Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.

For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.

Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.

CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.

I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.

Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):

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longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?

CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.

longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.

CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.

longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!

CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.

longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?old quarter

CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.

longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?

CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.

longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.

CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.

longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??

CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.

CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.townes 3

longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!

CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.

longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.

CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.

longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?

CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.

longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.

Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!

(Sound of clinking glasses).

 

(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Fleetwood Mac: The Forgotten Years (Re-Post)

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NOTE: I just learned Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac died Friday, at age 68.  Kirwan was an important member of the band before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined in late 1974.  He played a luscious vibrato guitar, and more importantly, wrote some of the band’s best songs.  Sadly, he suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and left the band in 1972.  Until he died Friday, he seemed to be a forgotten man.  Longitudes loves good songwriters like Kirwan (they’re in short supply these days).  So, I’m re-posting this 2014 essay about the Mac.  Thanks for your beautiful songs, Danny.

***

On a recent Sunday while drinking my coffee, I turned the TV to the long-running television program, “CBS Sunday Morning,” hosted by Charles Osgood. This enjoyable show always has at least one segment devoted to popular culture. Past shows have included interviews with Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. This particular show included a puff piece on the pop-rock band Fleetwood Mac. The rationale was drummer Mick Fleetwood’s recent (and 2nd) autobiography, which coincides with the band’s 61st (or maybe 62nd) reunion tour.

Full disclosure here: Fleetwood Mac isn’t one of my favorite bands. Their songs are tuneful, albeit in an effete sort of way. But “the Mac’s” unthreatening, southern California brand of rock was perfect ear sweetener for the somnolent mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, and there’s still nostalgia for that stuff amongst baby boomers. So I wasn’t too surprised to see them profiled on TV alongside segments devoted to the wedding of George Clooney and “The Timeless Allure of Swing Dancing.”

What really stuck in my craw, though, was the narrator using a sweeping statement, during a buildup to the gilded Buckingham-Nicks years, that “other band members came and went.” There was no mention of founder Peter Green. No mention of Danny KirwanJeremy Spencer, and Bob Welch… forget it. Seven different band members, eight years, and nine albums brushed aside.

So, once again, I feel the need to set the record straight. Nothing against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. But there was a band called Fleetwood Mac that existed long before those two joined in 1974 to help catapult them to superstardom. They were English. They had a curious and colorful biography, and they were very talented.

 ***

Fleetwood Mac sprouted in 1967 from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an English blues band that featured virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton. Clapton was, and is, one of the most formidable blues guitarists in history. When Clapton quit the Bluesbreakers to form the legendary Cream, his place was taken by a guy named Peter Green. Not only did Green have a great first name, he also had the challenge of replacing a guitar god. Most rock critics would agree that he more than met the challenge. John Mayall felt so, too, and after only one album with Green, he encouraged Green to “go thither into the world” and form his own band.

Green did just that. Before long he selected bass player John McVie (also from the Bluesbreakers) and a drummer named Mick Fleetwood, whom he knew from two earlier bands. For added punch, he added Elmore James-influenced slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer. Being a humble guy, leader Green named the band after his rhythm section… neither of whom were songwriters!

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

This early version of Fleetwood Mac released three studio albums: FLEETWOOD MAC, MR. WONDERFUL, and the double album THEN PLAY ON. At this juncture their music emphasized blues-based rock, and they had a reputation for being a dynamic live act. Green was a powerful guitarist and had a distinctive guttural voice that perfectly complemented his blistering guitar licks. He was also a skilled songwriter, going from the sublime (“Man of the World” and “Albatross)” to the earthy [“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)”] and “Oh Well”) to the mysterious (“Black Magic Woman,” which was covered by West Coast band Santana and became their signature song). Jeremy Spencer was also notable. He often closed the band’s shows by doing old rock ‘n’ roll numbers and mimicking people like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The band was a regular attraction at 60s-era ballrooms like the Shrine Auditorium, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, and Boston Tea Party.

Then the first tragedy occurred. Like so many creative artists from that era, Green began experimenting with LSD. And like Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) before him, he became a casualty of the drug. He began wearing long robes on stage and drifting off into endless guitar solos. Although the undisputed leader of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green had to leave the band he had founded. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and entered a mental hospital. In the late 1970s, there was a rumor he was working as a gravedigger.

Some people seem to pull an ace out of their sleeve just when it’s needed. Fleetwood Mac’s ace was a guitarist named Danny Kirwan, whom Green had enlisted before the THEN PLAY ON album. Although Kirwan wasn’t the singer or instrumentalist that Green was, he was (at least to these ears) the best songwriter the band ever had. Kirwan guided the band through the next three records: KILN HOUSE, FUTURE GAMES, and BARE TREES.

