illustration by Michael Hay

“I’d like to write some songs so good nobody understands them—including me,” an older, weathered Townes Van Zandt says in an interview from Be Here to Love Me. It’s the kind of cryptic phrase emblematic of Van Zandt’s puzzling career as a whole, and seems to represent what the documentary is striving for. Released in 2004, Be Here to Love Me chronicles Van Zandt’s career: that of a lowly Texas hero who abandons a life of wealth to play songs in old music halls and dive bars. “[music] takes blowing everything off, money, family, happiness,” Van Zandt says at one point in the movie.

Describing the film, directed by the great documentary filmmaker Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths, The Great Invisible), poses quite a challenge. In one sense it’s a history: recollections of a man and his life presented through interviews and archival footage. Yet Be Here to Love Me, with its slow, languid pace, lacks any sort of agenda, or even argument. To say it attempts to show how sad Van Zandt’s life was would be too reductive. But to try to come up with grand answers to the mysteries of his life, based on the footage we’re shown, would almost be an act of vanity. We’d be seeking access to a soul that even those closest to him never had.

Brown’s film jumps around chronologically with no clear purpose, chronicling images, words, memories, and songs that are both perplexing and contradictory. Van Zandt lived without any pattern or plan; he was simultaneously a tragic loser and a lovable goofball, a mean-spirited reckless alcoholic and a father who sat by his son’s bed many mornings waiting to apologize for his behavior the previous night. Above all, he was an artistic genius; a wordsmith so in tune with the fathomless depths of the human soul that he often received letters from fans, saying that his songs had saved their life.

I, too, have been deeply affected by Van Zandt’s music. I have four older brothers, and during those rare occasions when we’re all in the same place at the same time—sometime during the summer or Christmas holidays—we gather in a casual manner to play our guitars and sing together. This ritual usually involves a fire pit in my parents’ backyard, plenty of good bourbon, and music we’ve committed to memory. We sing whatever we feel like, or whatever we know, but I realized recently that the nights were most often centered around Van Zandt songs.

We’re all from Texas. Our musical roots come from our dad, who taught us to play instruments from a young age. But our collective passion for playing Van Zandt’s music has a more mysterious origin. Our dad—a northerner without much real concern for Texas country music—certainly did not introduce us to him. What he did give us was complete liberty to play and listen to whatever sort of music we enjoyed. Perhaps this license, coupled with a shared passion for the musical heritage of our land, led us to Van Zandt’s music. We were drawn immediately to his soft, echoing voice and the laid-back profundity of his songs. They were too good not to learn. We discovered his music about ten years ago—coincidentally, right around the time that Be Here to Love Me was released.

Sometimes those nights around the fire would get too cold and we’d move into my parents’ shed with a cheap electric heater. No matter where we were, it was the music that mattered, the songs that defined our nights. These were more than just mere evenings of entertainment; they were ways to bond through a celebration of the music we’d inherited from our father, and the musical heritage of the state we called home. On one of these nights, a few years back, my brother told me about another Texas songwriter named Guy Clark, who happened to be dear friends with Van Zandt for most of his life. My oldest brother began to play a song of his called “L.A. Freeway”, about a man and his wife leaving California to go back to Texas. These days, by the evening’s end, when the cigarettes are gone and the whiskey almost spent, it’s usually Clark that we turn to for one last song before calling it a night.

In a way it’s fitting, since Clark, also a native Texas songwriter, lived with Van Zandt in Nashville in the 1970s. It was during this time that both artists produced some of their most enduring work. Clark is featured prominently in Be Here to Love Me, his first line in the film coming early on, as he offers a shot of tequila to Townes, “Who we’ll toast today—and/or cuss.” The phrase encapsulates Clark’s relationship with Van Zandt, who tended to imprint his personality on those around him to the point where they’d embrace his finer qualities and reluctantly shrug, with a weary smile, at all his weaknesses.

Van Zandt frequently exhibited erratic and frustrating behavior. In an archival phone conversation, we hear Van Zandt talking about getting drunk all the time and locking himself in his room for days. His high school friends relate how, in his youth, Van Zandt jumped off a four-story building to “see what it felt like to fall.” This literal plunge reflects the figurative plunges Townes would take throughout his life. Steve Earle, another Texas musician who cites Townes as one of his mentors, describes how for a time Van Zandt’s major concerns were with morning glories, listening to Paul Harvey, and catching as many episodes of Happy Days as he could. But he also recounts how he would come home from a walk and find Van Zandt with a 357, in which he placed a round, spun the cylinder, and put it to his head and pulled the trigger. Though he got away with it, Earle relates how angry he was, asking, “How in the fuck could you put me through that if you give a fuck about me?” Later in the film, Van Zandt’s manager relates that the night before the start of a major tour, he went on a bender, got in a car wreck, and put the entire tour in jeopardy. From accounts of Van Zandt shooting up bourbon and coca cola, to his bouts with heroin addiction, to Guy Clark’s hoping that his close relationship with Clark’s wife Susanna “wasn’t sexual,” you’ve got to wonder how anyone ever put up with him.

My brothers and I have not necessarily sidestepped these issues in our embrace of Van Zandt and our willingness to base our few nights together around his music. In countless cases, he was a no-good, tragic fool, but we keep on turning to him, inspired by him simply out of a respect for, even an awe of, his choice of words: their overwhelming sadness, their raw emotion.

