Monday, October 2, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #189 - Townes Van Zandt – Flyin’ Shoes (Tomato, 1978)

My introduction to Townes Van Zandt came in 1998 when I first saw the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. Lebowski’s incredible soundtrack featured Townes’ cover of the Rolling Stones hit “Dead Flowers” over the end credits. It’s the only example of one of my favorite songs being covered infinitely better than the original. The song was a revelation of sorts for a teenaged me. At the time, I was mostly into metal and abrasive noise rock. Townes showed me that folk music could be just as punk rock as, say, Black Flag or Minor Threat. Townes dealt with subject matter that I related to, such as addiction and loss, in such a brutal and intense way that it is often hard to listen to without becoming emotional. I immediately bought as many of his records as I could get my hands on. One of my favorites, and one that in my opinion often gets overlooked, is his 1978 studio album Flyin’ Shoes.

Much of Flyin’ Shoes’ material was actually recorded in 1973 for 7 Come 11, the record that was supposed to be the follow-up to The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. This record was shelved, however, due to a financial dispute between the head of Townes’ label, Poppy Records and the producer of the album. This fact, coupled with the folding of Poppy Records that same year caused Townes to detach from the music industry, withdrawing further and further into drugs and alcohol. When Flyin’ Shoes did come out, it was Townes’ first offering of new original material in five years, and due to continued struggles with his addiction it would be another nine years after that before he would release another one.

Many would say that Flyin’ Shoes suffers from overproduction and studio trickery. I don’t disagree. It definitely isn’t his best sounding album and tends to lean more toward the country & western side of his talents than the folk music side. But what it lacks in rawness it more than makes up for in songwriting. Townes pens some of his cleverest lyrics in such songs as the ambiguously funny “Snake Song,” or the album’s opener, “Loretta,” an ode to a “barroom girl” whom we have all probably met at some point. Flyin’ Shoes also offers plenty of Townes’ trademark melancholy on songs like the despairing love song “When She Don’t Need Me” or the title track.

Besides his penchant for brilliant lyrics, Townes also has a knack for creating some of the most beautiful melodies ever recorded. “No Place to Fall” and “Dollar Bill Blues for instance are among the best songs he’s ever recorded with melodies that stay with you. Personally I think the record only really has one weak spot and that is his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” which really isn’t bad so much as it is just kind of unnecessary and sort of disrupts the natural flow of the record. But again, this is a personal and very minor gripe, barely noticeable when listening to the record as a whole.

In 2007, I was on tour with my band at the time and we played a show in Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is home to Fat Possum Records, who we were playing a showcase for that night. They had just recently released a slew of Townes Van Zandt reissues and we got paid for the show in promo copies. After our show we were offered a place to stay by some locals who were in attendance. They lived in this development where there was a common courtyard-type area where all the neighbors would sit around in lawn chairs and drink. We partied there well into the morning and at a certain point I got up and went into someone’s house and crashed on the couch. I was sleeping maybe 40 minutes when I was awakened by Flyin’ Shoes being blasted at the loudest volume I’ve ever heard a stereo be capable of. Our hosts had found our “payment” for that night’s show. I tell this story not only because it’s amusing but also to illustrate that even at an unacceptable volume during an aggressive hangover Flyin’ Shoes got me back up and partying again.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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