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its fitting that Townes Van Zandt never fully broke into the big time. Had he made
it as big as Johnny Cash, there might be some splashy, gin-soaked Oscar-bait biopic
starring Justin Timberlake hitting theaters this season, rather than Margaret Browns
affecting, nicely scaled documentary. Cash himself, had he lived to see his own story
brought to the silver screen with such fitful torpor in Walk the Line, might
well have wished for less crossover success. Be
Here to Love Me is small enough to please the cultists who adore Van Zandt as one of
the greatest songwriters of all timeSteve Earle asserts that hed stand
on Bob Dylans coffee table in his cowboy boots to declare him the best
everwhile its subject is fascinating enough to warrant any expanded fan-base.
Even among the major figures in Outlaw Country, a genre where hard living and easy dying are championed as virtues, Van Zandt is spoken of in a heros whisper. Browns talking heads, which include the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Earle, repeatedly call him a "songwriters songwriter," and country legend Guy Clark prefaces his testimony with a shot of tequila in tribute to his old friend. One can imagine Townes admiring the gesture.
As music casualties go, Van Zandt was a muted one. His death (in 1997, at the age of 53) seems both a foregone conclusion and a dark fate he managed to avoid for a while. Never far from substances at any point in his life, they were as much a part of him as was his songwriting genius. Brown weaves together audio footage and taped interviews that show a man whose proximity to death had calcified into a sharp blade of self-deprecating wit. In 16mm footage shot in the 70s, Townes first shows up triple-fisting Coke, bourbon and a rifle. He later rattles off a litany of near-death experiences, mostly involving overdosing on airplane glue, including one instance where he actually lay dead for an hour and a half before doctors revived him. But the same harrowing experiences he sought in lifehe once dropped himself from a fourth story balcony to know what it felt like to lose controlalso inspired the haunting lyrics that drive his music.
Like many of the best hard travelers, Van Zandts restlessness was borne of rejected entitlement. The scion of a wealthy
In an interview, Van Zandt explains walking away from his first marriagehe would have two morein favor of the rambling lifestyle. I realized I could do it, but itd take blowing everything else off. Browns documentary lays the audio material over reams of lush b-roll and flare ends. The effect somehow manages to capture the disconnect between the songwriter and the public. Fame and monetary rewards eluded him while he was alive, until Willie Nelson and Merle Haggards cover of Pancho and Lefty set him for life. Whether appearing on cheesy country music variety shows or in goofy home movies, Van Zandt always comes off as awkwardly obliging. Its as if he sensed a day when such footage would be necessary to his legacy. His old friend Guy Clark gets the last laugh at Townes funeral, quipping that he booked this gig thirty-seven years ago. Be Here to Love Me proves it was all for the sake of the song.
- Jesse Paddock