Townes Without Pity
The Battle for Townes Van Zandt's legacy
Songwriter Guy Clark is far too eloquent a wordsmith to hang up the phone with a simple "No comment." Instead, he hung up from his Nashville home with six words: "That's none of my damn business." As one of Townes Van Zandt's closest friends, Clark is apparently hellbent on staying out of what one principal party involved terms a "poisonous" conflict over the late, great singer-songwriter's catalog.
"He doesn't give a fuck about being involved," says JT Van Zandt, the songwriter's oldest son. "And why doesn't he give a fuck? Because he was Townes' friend, and isn't interested in anything else. Everyone else isn't battling to see who was Townes' closest friend. Their interests are obvious."
Given the recent flood of reissues, compilations, tributes, and live recordings bearing Townes Van Zandt's name, it's obvious what's at stake: an interest in controlling the legacy of one of Texas' most acclaimed musicians.
At the center of the storm along with JT are three of the people closest to Van Zandt, who died New Year's day 1997 at the age of 52. They are ex-wife Jeanene Van Zandt, the court-appointed executrix of his estate and mother to two of his children; Kevin Eggers, who signed Van Zandt in 1968 and recorded and released the bulk of his studio albums; and Kevin's brother Harold Eggers, owner of the rights to hundreds of live TVZ shows he recorded over the course of two decades. Most of the parties don't communicate.
Despite their escalating differences, all four parties enjoyed a unique insight into the songwriter Billboard recently described as "largely-obscure-if-legendary." A Fort Worth native born into an oil business legacy, Van Zandt faired better at rebellion than school, leaving in the mid-Sixties for Houston and Nashville to embark on a 30-year career that put sincerity ahead of commercial aspirations. A well-documented dependency on drugs and alcohol is also inextricably linked to the legend of Van Zandt, about whom Steve Earle famously volunteered to "stand on Bob Dylan's coffeetable" to proclaim him the world's best songwriter.
Of course, Van Zandt knew as well as perhaps anyone that you can't cash a Steve Earle quote at Bank One. By and large, his albums sold poorly. Even when covers of Van Zandt songs from artists like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Emmylou Harris were bringing in nearly $100,000 in annual royalties, Van Zandt seemed to concern himself only with the money to get to the next gig. It's said he despised money and what it stood for, but Van Zandt may have been a savvier business presence than he's often given credit for.
"The people at Enron were bad businessmen," says JT. "Townes hardly worked a day in his life other than playing his songs. He did pretty good."
Van Zandt seems to have also done pretty well in predicting he'd be more famous dead than alive. A recent duets collection, Texas Rain, and tribute album, Poet, might have each sold better than anything in Van Zandt's original catalog, and therein lies one key to understanding the current furor over Van Zandt's estate: What if a Van Zandt song landed on a soundtrack with O Brother Where Art Thou-style sales? In relation to a 30-year career, an estate that might now charitably be valued at tens of thousands could be worth millions virtually overnight.
"I'm simply trying to manage Townes' career," says Jeanene Van Zandt. "He still has a career, you know?"
Jeanene Van Zandt was Townes Van Zandt's third and final wife. They met December 1980 in Austin and were married three years later. They had two children together, William Vincent and daughter Katie Bell. (JT is the product of Van Zandt's first marriage.) After serving as her husband's de facto manager for the bulk of their marriage, Jeanene is unapologetic about the iron hand with which she controls the estate. She says her motivation is simple: to retain control of the recordings and royalties she feels she and her children are the rightful heirs to.
"There's a lot of battling, but Townes knew I could do it," says Jeanene. "He taught me everything I know. And I'm a shark. Townes knew how badly he was getting ripped off too. He was just too compassionate to do anything about it."
Jeanene believes the primary beneficiary of that compassion is Kevin Eggers, who recorded most of Van Zandt's studio output for two of his labels, Poppy and Tomato. Eggers' holdings include Van Zandt's first five studio albums, which are widely regarded as his most important work. Jeanene charges that Eggers underpaid Van Zandt while he was alive and that she hasn't seen a royalty statement or check from Eggers since 1991. In fact, since that time, she maintains the only statements generated by TVZ's entire catalog of nearly 30 releases are from Sugar Hill and Rhino Records, which licensed and reissued several Tomato releases in the Eighties.
"Townes loved Kevin like a brother, and it hurt him that he was being taken advantage of," offers Jeanene. "He gave him chance after chance literally until he died."
Van Zandt was indeed working with Eggers right up until his death. In the last decade of the songwriter's life, Jeanene and Townes agreed to re-record 60 of his songs as duets for a 6-CD box set. Jeanene says her husband only began work on the much-delayed set after Eggers agreed to "make-good" contracts for Poppy and Tomato back royalties -- accounting statements she claims stopped when Van Zandt passed away. While she continued to work with Eggers as late as three months after Van Zandt's death, she ultimately withdrew her approval for the project over creative differences.
