoo on his wrist? My favorite is this Steve Earle quote:

Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.

That’s pretty good. For my part, I’ll offer that “Pancho and Lefty,” a song we’re not talking about today but which I sang to my son many many nights at bedtime, is one of America’s great songs.

“Second Lover’s Song” is, as you may have gleaned from my comments above and from the album title, rather gentle (there’s another version on Our Mother the Mountain that’s far more produced and, if I may, schmaltzy). That gentleness is actually fitting given the lyrics, which tell a tale of a lover who is more interested in the whole of his lover than in having been the first to get there. “I don’t want tears from you,” he reassures, asking, “Do you think I’d love you more / if you stood pure and clean / of those you’d known before?” 

Townes van Zandt is a tragic figure to be sure, a man who battled addiction, finally succumbing to it at the age of 52. In other words, he was taken from us much too young, which is a thing we can only say because of how much he gave to us. Even the phrase “he battled addiction” is perhaps unfair. Certainly it was a battle, and his death the ultimate casualty, but in the midst of that struggle and all that we can and can’t understand about it, he wove together some of the greatest stories and songs that we can point to. Many of us, sober, may wish we had a fraction of as much to offer.

And I don’t know how it works, nor do I have a poignant takeaway. Is it the burden of genius that leads one towards destruction? The wood that burns brightly and too fast? Is addiction comorbid with that kind of genius, both written side by side in the genetic code? As I say, I don’t know, and think that perhaps any attempt to solve it is to cheapen the complexities of Townes van Zandt and his contribution to the culture.

It’s worth reading the Wikipedia entry about him, particularly the section entitled “Addiction.” It’s harrowing. But it’s also worth sitting in a cafe, with “Second Lovers Song” on repeat in your headphones, mulling over the tender, tender lyrics, and trying to reconcile it all.


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