City Poet, Country Poet
by Mark Frohman
Originally posted Dec 7, 2007 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog
While most of the country is stumbling over each other, filling shopping bags with the latest accessories to 21st century life, we at Arthur headquarters are leisurely loading up the annual time capsule in an effort to preserve some evidence of civilization’s existence for future generations. The capsule will be launched into orbit from an undisclosed location in the high desert at exactly 11:59 pm on December 31st and is scheduled to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, should it still exist, in 2095.
Filling the frontal lobe of the Soviet-designed, cigar-shaped capsule (Ebay score circa Y2K), are two of this past year’s standout reissue programs: the first three Leonard Cohen albums (Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room, Songs Of Love And Hate) and the first three Townes Van Zandt records (For The Sake Of The Song, Our Mother The Mountain, Townes Van Zandt–all available from Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records).
It was a good year to be reminded of the power of song. These collections celebrate two of this country’s finest lyrical poets; the fact that one of them is Canadian only adds to our pride. Both men have been loved and loathed, revered and scorned for their moody evocations of wandering desire, sparse and haunting arrangements, and, to some uptight ears, flat and unmusical singing voices.
While similarities between the lives of Cohen and Van Zandt also abound–the old world family money and education, the brooding depression, the mythical lifestyle of earthly excesses (Cohen: women and wine, Van Zandt: wine and women, in that order)–Cohen was city poet to Van Zandt’s country poet. Cohen sings his songs of self from the perspective of an Old Testament Prophet transplanted in Greenwich Village. You don’t listen to his songs, you enter them, through a haze of incense and cigarettes, at 3 a.m., through an unmarked door in whatever bohemian neighborhood you temporarily call home. Van Zandt may have set out for the city but never quite made it there, distracted along the way by his cowboy fantasies, tumultuous romances, and the winding backroads that lead to the isolated cabin in Tennessee where he spent much of the ’70s. As he sings on “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” from both For The Sake Of The Song and Townes Van Zandt, “There’s no prettier sight than looking back at the town you left behind.”
While a finely penned lyric doesn’t seem to be first priority among today’s musical acts, in the late ’60s it must have mattered. Those big 12″ x 12″ lyric sheets were meant to be read and contemplated, preferably by candlelight while huddled around your turntable.
Recorded roughly during the same years (’67-’70) and locations (Los Angeles and Nashville), Cohen’s and Van Zandt’s first three records are each masterpieces of songwriting, modulating from simple love ballads to moral fables to surrealist (some might suggest psychedelic) visions in ways that speak in the particular vernacular of their chosen personas. The songs on these records carve out portraits of what in less cynical times was referred to as the Human Condition. Love, lust, death, demons, and loneliness wage battle among delicate arrangements of mostly acoustic instruments. The voices are deep and grounded, almost unexpressive narrators that belie the turbulent emotions boiling beneath the surface. The production treatment given to these albums is also key to their magical appeal. For both artists, the voice is always front and center, articulated, and clear, but various production anomalies make their albums less of the usual “folk singer” fare and closer to the realm of the more artistically minded “rock” album.
Cohen’s voice tends to embody both a whisper and a growl, inhabiting a rumbling frequency that seems to advance and recede from some dark reverberant tunnel. It is well known that Cohen fought to keep the arrangements minimal and drum-free on these early recordings but as we all know, the devil is in the details. The ghostly appearance of accompaniment by calliope, jew’s harp, strings, spaghetti western guitar, flutes, accordion, a children’s choir, flugel horn, and occasional percussion transport his records beyond genre and make them oddly timeless.
There is a little more variety as well as controversy in the Van Zandt catalog concerning the production that surrounds Townes’ polite East Texas drawl. Unlike Cohen, Van Zandt took a more Laissez-faire approach to the recording studio, thinking that if the songs were good enough they could withstand any producer’s meddling. His first record, For The Sake Of The Song, is almost universally criticized as overproduced, to the point that producer Cowboy Jack Clement has reportedly since apologized. The galloping percussion, droning recorders, wall-of-sound backing vocals, and waltzing harpsichord, all wrapped in a slushy reverb, certainly taint the album with a feeling of Hollywood cowboy kitsch that was probably not what Townes had in mind for 1967. At this distance though, its baroque stylings sound almost avant garde and it’s interesting to hear the energetic arrangements contrast downbeat tracks like “Waitin’ Around To Die.” By the time we get to the third album Townes Van Zandt, his re-recording of this track as well as several others from the first album, has settled into the sparse and pristine production style that would characterize most of the rest of his recordings, but flourishes of sporadic drums and the recurring harpisichord and recorder still sneak in on a few tracks. Our Mother The Mountain was the genre-defying transitional work between the two, and a shamefully underrated monument of late ‘60s musical history, with subtle atmospheric textures and gorgeous string arrangements that elegantly counterpoint Townes’ fever dream lyrics.
If the English language is eventually phased out with future generations in favor of a communication method based entirely on ringtones, the more curious members of this future society will at least be able to ponder the mysterious portraits that adorn the jackets and sleeves of these records. “Gods?,” they’ll wonder at the iconoclastic figures staring back at them. We are fortunate to still know the truth: not gods, but simply men with something to say.
Mark Frohman is Art Director of Arthur Magazine and shares Townes Van Zandt’s hometown of Houston, Texas.