by John Kruth
Da Capo, 318 pp., $26
When Townes Van Zandt died on New Year's Day 1997, his life was already enshrouded in myth, and perhaps the greatest achievement of John Kruth's new biography of the tragic songwriter is his balance of the legend with the life, giving credence to both rather than performing a revisionist history. A clear portrait of Van Zandt never quite emerges from the extensive interviews with family, friends, and fellow artists but rather more through Kruth's discerning analysis of the songs themselves, appropriate for an artist whose life was so indelibly furrowed into his music. Accordingly, the uneasy alternation between oral history, criticism, and first-person accounts of the author's search for traces of the self-destructive troubadour leaves the book never quite reaching a sufficient narrative stride. Throughout, however, Kruth offers anecdotes ranging from insightful, such as the mining of Van Zandt's literary influences, to bizarre, such as his short stint rooming with Roky Erickson and auditioning on bass for the 13th Floor Elevators. Guy Clark's irascibility stands in place of his best friend's equally tempestuous personality, while the digression into Blaze Foley's searingly honest but calamitous life and death provides a fitting parallel. The person closest to Townes, Clark's wife, Susanna, remains unfortunately evasive. While hardly the final word on TVZ's life or legacy, Kruth's work is invaluable for its accounts of those who knew, loved, and hated the enigmatically unattainable man. They all remain in awe of a genius exhausted for the sake of the song.
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