"Townes didn't throw fits," reveals Jeanene, "but the two times I saw him mad enough to throw something across the room was when Kevin did something to his songs. Kevin always makes it sound like Townes came in and laid down the lyrics and he was happy with everything Kevin did afterwards. That's bullshit."
Ever since stepping away from the projected box set, Jeanene has been fruitlessly searching for a lawyer in New York to sue Eggers. She says failure to pay royalties voids her husband's original recording contracts and should result in the rights to the masters reverting back to her husband's estate.
"It's frustrating that nobody is doing anything to help us while I'm being steamrolled over by a Yankee," complains Jeanene. "We've been trying to find a lawyer to can his ass for 10 years. It's ugly -- way uglier than you can imagine. There were times after he died I wanted to leave this Earth it was so bad."
For Jeanene, one of the most painful points of the debate is her being referred to by the other parties as "the ex-wife." True enough, the Van Zandts did divorce in 1994, a point JT makes in his pursuit to divide his father's songwriting royalties with his step-siblings and not Jeanene. As far as she's concerned, Jeanene believes the divorce has no impact on her rights to the estate, particularly because she asserts that the divorce was specifically designed to give her control over Van Zandt's financial assets as a way to shelter them from civil suits should he injure or kill someone while drunk driving.
"He wanted to be married again. He begged me, saying we were supposed to be married," states Jeanene, although others close to Townes contend he had plans to marry a German lawyer he'd met and move to a ranch west of Austin to start a donkey farm. "In hindsight, not knowing the hell I'd be put through, I wish I'd said yes.
"But that has nothing to do with any of it. I loved him and will always love him. I think he's one of the greatest poets that ever lived. I want the whole rest of the world to know about it and for my kids to have a future with their dad's stuff. And whatever I do for my children JT benefits from too. That's all I care about."
More than anyone else, Kevin and Harold Eggers own or have access to the majority of Townes Van Zandt's recorded legacy.
All Your Eggers in a Basket
Kevin Eggers met and signed the songwriter to his Poppy Records label in 1968, the same year For the Sake of the Song became Van Zandt's debut. The two then collaborated on an album a year for Poppy until 1973, ending a five-album run with The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, the album that included both "Poncho & Lefty" and "If I Needed You." Van Zandt wrote at least the former, arguably his signature tune, while staying in Eggers' Brooklyn Heights home.
Nobody disputes that Eggers and Van Zandt were close friends, even if their business relations took on a love/hate touch-and-go turn later in the songwriter's career -- rifts Eggers blames on Van Zandt's drug and alcohol abuse.
"There was a side to him that was brilliant and unique, and a side that was determined to degrade himself and everyone around him," explains Eggers. "There was both magic and demons."
Eggers says those demons kept driving Van Zandt back to him at Tomato when other labels weren't interested in signing him. He maintains that Van Zandt's reputation for poor sales figures and self-destruction led him to be written off as damaged goods by the music industry at large. In fact, Eggers says Van Zandt's mid-Seventies heroin habit was so bad that Van Zandt offered him the publishing rights to the songs on his first four albums for $20.
"I didn't do it and told him that if he sold [those rights] to anyone, we'd never talk again," recounts Eggers.
Although all but two of Van Zandt's original studio albums were recorded for Poppy or Tomato, Eggers maintains all were commercial failures. He claims many of those albums remained in the red for decades, and denies the estate hasn't been properly accounted to. He says the only money the Van Zandt estate hasn't seen is the royalties he hasn't been paid by companies he's subsequently licensed music to. Eggers reports that he's currently involved in litigation with Fuel 2000 over last year's 40-song Anthology: 1968-1979 and with England's Charly Records for 13 albums he licensed for European distribution.
"You'd think we're in dispute over millions of dollars or tens of thousands," declares Eggers. "You're talking about hundreds of dollars -- chump change. Throughout his career, we gave a party and nobody came. He had major tours, great press, and major-label distribution. But his records don't sell. It was always a labor of love for me."
Harold Eggers also describes his two decades with Van Zandt as a labor of love. As his road manager and 24-hour on-the-road caretaker, Eggers' wife -- Chronicle Office Manager cindy soo -- describes Van Zandt as Harold's first child. Harold first met Van Zandt as a teenager when Kevin brought him to family Christmas gatherings.
