Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Tag: Townes Van Zandt

The Dead Songwriters Society

Eric Taylor, 1949-2020.

Kenny Rogers died on Friday. I didn’t know the man, of course, but I know the music. He recorded a song by my friend Bat McGrath, and seemed like a nice guy. In an interview some years ago, I asked if he’d ever been in a bar fight. Short answer: No.

Eric Taylor also died last week. I interviewed him twice over the last two decades, and it never occurred to me to ask if he’d ever been in a bar fight. But he’d been in plenty of bars, that seemed obvious.

The first time I saw Taylor was 2001 at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. I’d never heard of the guy. He blew me away. His songs were deep and troubled. That southern Gothic triptych of whiskey, murder and the Bible. And he did two songs by Townes Van Zandt. Before starting each one, Taylor pulled a hip flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and took a long swig.

I was pretty excited, about 12 years ago, when My Friends Rick and Monica announced that they had booked Taylor for their first house concert. Rick called and asked if I knew where he could get some beef jerky. That was one of the things in Taylor’s tour rider. Beef jerky.

And bourbon. A bottle of bourbon was in the rider as well.

I called Taylor before the show, and recalled for him how I had seen him that night in Austin, and noticed he had taken a drink from his flask before doing the two songs by Van Zandt. Was that a silent tribute to his old friend, who died in 1997 of cardiac arrhythmia, driven by his substance abuse?

No, Taylor said, in a business-like tone. “I like to drink.”

The house concert was a success, the room packed with 50 people. The deeper into the show, the deeper into the bottle of bourbon before him, the deeper Taylor went into his songs. Then it was like someone flipped an unseen switch, and Taylor was gone; now he was a guy with a pocketknife, cleaning his fingernails on the courthouse steps, waiting to drive Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe away from their marriage and on to the next metaphor.

Then the bourbon was gone, but the show wasn’t over. Rick had to scramble, but found a bottle of Chivas Regal. And the show continued.

Taylor hung out with Van Zandt for years, haunting the Houston clubs. Good times, hard living, stunning words. Writers who invented great characters that say true things. Fellow writers, like Lyle Lovett, know what a good song sounds like and smells like. Lovett’s recorded a few Taylor songs. Joan Baez, too. And Nanci Griffith; you’re writing weapons-grade material if your ex-wife records your songs.

Taylor came back to town a couple of times more, playing Abilene Bar & Lounge. He looked a little different. More at peace, perhaps? He filled me in on his long and erratic medical history. The heart attack he’d had years earlier, the triple bypass, the rehab. Even the time he’d spent counselling addicts. That might sound like asking Satan advice on curbing your sins, but Taylor was speaking from experience.

So there was Taylor again, onstage at Abilene, gently strumming his guitar, like you would pet an old dog, talking about his friend Bill Morrissey. Telling the story about how Bill, an intense songwriter in his own right, had stopped at a motel for the night in Dalton, Georgia. And later someone heard Bill’s dogs barking, he often traveled with his dogs. And they went to go look, and you knew this story would end badly.

Then Taylor kind of slipped into the background, and Bill Morrissey took his place. “I oughta stop drinkin’, but I don’t know why,” Morrissey moaned/sang. “Yeah, I’ve been through this town before,” he said, looking around Dalton. “It’s got a four-way stop, and a liquor store.”

Before the show, Taylor was telling me about how no one was surprised when Van Zandt died. Or when Morrissey died. The struggle. The sadness. The introspection.

A few of years ago, I asked the Nashville songwriter David Olney about Taylor. They ran together for years, raised hell. Olney was another guy who crawled inside his characters when he sang about them. “His music is so much him, I think he pays a price,” Olney said. “I think anybody pays a price to write music that stark.”

That price tag hangs on a lot of songwriters. The Dead Songwriters Society.

Van Zandt, Morrissey. Just a couple of months ago, Olney. Scroll back not too far in these blogs, back to Jan. 22, and you can read about Olney. He died onstage, in mid-song.

And now, Taylor has died, at age 70. On the same day that songwriters in Nashville were playing at a tribute to Olney. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Taylor’s heart that finally gave way. Or, maybe not surprisingly, it was liver disease.

I remember what Taylor said to me the last time we talked. “Sometimes, the most interesting people in the world will break your heart.”

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The Critical Mass

Tina Turner, real and imagined; Gone with ‘The Wind’s Dominion’

The woman who books the shows at the big music club here, Water Street Music Hall, came up to me early in the evening and said, “Sharon Jones wants the guy who wrote that story to come up on stage and dance with her.” That was me. I’m sorry, I had to disappoint both Cat and Sharon, as well as about 600 people packed into the club. I do not make a  public spectacle of myself.

There is a line between merely copying something and actually being it. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings felt like the real retro-soul thing on Saturday night, an eight-piece, horn-fueled band fronted by a 51-year-old dynamo, James Brown in spike heels. Tina Turner, but rougher. I remembered seeing Ike Turner in 2002; this was a few years before he died, although now that I think about it, I’m not actually sure the 70-year-old Turner was still alive at the time. Loved the first half of the show, real vintage R&B and soul. But then Turner brought out the female singer, his girlfriend, a woman who looked and moved and tried to sound exactly like the Tina of years ago. It was weird and pathetic.

On the other side of the wall on Saturday, in Water Street’s smaller club, The Flatlanders began playing  just as the Dap-Kings wrapped it up. I’d call The Flatlanders a near-perfect band, with Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock swapping verses on each others’ songs like freight cars smoothly switching tracks at a railway station. Before they were finished, they brought their young opener, Ryan Bingham, onstage for a version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner.” The kid’s barely in his mid-20s, but already sings like he’s 65 years old and drowning in whiskey sorrow. At the end of his set he did Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and wore it like a hat he’d found on the side of the road.

Before the show, we ran  into the Flatlanders and Bingham at the restaurant across the street, Pane Vino, and sat with them at the bar for about an hour. They’re gracious Texans, dust-blown psychedelic Renaissance men. Hancock seemed particularly pleased that years ago I had owned his The Wind’s Dominion on vinyl, and now had it on CD. The Wind’s Dominion is Hancock’s Blonde on Blonde, a sonically sprawling, two-record set when it first came out. Hancock told me he had to leave off two of the songs to fit the CD format. One of those, the talkin’ blues  “Split and Slide,” is now 21 minutes long he said, and still growing. “I keep adding to it,” he said. “I guess you’d like it, if you like shaggy-dog stories.”

I told him I love all dogs. The next day, I looked up vinyl versions of The Wind’s Dominion on the Internet, as mine was long gone at a yard sale. I found copies going for $130. Once again, I am an idiot.

TIMES OUT. I’m taking the rest of the Holiday week off from blogging in favor of long walks in the woods with the dog. So you may have to read the Sunday Times on your own this weekend. Maybe not.

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