Dark Night, Dark Night: A Life’s Journey Through the Art of Robert Johnson and Townes Van Zandt

See the young man beside his father, hammering at the creosote lumber as the dirt dobber’s nests quake and shudder overhead in the filtered sunlight. The thick black wood slowly giving way beneath the steady work, the sweat falling, rolling down their arms and across the length of the silver hammers, mingling with the ancient, hand-planed carpentry and packed earth of his grandfather’s land, a man he recalls only in shadow and distance, remembered more for his absence, for the night his father lay across his bed and sobbed in slow, raw bursts; he never knew a man could cry. His mother shut the door and tried to explain.

But now the late summer on the land and in his world and they’re together, hammer and wrench and crowbar slowly reducing the barn and his father’s memories to stacks of ragged lumber to carry home in the lime-green Ford, pry the nails that moan and shiver from their holes like living beings pulled from their ancient hovels, screaming into the sun and dropped into paint buckets at his families feet, the steel-like, sweet- scented wood turned once again to human will and worked with his people’s hands into a shape like love; blood and grime and curses spilt in the shape of a new building beside the boy’s home and his hand print in the cement floor.


I first heard the music of Townes Van Zandt when I was five-years-old, sitting in a cardboard box, pretending God-knows-what as my parents unpacked our meager belongings. The stereo must have been one of the first pieces of furniture my father brought into our new home; I don’t remember a bed or even chairs, just boxes scattered across the hardwood floors, and her voice, singing words that even a daydreaming child could recognize as the very essence of lonely and regret and, lets be honest, bad-ass myth making at its finest, myth that echoed as deeply as the tales of ancient Greece or Shakespeare.

If Emmylou Harris wasn’t the first to record a cover version of “Pancho and Lefty,” she should have been the last. The song she sang that late fall afternoon captured a lifetime, several lifetimes, in a few, concisely wrought verses. The tale itself is nothing special—murder, deceit, abandonment. The words, the hard iron clarity and spare perfection of each syllable, unreel the shameful waste and, yes, brave defiance of two outlaws: one long dead beneath the desert sand, one who’s outlived his youth and fame, a traitor to his friend and to his past. Out of time. Waitin’ round to die. The words are perfection.

“He wore his gun outside his pants

For all the honest world to feel.”

The rich burgundy warmth of the woman’s voice; it felt like home, still feels like home. I wanted to die in the desert. I wanted to sit in a hotel room with a bottle and mourn the past. From that box on the floor I curled myself and listened.


In the corn field beside the brick road, the half collapsed shed all but hidden beneath the tangle of thorns and native scrubs, my cousin made me look at the thing beneath a sheet: only tobacco stakes but I saw the head, green and molded like the surface of rotted logs, the stomach stretched tight, bloated and scaled as I’d read somewhere already, and it was grinning, it had to grin beneath that thin white sheet…my father walked in and pulled it back, quickly…only tobacco sticks, but I was scared …and we laughed, all of us.


Robert Johnson would have grinned, watching those three white fools as he ambled past the wrecked outhouses and dried husks of that field. Or maybe not. Maybe he would have quickened his pace, bent his head and tried not to look back at that shadowed temple and the white sheet draped across its rotted planks. Who knows? Whatever worth and knowledge he contained is in the handful of songs he chose, the ones some other white fool thought might sell, might actually be worth the trouble of setting up the cumbersome recording devices in that cramped hotel room and waiting for this spider-fingered kid with the voice like a strangled woman to tune up and finish the damned thing. It doesn’t matter.

But that music. There’s an entire world in there, whole novels of gothic sex, longing and dread. And laughter, always laughter, sardonic and mostly at yourself and the foolish trouble you’ve brought.

I came to the man’s treasure much later than that of Townes,’ though I didn’t know it at the time. Entering my teens, I barely remembered Van Zandt’s name, only vaguely recalled the song I heard that day from a procession of hideous cover versions best left to the garbage heap of history. Of the man’s own recordings, I had heard nothing.