The younger Eggers started touring with Van Zandt in 1976 and almost immediately began recording "off the mic" (live) at virtually every show. Some of those tapes capture brilliant performances; others depict Van Zandt literally falling down drunk. While admitting they were recorded and released with Van Zandt's full blessing, both Kevin Eggers and Jeanene Van Zandt insist that many of the recordings are exploitative and paint a heartbreaking picture of Van Zandt's substance abuse. They also contend that since Van Zandt had at one point gone nine years between studio albums, subsequent live recordings feature too many versions of the same finite catalog of songs.
"It's been said he's like a blues artist -- every night he sang differently," says Harold of the albums he says generate songwriting royalties for the estate. "There was always a different mood, always a different set of problems."
From hundreds of tapes, Harold has released just eight live recordings, and only two posthumously. He says that just as with Van Zandt's studio albums, the live releases are not very profitable and are designed more for the diehard than the introductory-level fan.
"The road was his home, so he envisioned them as an ongoing series of releases," says Harold. "And while we didn't make a lot of money, the critical acclaim was worth more to him. Even if he never really acknowledged his own greatness, he was more concerned with acceptance and acknowledgment than the money."
A little over five years after his death, Van Zandt is again earning that acclaim -- this time for the February release of Texas Rain: The Texas Hill Country Recordings on Kevin Eggers' newly relaunched Tomato Records. As the first installment of the proposed 6-CD duets box, it features Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others. It also features lush instrumentation and production flourishes that Jeanene Van Zandt calls "horrible bullshit."
"Townes and I had a very close creative relationship," stresses Kevin Eggers. "He was alive for everything I did. I had his blessings. And now she wants to put her nose into records she has no rights to? I felt my obligation was to do what he and I wanted.
"My legacy with Townes is well-documented. I'm not insecure about it. I feel like I've been faithful -- as a friend and with the music. Without me, there wouldn't be a body of legitimate recordings and there wouldn't be a publishing company his children can benefit from now. I could have owned all the masters and publishing for a song. She's living on a legacy I played a major part in creating. Beyond that, everything else is a lot of negative energy that goes nowhere."
JT Van Zandt is clearly conflicted over his role as the co-executor of his father's estate. He'd obviously like to see any debts to the estate paid in full, but thinks in-fighting over the estate is something his father would not have approved of. It's his belief that Townes Van Zandt rarely lost a night's sleep worrying about his business legacy.
"He knew he signed some bad deals," acknowledges JT. "But he figured he signed them, and to him it was like losing a poker hand; he never considered defaulting on a bet. If he was naive enough to let someone take advantage of him, in his mind it was, 'Okay, I've been one-upped by a Yankee.' He'd be back out to get them on the next flip of the coin. He'd rather try to win the shirt off their back than sue to take all the money back from a bad contract."
For the most part, JT has opted out of the dispute between Jeanene Van Zandt and Kevin Eggers. Instead, he's concentrated his efforts on the distribution of his father's publishing income. At his own expense, he's hired a lawyer to help put Van Zandt's song copyrights in order.
After the copyrights changed hands several times in the late Seventies and early Eighties, EMI Music Publishing in Nashville took control of the bulk of Van Zandt's early work. JT believes federal copyright law dictates that most of those songs are due to be returned to the songwriter's heirs within the next four years. The problems lies in defining which copyright laws apply and in defining "heirs"; JT alleges federal copyright statues would supercede the terms of Jeanene Van Zandt's divorce and return the copyrights solely to the three children.
"The only relationships I'm worried about fighting for are with my brother and sister," says JT. "I know William believes I'm trying to destroy his mother, but I'm really just trying to enhance his copyright inheritance. I want the three of us to share Townes' music -- not the wealth of it, but the ownership of his art."
JT says he's shied away from other battles because he's wary of becoming "my dead father's manager -- there's nothing altruistic in all your time and effort going into promoting someone else's art." And yet, JT says his efforts to control copyrights will also help future generations of Van Zandts appreciate who Townes Van Zandt really was.
"Some of his truest best friends came to the funeral and that's it," says JT flatly. "And if you contact them, they still tear up -- not over what happens with his career, but because their friendship and love was so great all they can do is remember the good times and cry.
"If you got connected to Townes on his level it was impossible to want anything more. I always felt like I was with the coolest guy in the world. That was when he smelled funky and had this awful old truck that ran half the time, living in a house with no electricity and an 18-year-old wife that he dated for three years until she came off age. No matter how bad things were he forged a carefree environment."
If there's a common concern among the four parties involved in this dispute, it's the fear of watering down Townes Van Zandt's "legacy." Legacy is itself a nebulous word, and not surprisingly, each party has their own idea of what that legacy should ultimately resemble.
Long Cry From Dead
Jeanene Van Zandt would like to gain control of all her former husband's original albums and reissue them with original liner notes and artwork. Kevin Eggers would like to see his duets collections set the legacy's tone, while Harold Eggers says his live recordings capture Van Zandt the way most people remember him -- onstage and accompanied only by his songs.
