Townes Van Zandt looks and sounds like everyone’s idea of the lonesome cowboy: he’s lanky and slow-moving, with a whispery Texas drawl and a leathery, careworn face. He ambles onto the stage, opens up his set with a mumbled comment and a joke or two–usually a tale that sounds as if it’s going to end tragically but winds down to a hilariously prosaic finish–then without another word picks up his guitar and starts to play.

Like the Texas bluesmen he admires, Van Zandt uses notes to evoke an uncluttered landscape of melancholy introspection. When he wants to, he can show considerable instrumental flair: Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Short-Haired Woman” is a favorite of Van Zandt’s, and he emulates Hopkins’s stinging, single-string arpeggio style with superb facility. Most of the time, though, he concentrates on slow or medium-tempo country-folk finger picking, often in a minor key. You don’t go to a Townes Van Zandt show to be blown away by instrumental virtuosity; his playing sets the mood, but it’s his words that tell the tale.

Van Zandt is probably most widely known for songs that have become hits for other artists–Willie Nelson (“Pancho & Lefty”), Don Williams and Emmylou Harris (“If I Needed You”)–but throughout his career he’s tended to save the real cut-to-the-bone stuff for himself. He’s been a mainstay on the singer-songwriter circuit since the late 60s; his recorded output (on small folk labels like Tomato and Sugar Hill) has consistently been superb. He’s built a reputation among aficionados as one of our most eloquent folk poets in an age when folk music is all too often relegated to museum-piece status.

Van Zandt moves through the world with his soul exposed like an open nerve. He’s been known to sing through his tears onstage; in conversation he can veer from laid-back affability to trembling vulnerability in the course of a sentence, and you never know which droll story or fond remembrance is going to trigger the transition. That courage to stare unblinking into the abyss of oblivion–his own, a fictitious hero’s, society’s–means Van Zandt brings an autobiographical immediacy to virtually everything he does. He says that many of his darkest fables seem to flow effortlessly from his pen (“I don’t know where some of ’em come from”). The dry, somewhat pinched quality of his voice gives even his most harrowing songs a conversational casualness; he seems to accept despair and the shattering of dreams as natural occurrences, as run-of-the-mill as a morning cup of coffee.

Van Zandt, whose relaxed folksiness is offset by an underlying intensity, commented several times during his recent show at the Beat Kitchen how comfortable he felt there; as if to prove it, he plunged unhesitatingly into some of his most complex and challenging material. “Dollar Bill Blues,” a chilling minor-key gambling ballad driven by a haunting sense of fatalism and tragedy (“My mother was a golden girl / I slit her throat just to get her pearls”), is the kind of thing many artists would use to close a set; Van Zandt opened with it.

He has a special affection for gambling songs: the image of a man at the mercy of chance obviously appeals to him, and characteristically he takes that already-dark idea and makes it bleaker still. “Mr. Mud and Mr. Gold” finds a luckless gambler enveloped in swirling misty green vapors, seated at a table surrounded by a cabal of evil-eyed companions. Not only do the gambler’s cards take on free will and conspire to ruin him, but by the end of the song a wild band of angels begins to assist the cards in bleeding the poor sucker dry. The only thing more terrifying to a gambler than defeat is the notion that bad luck isn’t random, it’s a manifestation of divine retribution or cruelty. That’s the image with which Van Zandt concludes.

Yet at the heart of his vision is the tenuous, healing bond that links people to one another. Some of his most moving compositions are tributes to friends who’ve passed away. “This is the beginning of my ‘dead-friends suite,'” he said by way of introducing “Blaise’s Blues,” written in memory of Texas songwriter Blaise Foley, who was killed about two years ago. Listening to “Blaise’s Blues” one is reminded of Van Zandt’s early admiration for Elvis Presley and the Sun Records rockabilly pioneers; the song rolls along in a bass-heavy boogie reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” (recorded on Sun in the 50s) and other C & W traveling songs. Even when he’s evoking images of freedom and the open road, however, Van Zandt’s lyrics sound restless and brooding.

His paeans to the western mythos of rugged cowboy individualism are often love stories in disguise. The hard-bitten outlaws in “Pancho & Lefty” need each other so much that after Pancho gets killed in Mexico his partner can’t even sing the blues anymore (“The dust that Pancho bit down south / Ended up in Lefty’s mouth”). Brokenhearted, Lefty abandons the outlaw life and winds up languishing in a cheap hotel in Ohio.