Johnson came to my attention the way he came to the attention of most late twentieth century youth: through the work of British rock musicians, in my case the Rolling Stones. But of course, listening and hearing are two different things. For whatever reason, by the time I found the man, I was ready.


I could just make out the small, thin-framed figure against the light from the trailer window, running across the half acre of dry, brown grass, beneath the lightning-scarred oak and down the gravel drive. I watched her from my truck, parked just beyond the trailer at the edge of the tree line, as she hesitated beside the drainage ditch, all but lost in the vast humid dark and stars and wall of pines rising at her back. I flashed the lights, once, quick, and I could tell she was smiling, not running now, skipping like a much younger child cut loose from its tiny prison of family and safety, coming to my window with her hair thrown back as she climbs in, slams the door too hard, and breathes GO! GO!

I was 19 and it was simply the way of things. To pull your daughters from the dark and spirit them onto far-flung beaches and vacant lots, to return them before dawn as you slept through fitful dreams of adult purgatory, fantasies deferred, children you can’t afford. None-the wiser. Not yet.

I was 19. But a part of me was never young. A part I could never name, a shadow self that shunned the easy smiles and pale blue eyes, a self that longed to linger on porches with half starved dogs and drink from tin cups with men housed in flesh like dried animal hide laced with bark, and listen, just listen to them…horse feed and soybeans and murdered kin and “remember when me and the boys used to hitchhike across the river to the grocery and pick us up an RC and a pack of peanuts and do you recall old lady Reese used to tell about that crow that would fly over her field calling her name, said it liked to scared her kids to death but she sort of took a liking to that durned bird; hell no you can’t get no damned ‘shine in these parts like they used to make back yonder down in the county when we was coming up;  I never saw it myself but I heard tell ol’ J.C. Blythe and his cousins got run out of the woods back there by a damn panther, said it was big as a grizzly bear, I say I never saw it but I sure heard it one night coming home right as I was crossing the bridge down by the house, sounded like a baby screaming, I swear I don’t think I ever run so fast in my damn life…”

Some nights I would go out alone. A case of beer. Maybe a bottle of whiskey. I would set the alcohol between my legs and drive, through the back roads and abandoned places in the counties’ surrounding my home. I would drive for hours, simply taking in the night, the shadows and moonlight that played through the pines and vine-shrouded shacks, that lit the animal carcasses and threshers in the fantastic paleness of mystery and fixation. I was entranced.

But no, I was not alone. The battered ’88 Ford Ranger had a tape deck that worked, mostly. I would role up the windows, put in a cassette and wait for the sound of “Live at Fulsome Prison,” “Rain Dogs” or “Exile on Main Street” to rush from the one functioning speaker. I would reach for another bottle and let the night rush in, into whatever, whoever waited down there.

But there were nights, not many but enough, when there was only one tape, one voice.

“I got to keep moving, got to keep moving

Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail,

Um, ummm blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail,

And the days keep on ‘minding me,

There’s a hellhound on my trail…”

That voice, that music was where every one of those deserted roads led; it was the thing beneath the dirty white sheet and the smile on the skipping schoolgirl as she climbed in beside you. It was that damn panther screaming at the scared little boy trying to make it home to his mother in the dark.

It was too much. I would go weeks, months without listening. But eventually, the time would come, as it always did, when nothing else would do, when the other voices sounded as babble and their music came back hollow. I would find the tape again. I would roll up the windows and drive.

Then the night caught me, found me running through the woods, drunk, crazed, screaming, searching for… I don’t know what. I sat in the truck, torn bloody and near tears with joy and rage, sorrow…I didn’t listen to Robert Johnson again for a long time.


I found Townes again towards the end.

“Marie didn’t wake up this morning, she didn’t even try,

She just rolled over and went to heaven, my little boy safe inside,

I laid ‘em in the sun, where somebody’d find ‘em,

Caught a Chesapeake on the fly,

Marie will know I’m headed south, so’s to meet me by and by”

Horror doesn’t come any plainer than that. It was the first song on the last album he ever made and I couldn’t stop listening.

