“That’s it up there!” says an old college friend of country legend Townes Van Zandt in Margaret Brown’s haunting new documentary film, Be Here to Love Me, coming to the Brattle Theatre on December 9th. And he points up to the unassuming third-story balcony from which Van Zandt threw himself backwards during a party “just to see what it felt like.”
And then there is first wife Fran Petters’ story about how, when he was released from the mental hospital to which his parents had him committed for electro-shock treatment, he shut himself up in the walk-in closet he claimed as his music room and set about writing songs. Expecting her new husband to emerge with some syrupy paean to her eternal beauty, Petters was somewhat taken aback when, instead, he played her “Waiting Around to Die.”
Brown’s film by no means shies away from all the booze, drugs, and women that Van Zandt’s subsequent life of wandering minstrelsy encompassed. It is certainly not your typical, officially-approved gruel of concert footage and testaments to his genius. But nor does it amount to the kind of voyeuristic chronicle of rock and roll dissolution favored by late-night cable TV. Instead, Brown makes a laudable attempt to capture Van Zandt’s character in all its multi-dimensional complexity, to which end she includes as many snatches of home movies and recorded casual conversation as she does of archived TV interviews. Many of these clips, incidentally, illustrate Van Zandt’s vigorous sense of humor; his drunken plan to write a song with lyrics consisting entirely of the names of birds raised a particularly loud laugh at the film’s recent showing at the London Film Festival.
Yet it is the film’s emotional intensity that really grips the viewer. Brown was lucky enough to secure access to just about everyone in the Van Zandt inner circle, including all three of his wives, all three of his children, and a string of famous friends and admirers including Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, and Guy Clark. Much of their testimony is deeply affecting as well as thought-provoking, insistently raising the question of whether Van Zandt was right to live his life, as one of his lyrics puts it, for the sake of the song.
In her question-and-answer session in London, Brown confessed that she wasn’t sure about the answer to that question. For my part, I certainly don’t question his priorities when I look for a CD to play on a rainy autumn afternoon such as this. I would even hesitate to deny Steve Earle’s famous assertion that “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!”
Nevertheless, watching Van Zandt’s teenage son vainly fighting to hold back the tears because he and his eight-year-old sister didn’t get the chance to know their father better before his premature, alcohol-ridden death in 1997, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe he should have left his guitar in the closet and been there to love them a little more.