Unlike the dreamily melancholy “Pancho & Lefty,” “Marie” bristles with sharply drawn anger. It’s the story of a homeless couple on a desperate race against winter and oblivion; again, Van Zandt’s knack of telling a nightmarish story with conversational ease cuts to the soul. The song is both a biting commentary on social conditions and an affirmation of the abiding need to find companionship in the most hopeless of circumstances. The protagonist huddles in a makeshift home under a bridge with his lover Marie. He could catch a train south, he says, but Marie’s pregnant and wouldn’t be able to make the trip. After a bungling bureaucrat turns down his application for assistance, Marie gives up the struggle and dies in her sleep. He leaves her body and their unborn child behind and finally catches that train, proclaiming his faith that someday they’ll follow him when they’re ready. Whether he’s praying for a reunion in some promised land or has slipped from sanity is never made clear.

In contrast to the offhanded ease with which he spins his tragic tales, Van Zandt imbues his love songs with a delicate sense of wonder, as if to suggest that comfort and sanctuary are miracles while despair is the human condition. He sings of his lady as “a treasure for the poor to find,” weaving imagery of fragile things–glass, rainbows, home–around melodies that are often almost childlike, plucked gently with music-box simplicity in the upper registers of his guitar.

In his love songs, Van Zandt readily admits his shortcomings as a romantic companion–never around for very long, always moody and blue–but he’s neither a 90s-era Sensitive Male nor a macho swaggerer praising the martyrlike resolve of a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man. He and his lover will “help each other grow,” he sings, portraying the sanctuary they’ll create together as something rare and wonderful–again in contrast to the doom and devastation swirling outside the sanctuary walls.

Van Zandt makes few concessions to fashion. In his lighter moments he revels in jokes and songs that are sometimes politically incorrect in a way that’s refreshing amid the earnestness of the folk-music world. “Talking Karate Blues” depicts a hilarious slapstick encounter with a massive Japanese martial-arts instructor, who comes on like a combination of Bruce Lee, a sumo wrestler, and an extra from a World War II-era propaganda film; the narrator, terrified by the man’s appearance and power, blurts out at one point, “And I thought he was yellow!” The song’s easygoing ethnic humor left some of the more righteous folkies at the Beat Kitchen frozen in their seats.

A few of Van Zandt’s spoken asides (“This is a song half about a horse and half about a girl, and I still miss the horse,” “He’s so ugly that when he was born, the doctor slapped his mother!”) likewise sent muttering ripples through the crowd. In fact Van Zandt subjected the folkie culture itself, with its tendency toward the precious, to its share of ridicule: after a particularly convoluted narrative about a songbird he murmured tenderly, “It’s wonderful when this many people can come together and laugh over the death of a parakeet.”

But the redemptive power of Van Zandt’s art doesn’t derive from his jokes or humorous songs (he includes them, he says, because otherwise “you’d have to pass out razor blades before the end of the set”). Rather, he extracts faith from the very depths of hopelessness. “The Hole” is a terrifying tale, delivered in a dry-throated monotone reminiscent of William Burroughs, about a subterranean encounter with a mysterious green-eyed seductress with “a smile just like a grave.” She might be a vision of death, like Leonard Cohen’s Lady Midnight; maybe she’s Sister Morphine stripped of her illusory good-time drag. Van Zandt simply says the song derives from “times I’ve been in trouble deep.”

The temptress whispers to him that he should abandon his family and his loved ones (“If you want to pay your father back / Just send him some misery”) and stay underground with her. Just as he’s ready to believe her, the singer thinks of the glow of human affection he’s left behind; tearing himself from her grasp, he claws his way back up “through the stinkin’, clingin’ loam” into the daytime world of life, light, and the possibility of redemption.

“Sorrow and solitude / These are the precious things / The only words worth remembering,” Van Zandt sings in “Nothin’,” another back-from-the-abyss allegory of near entrapment in a netherworld of shadowy terror. Only by embracing images of nightmare and pain, his fables tell us, can we strip them of their power. There’s no guarantee even so that we’ll find peace in a world where bands of renegade angels conspire with one-eyed jacks to sabotage our dreams, but it sure beats spending eternity in a dank hole with a green-eyed soul stealer. In the end we embrace faith not as salvation insurance but because it’s the only game in town.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.