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

Kirwan played a unique vibrato guitar and was responsible for some of the group’s most melodic songs, gorgeous gems like “Dragonfly,” “Jewel-Eyed Judy,” “Earl Grey,” “Woman of a Thousand Years,” “Bare Trees,” “Sunny Side of Heaven,” “Dust,” and others. For support, Kirwan leaned on John McVie’s wife, Christine Perfect McVie, who’d sung for the blues band Chicken Shack and joined the Mac during the KILN HOUSE sessions (and who created the striking artwork for that album sleeve). One of her songs, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from the BARE TREES sessions, became a staple of the band’s repertoire.

Kirwan, however, was always a little unstable. He was a heavy drinker and frequently succumbed to major mood swings. He was fired in 1973 after one particularly violent outburst. He later made three solo albums, the first two of which are very good (though not many people have heard them…they’re available for listening on YouTube, including the lovely “Cascades“).

Spencer, too, had quit in 1971 during a tour. While in Los Angeles, he’d gone out to buy a magazine, then disappeared for several days. The group later discovered he’d met a stranger on the street corner, who’d convinced him to renounce his former life and convert to a religious cult known as the Children of God.

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Fleetwood Mac circa 1972. From left to right, John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood

Fleetwood Mac’s seventh and eighth studio albums were PENGUIN and MYSTERY TO ME. They were a bit of a letdown after the creative Green and Kirwan years, but the latter LP had at least one great song in “Hypnotized,” which became a favorite on American FM radio. This tune was written and sung by Bob Welch, an unknown Californian who’d joined the Mac just after KILN HOUSE. Welch wasn’t on a songwriting par with Kirwan, but he helped in three ways: he provided vocal and writing support; he eased them into the American market with radio-friendly material like “Sentimental Lady” (which Welch later re-recorded as a solo artist, becoming a Top 10 hit); and – most significantly – he convinced them to move their offices from London to Los Angeles.

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BARE TREES, one of Fleetwood Mac’s best records

Welch was the last significant member to join Fleetwood Mac, until Nicks and Buckingham in ’74. He quit the band after the ninth album, HEROES ARE HARD TO FIND, when he became tired of touring, as well as fighting a legal battle over ownership of the band’s name (in another strange twist in the band’s history, Mick Fleetwood and band manager Clifford Davies, to fulfill a contract obligation, sent out a fake Fleetwood Mac on tour in 1974; Fleetwood later claimed he knew nothing about the ruse. This fake band later changed their name to Stretch and had a No. 16 hit with “Why Did You Do It?” which was aimed at Fleetwood).

In late ’74, Fleetwood made the acquaintance of American Lindsay Buckingham, who’d recorded an album with his then-girlfriend, Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks. He asked Buckingham to join the band to replace Welch. Buckingham agreed, but only if he could bring along Nicks. Fleetwood nodded “Yes,” and Fleetwood Mac’s long mystery train finally rolled toward that nebulous place where English blues musicians, Wall Street mercantilists, and inaugurated U.S. presidents get together to harmonize.

 ***

Today, founding member Peter Green keeps a low profile. But as late as 2010, he was doing short tours with his own band. In its list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine placed him at No. 38. Mojo Magazine ranked him No. 3.

Jeremy Spencer is still associated with the Children of God (now called Family International). He’s lived all over the world, has jammed privately with both Fleetwood and John McVie, and in 2009 appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Bob Welch took his own life in 2012. His widow said he was in intense pain after recently undergoing unsuccessful spinal surgery. She thinks his pain medication may have also contributed to his suicide. In 1998, Welch was not included with other band members for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). He’d earlier filed a lawsuit against the band for underpayment of royalties, and he believed that Fleetwood and the McVie’s convinced the hall to blackball him.

Not much is known about Danny Kirwan. According to Wikipedia, his mental health declined after leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1973 (he was supposedly homeless for a while in the ‘80s and ‘90s). Unlike Welch, Kirwan was inducted into the RnRHoF with other members.  But he didn’t show up at the ceremony. John McVie was quoted as saying that a Fleetwood Mac reunion with Green and Spencer is a possibility, “but I don’t think there’s much chance of Danny doing it. Bless his heart.”

 

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Remembering Biff

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I left the town where I grew up several decades ago.  But last week I visited my mom, who lives in a retirement village there, and I decided to have an early Sunday morning jog through one of our old neighborhoods.  If you’ve ever re-visited a place from your childhood after a long absence, especially if little has changed, you know what a strange and exhilarating experience it can be.  Memories trickle in like dappled sunlight: the park where my dad taught me how to ice skate; the hill where my bike skidded on gravel and sent me tumbling to the pavement.  And you wonder if the houses might contain familiar faces.