But at one point Clark also recollects Van Zandt’s best times, when he was a happy man, a genuinely fun-loving human, in a nearly euphoric tone: “[He wrote] songs that would take your breath away.” Clark puts a strong emphasis on the word breath, as if he truly means that Van Zandt’s writing was so good, so human, that it somehow transcended being human. As if he had some unearthly understanding of how to string a set of words together in order to capture humanity. It may be a bit paradoxical, but it’s truly the effect you experience when you listen to his songs. There’s nothing particularly complicated about their structure or sound. Van Zandt’s best work, as we see in various clips peppered throughout the film, is when he’s simply playing alone on his guitar, employing a simple finger-picking style to accompany his smooth, occasionally wailing, and altogether haunted voice. His songs are often lonely ballads about basic human needs, desires, and longings. In one of his best, “To Live is to Fly”, Van Zandt gets inside the mind of a man—a singer preparing to hit the road and leave his loved ones—and relates both what it’s like to live, and how one ought to go about doing it:

Everything is not enough
Nothing is too much to bear
Where you been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there

The lyrics roll off his tongue in a gentle, almost nonchalant fashion, but when you actually consider their meaning, it’s hard to not be terribly moved and also a little perplexed. When he goes into the chorus, to live is to fly, both low and high, you realize that the song isn’t tough to grasp because it’s hard to analyze, but rather because it captures an insoluble aspect of life, the thing that propels you forward even when it seems there might not be much point to any of it.

An easy answer to this is that love, a simple connection with another human being, overpowers the obstacles that can make living seem like such a chore. But Van Zandt often rejected love in order to capture the aura and the words of his music. In “Two Girls” he repeats, amidst a series of fantastical verses: I got two girls, one’s in heaven, one’s in hell, and one I love with all my heart and one I do not know. Van Zandt was certainly capable of love, as the lyrics suggest, but he wasn’t entirely sure who he loved or why he loved them. In “Two Girls”, Van Zandt doesn’t ever say whether he loved the girl in heaven or the girl in hell because, well, perhaps he didn’t even know. Even the film’s title, taken from one of Van Zandt’s songs, is ironic. He’s asking for presence and love, but frankly, most of the time he never made himself present to be loved.

When Townes married his first wife Fran, in 1965, he wrote his first great song. Be Here to Love Me indicates that she was a little discomforted that the song was “Waitin’ Round to Die”, whose main argument is essentially that it’s easier to booze, gamble, smoke, and even rob than simply wait for death to come knocking. The song itself is powerful, a real punch to the gut, but it’s not a piece most wives would like to hear right after their wedding day. If anything, the song is a good indication that Van Zandt wasn’t ever really concerned with what was normal or acceptable, even when it came to the people he was closest to. Yet what Brown’s film does, at its best, is to show how people were still in awe of his nerve and the power of those songs: from the story of a girl in the front row ripping off her blouse when Van Zandt was playing at The Old Quarter (unheard of at a folk concert, says fellow musician Dave Olney), to Van Zandt’s son talking about how he can only fall asleep at night if he’s listening to his father’s music, you gather that Townes was a true original, whose music and lifestyle people responded to uncannily.

The only actual concrete information we ever get about Van Zandt’s personal views in Be Here to Love Me is that, as his sister says, he was always deeply bothered by the fact that he didn’t grow up hungry. Van Zandt was a smart kid, a successful athlete in high school, and yet he saw people around him who had much less and simply had to keep on living regardless of their disposition. People often run away from their lives out of fear, but for Van Zandt it was something different. He was hellbent on a heartache, not for its own sake, but because he saw in that heartache the inspiration for artistic creation.

Even when my brothers and I aren’t together, I still find myself spending time with Van Zandt’s music. I recently learned his wonderful song “Flying Shoes”, which he wrote about leaving his wife for months while he’s touring on the road. It provides some personal satisfaction to memorize the lyrics and pick out the chords on my guitar, but the communal satisfaction of playing these songs with others is lost. So instead I turn to something that is maybe even better: simply listening. Alone in my quiet apartment or huddled with close friends, not talking, I listen to Van Zandt’s albums, his quiet, peaceful voice and those opaque words.

Brown’s method of capturing Van Zandt’s life and work comes across as effortless, almost stream-of-consciousness. But even if the film rarely follows a cogent pattern, it does makes a point to capture the final days of his life. We see him playing “To Live is to Fly”, but rather than singing, he’s sort of muttering the words, as if the life is being sucked out of him right before our very eyes. Tragically, as he got older, Van Zandt lost the general aura of his stage presence that had defined his early career. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch him playing in Nashville, in the late 80s on a big, bright stage with backup singers and a full band. The lyrics are still there, but somehow they don’t ring quite as true when performed with such commercial incentives.

Van Zandt’s son, J.T., recounts being in his car one day and hearing one of his father’s songs on the radio—and then another, and another. He knew at once that something wasn’t right. Van Zandt had died: heart failure on New Year’s Day, 1997, at the age of 52. In the film’s final moments, instead of footage of Townes, we see Lyle Lovett performing “Flying Shoes”, suggesting that while Van Zandt may be gone, his songs will live on. The final image, though, is of Van Zandt’s closest friend, Guy Clark, taking over for Lovett. He straps on his guitar and says, in a choked voice, that he doesn’t know if he’ll get through this. “But I booked this gig 37 years ago,” he finishes, hinting he knew all along that Van Zandt was following a self-destructive path.

And he loved him nonetheless.