All three admit the most troubling aspect of defining Van Zandt's legacy is that most of their plans run concurrently, allowing for a flood of releases in danger of being lost in a shuffle. Already, more than 30 Van Zandt albums are in print. One estimate puts the sale of some of those individual titles at less than a paltry 500 copies a year.
"It's confusing to the fans to have so many records offered to them," insists Jeanene Van Zandt. "Already his catalog has been exploited and watered down to the point where you don't know what you're getting, and [you] feel cheated when you bring it home. So whenever someone like me comes out with new stuff, fans have to wonder if it's the same old crap again."
The new stuff Jeanene Van Zandt is bringing forth is actually newly unearthed old stuff -- 10 songs demoed for an early Nashville publishing contract. The album she's calling In the Beginning will launch the newly christened TVZ Records, a joint venture between her and her children.
"JT will be paid what artists royalties he's entitled to as an heir, but me and my kids will get what the record company normally gets, because we're going to invest our own time and money into the finished master," says Jeanene, who will serve as the label's CEO. "[JT] doesn't have the right to tell us we can't make a living with their inheritance as long as he's not damaged and gets what he's entitled to."
For his part, JT says he's expressed concern over TVZ Records and In the Beginning, derailing Jeanene's original plan for the album to be released on Dualtone Records as a follow-up to that label's recent release of a live recording, A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt. Dualtone president Scott Robinson says that after talking to both parties he chose to stay above the fray.
"If there's a dispute over ownership or who does or doesn't want something out, we step aside," says Robinson, who worked with the Van Zandt estate while at Arista Austin on 1999's Long Cry From Dead, a critically acclaimed collection of outtakes with newly recorded backing tracks. "We always want to do right by both sides, and unless they both agree, it's not right."
At the same time, Robinson says the time is right for a well-orchestrated Townes Van Zandt campaign. He says that if he had access to Tomato's catalog, he'd reissue titles over years, not months. Robinson posits that the success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and the Buena Vista Social Club demonstrate that an older demographic does search for eclectic music. It's a sentiment echoed by EMI Music Publishing Creative Director Bruce Burch, who's charged with pitching much of the Van Zandt catalog to soundtracks and country performers.
"Obviously they're not the kind of songs for mainstream Nashville country," says Burch, who recently pitched Van Zandt material to Tim McGraw, George Jones, and Pinmonkey, a retro-leaning Nashville buzz act that regularly performs "If I Needed You" live. "Most of the young whippersnappers running this town might know the name, but not the music. It's sad. We need to get him another big lick, and all of a sudden he'd be the flavor of the week again. That's not an impossibility. I think it's swinging back in that direction."
While they wait on that at-bat, Kevin Eggers is still in the best position to set the tone for Van Zandt's recorded legacy; Tomato will follow the release of Texas Rain and The Best of Townes Van Zandt with the July 9 reissues of 1969's self-titled Townes Van Zandt and 1993's The Nashville Sessions. Eggers also has plans to issue the second volume of the Texas Rain series next year, with The Los Angeles Times reporting that Bono and Lyle Lovett are committed to the set.
Meanwhile, Harold Eggers is readying a live DVD release for Europe and a comprehensive biography co-written with KUT deejay and Van Zandt authority Larry Monroe; the book, authorized by Van Zandt before his death, is tentatively due in March 2003.
There's more: Jeanene Van Zandt says that In the Beginning may be followed by a tribute collection of her own; she feels last year's twice-Grammy-nominated Poet collection was overly folky. There's also a pair of documentaries slated for next year. George and Ingrid Dolis are reportedly working on a film about Van Zandt's Texas years, while a rough cut of filmmaker Margaret Brown's Flyin' Shoes: The Life & Times of TVZ is already earning rave reviews.
Obviously, it's too early to tell what kind of impact will result from this flurry of projects, but this much is certain: The legal wrangling, infighting, and name-calling aren't likely to end anytime soon, even if all the parties involved admit that TVZ's legacy might be furthered if they could all get along. In the end, their in-fighting is similar to Townes Van Zandt's battles with drugs, alcohol, and gambling in that they're a distraction from the real "Legend of Townes Van Zandt" -- the songs.
"He basically went down in flames, but he stayed so true to his vision you can't fault him for anything," says JT Van Zandt. "He was never hypocritical about the devotion to his music. He died in the course of living on the road and playing his music. There aren't going to be any new songs or performances.
"Once everyone is done rushing out whatever they have, the real test will begin. That test is time -- and time is still ahead of him. That he makes it through the hype is all that's important. This is music that deserved to be treasured as genuine folk music for centuries."