As I approached our old house, I passed by a well-kept, single-level, yellow house with two front doors.  This was where Biff Schlossman had lived.  Biff was one of my childhood friends.  He was the only kid who was in all my classes from kindergarten through 4th grade (when we moved out of the neighborhood).  He was also in my Cub Scout den, and I’m sure we exchanged a couple birthday parties.  Physically, he was very striking, with brown skin and hair as black as night.

I’d passed by Biff’s house maybe a half-dozen times since we moved away in the late ‘60s, with only a glancing thought about him.  This time – with the tang of March chill on my skin, fresh air in my lungs, and a sudden feeling of nostalgia – I whispered to myself “I wonder whatever happened to old Biff.”  He was pretty bright, so I figured he’d joined the professional ranks as a doctor, lawyer, or successful businessman.  Thanks to the miracle of cyberspace (and to Biff’s unique name), I made a mental note to find out.

When I later plugged his name in the search engine, I discovered a few things.  One was that a very successful novelist had borrowed Biff’s name for the main character in one of his books.  We both knew Biff from grammar school, but neither of us knew the other (yes, it’s a small world).

The other thing I learned was that Biff wasn’t a surgeon, defense attorney, or bank president.  In fact, he’d apparently shunned the standard American Dream to pursue his own dream.  He’d become a classic back-to-nature hippie troubadour.  He’d moved to the mountains of Montana to ski, hike, and sing and play guitar in local bars and ski lodges.  And in the process he made a lot of friends, and became sort of a local legend.  It didn’t surprise me.  My biggest memories of Biff (besides his Indian looks) are his sparkling eyes, impish smile, and soft-spoken manner.

Sadly, I also learned that Biff died unexpectedly at a young age.  Looking into the past can have its sorrows.

I wish I’d have hooked up with Biff long ago.  I think we would have clicked even beyond childhood, as we shared a certain idealism and a lot of the same interests.  Sometime during our raucous post-pubescent years, we separately kindled a passionate appreciation of music.  And after college, I made my own trip out West, to backpack in the Cascades, and I drove right past where Biff may have been strumming guitar.  If I’d have turned left at Bozeman – the “road not taken” – who knows?  I didn’t have his musical talent or performing confidence.  But if not pulling up a stool with him onstage, maybe I could’ve tuned his guitar or offered a lyric or two.

Two memories stand out about Biff.  Both of them coincide with pivotal moments as I grew up.  If Biff were around now, I’d share both memories with him.  The first occurred in kindergarten.  Biff was Jewish, and I remember him talking about his faith during Show-and-Tell.  He brought in matzo crackers to share with the class.  Even though they were unsalted and unlike our regular diet of sugared cookies, we all liked them.  More importantly, Biff’s presentation was my first awareness that people could have differences beyond the physical.  And that this was a good thing.  It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn time and again.

The other memory was when we were nine and attended summer camp together.  Our moms signed us up to go as buddies and cabin bunkmates for two one-week stints.  It was the first time either of us had been away from home for longer than a night.  I was pretty homesick, but Biff, being more outgoing and adventurous, made friends with another kid in our cabin.  This kid (I’ll call him Eddie) was maybe a year older, from the rougher side of town, and he had a swagger.  I didn’t like Eddie, but he liked Biff, and they kind of teamed up.  Of course, my homesickness was even worse after this.  But I distinctly remember Biff approaching me later in the week and saying “Pete, I don’t think Eddie likes me anymore, he hasn’t talked to me in a while.”  Maybe it’s rose-colored glasses.  But this may have been his way of trying to make me feel better.

I didn’t return for that second week of camp.  I was just too homesick.  In hindsight, I wish I’d have forced myself, because my copout probably started a pattern of avoidance.   But Biff did return.  I’ve always wondered how he fared.  Our family moved only a few months later, so I never found out.  For all I know, those wooded hills of north-central Ohio helped inspire Biff’s later migration to Big Sky country.

I never saw Biff again, either.  But friends from youth have a way of searing themselves into your consciousness.  Maybe because, when we’re kids, we’re not aware of the concept of time.  When we’re kids, neither the past nor the future are relevant.  We haven’t yet learned how to reflect on things, good or bad.  And we don’t worry about what’s in front of us.  We only live in the present.  For most of us, it’s just a brief period in our lives.  But it’s where you can find true happiness.

Here’s to you, Biff.

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