I was 24 and had somehow managed to temper my insane, alcohol-blurred night odysseys, but I was still drawn to the Twilight Zone, to a world beyond the numbing routine and punishing sunlight of my day job. I still wanted that cool, cool darkness to draw out the heat and anger, to settle whatever my mind could not.

On his final album Townes sounds like a soul who’s taken up permanent residence in that darkness. He sounds not necessarily like he enjoys it down there, but more to the point, like someone who’s been there so long that it’s become an essential part of who they are, like an ancient strand of DNA has somehow reemerged and asserted its dominance over body and soul.

A man who cursed himself with his early songs of death and addiction and suicide, who spent the remainder of his years trying to live up, or down, to the prophecies of his youth, Townes abandoned a life of trust funds and easy leisure for a fools romance of music, wine and poetry. Like all the other fools before him, he died for that choice, far too young and far too broken.

Maybe he should have played sports and bought a nice car and gone to the lake with pretty girls with shinning hair and white teeth and let daddy’s money keep him young. Then again maybe he was never young. Maybe he preferred to sit on broken down porches and listen to old men lie while he peered down between the cracks at his feet and wondered what was waiting down there in the cool, black loam. Maybe he never had a choice.

His demon songs and his fuck all, kick out the jams, there ain’t no tomorrow songs. His odes to friends and disappointed lovers and mountains and broken-down vampires and gunfighters…it all sounds like one song to me. One big “ fuck you” to that world he left behind. One big “Howdy, mam” to that open land of mystery and wonder that he embraced for good and ill, lead where it may. The land where the artifice of privilege is burned away and the mirror looms in front of your face like a dare each morning you rise shaking and sick, your guitar gone and someone else’s vomit on your boots. Never look back.

Townes passed on shortly after I found him again. He could have written a song about it.


Somewhere along the way, the two men merged in my mind: Johnson’s midnight deals and crazed wanderlust; Van Zandt’s insulin shock therapy and decades in the wilderness of alcoholism and heroin addiction. They alternately fought and served their various daemons, were both guided and consumed by the very impulses that produced their finest art. Fools and geniuses in equal measure, they transmuted the sneers and whispers of their hum drum worlds into the almost painfully nuanced voice of something truer, wilder; a voice at ease with death and the brightest corners of life, at home nowhere and laughing, or crying, all the way there.

A poisoned bottle of whiskey from a cuckolded stranger. A poison bottle of whiskey from many strangers over many years. How these men died was no great surprise. How they lived…well, I’m still listening.


My gaze has been as black as any animals staring at its own reflection, the earth surrounding my body as gray and lifeless, as devoid of love and alien as the other side of death…but still, the night, the magic song persists: the whippoorwill’s song, the song of the stars and the highway, the white freightliners and greyhounds, the train passing in the woods behind my grandmother’s house as I lay in bed and listen to the dying whistle reverberate beneath the tin roof and oak leaves; the peacocks screaming, the horse’s shy slumber and the grunts and wails of drunken fights between uncles; grandmother’s crying for their children’s children…It’s all in your song…my father understood, he listens still…I believe with all my heart and not because I’m a little drunk now, but there are truths beyond truth that simply have to be conjured by the living and the memory of those they loved and fought and cherished, who conjured those before them in their time.

The mountains, the shadows and harmony moving over the water’s mist in the early morning light. A moment of peace: a child leading a small gray dog across a field, school books in her thin brown arms, lifting a hand to wave as you pass through the same mist, lost in the dawn, thinking of the stories you haven’t finished, the time you haven’t spent, the blonde hair spilled across the warm bed, the tears and blood and baby names written in a small black book. Dogs and knives and, please mother, give me strength not to murder today.

These men and their music took me, swept me savagely from the dull complacencies of this world, doomed whatever chance I had at a normal career and the family oriented safety that most people yearn for. But just as surely, they have saved me, kept me from drowning in the sorrows of this all-too-real existence, allowed me to speak plainly to the pretentious fools who take it at as their birth right that they will be bowed down to. I’ll take that tradeoff, with no regrets.

I still love the back roads, those abandoned places of the night. But I’m no longer looking for anything down there. I’m simply coming home.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: