Minor Notes: Townes Van Zandt's 'None But the Rain'
Towards the end of his life Townes Van Zandt was asked by a Dutch journalist about the great number of sad songs in his repertoire. Slightly confounded by the question, he tried to give an answer, paused, and replied “well you know...you don't think life's sad?”
When asked – or when I ask myself, more likely – who my favorite songwriter is, a host of familiar qualifying counter-questions arise in my mind: What era exactly? What genre? From where? So settling on the most basic guidelines – that they must have contributed some form of popular music in the last five or six decades, and be somehow tied to American culture – many artists do come to mind, but I find I am unwilling to commit to anyone other than Van Zandt. And this is probably because he managed to develop a coincidence of talents in a most authentic and unpretentious way.
Let his perfect song 'None But the Rain' stand up for inspection as a representative of his work. There are maybe more lyrically dense, more personal, more musically interesting examples from his longish catalogue, but this will serve well because it contains in two minutes and twenty-three seconds all the elements which makes him imperishable.
Above anything else this little song is about the end of a love affair, summarizing in one fell swoop all the power and sadness of the event. Van Zandt immediately shows his understanding of one of the most enduring rules of songwriting: well-built lines that are simple and which avoid indulgence punch the hardest:
We had our day, but now it's over
We had our song, but now it's sung
We had our stroll through summer's clover
But summer's gone now
Our walking's done
With these stark words we are swiftly caught up in our singer's world of finality and loss. That they are positioned against a rather upbeat musical backing is the only possible hint at irony or ambiguous sentiment. And then we get on in the verses:
So tell me gently
Who'll be your lover
Who'll be your lover
After I'm gone
Will it be the moon
that hears your sighing
Will it be the willow that hears your lonesome song?
Does the singer wish to turn the knife a little at the thought of her impending loneliness? Or is it that he is hopelessly jealous of another love on her horizon - one that mightn't be only an elemental metaphor?
Will it be the rain that clings to your bosom
Will it be the sunshine that dries your golden hair
Will it be the wind that warns of my returning
Will a rose be in your arms when I find you waiting there?
Now, so far removed from the original declaration of an End, our poor singer has permitted himself to wander away from his iron keep and muses over how gratefully his old girl might receive the wind which warns of his (theoretical) decision to return. Will indeed there be a rose in her arms? A rose has for a very long time indicated love and passion, but this excellent line does not indicate which in direction the love and passion is given. Is there a possibility of her someday waiting for him with a rose, or has she been given one to cherish by some other? Well, never mind. Our singer, returning to his keep, at least knows what he shall do in the meantime. His own misery is the one thing he can promise to foster, and he repeats his pseudo-chorus this time by making a vow of it:
None but the rain
Shall cling to my bosom
None but the moon shall hear my lonesome sigh
None but the wind
Shall warn of your returning
Fare thee well my love
And although he can't but help to leave open the broad and undefined possibilities of the future, carried here on the wind, he resolves to chase this hope finally from his mind by saying, at last, 'goodbye.' Thus ends this short, elemental, unbearably lovely song.
A brief coda: Looking it over once again, we see, bookended between two seemingly firm declarations of an end of love: a midsection of longing, regret, and a near-unspoken hope of reconciliation. As with so many poets and songwriters who manage to achieve the difficult task of making something complex appear effortless, I don't know quite how conscious Van Zandt's artistry was. The inimitable Nick Cave once expressed with envy the apparent ease with which Shane Macgowan – the perpetually drink-sodden Pogues frontman – wrote his songs. Cave's songwriting, he admitted, came only after effort and frustration, yet Macgowan's lines, it seemed, just “dropped out of him.” With caution, one can draw this line dividing self-conscious and unconscious artists, and pondering who belongs where and how far from the center can be an interesting rabbit hole to explore if one has time. But like most mental models of this sort the only sure theory to come out of it is a staggering sense of how truly diverse are the inner lives of artists, and of human beings in general.
One more anecdote on this theme comes out of David Remnick's excellent New Yorker piece in 2016 featuring Leonard Cohen, published only weeks before his death. Apparently Cohen and Bob Dylan – two other obvious candidates for 'best' of their era – once discussed their mutual admiration for the others' songs. Dylan wondered how long it took Cohen to write the now-overplayed but lyrically exquisite 'Hallelujah.' Cohen lied that it had taken him two years. Really it had taken him five. Then Cohen asked how long it had taken Dylan to write 'I and I,' one of his personal favorites. 'Fifteen minutes' was the old curmudgeon's reply. “That's just the way the cards are dealt,” Cohen explained to Remnick years later.
Well, back to Townes. It's impossible to say for sure, but it seems to me as though Van Zandt's songwriting was at the very least not as arduously come by as Cave's or Cohen's. He may have actually had a harder life than any of the other fellows mentioned (a life engagingly documented in Jonathan Demme's film Be Here to Love Me), and after years of hard traveling, drug use, electro-shock therapy, and tempting God himself in a round of solitary Russian roulette, the actual songwriting was perhaps low on his list of agonies.
He was an amalgam of everything romantic and playful and harsh and blue about America, about its open road and its joys and freedoms and hellscapes. And while being a rather literate, well-read troubadour, he does not give the impression of being overly-concerned with the literary world. Nor does his voice, so wonderfully and imperfectly warm and wavering, demand of its listener the respect of some great vocal superpower. Nothing is affected, nothing done especially to stand out. And for this natural humility he was rewarded – still is – with a lifetime of admiration among musicians, and hardly anybody else.
What I find so excellent about Van Zandt is that he really might not have known how to care about his own obscurity. One gets the impression that his songs justified the wild and difficult life he led, and in turn the beauty of the songs required a kind of life-experience so deep and tremulous that they might have waited many lifetimes unwritten before a brave enough poet happened to come around. Such an arrangement leaves some room for an audience, but doesn't exactly put one front and center. And writing this now, I find a line from another of his songs shooting across my mind with a renewed and glittering point. In fact I'm pleased to be reminded that it opens the self-titled record which 'None But the Rain' closes. Here he sings reflectively about a particular perplexing woman, the riddle of whose being could easily be his own:
Nothin's what it seems Maybe she'll start some day To realize If she abandons her dreams Then all the words she can say Are only lies
When will she see That to gain Is only to lose? All that she offers me Are her chains And I got to refuse It's only to herself that she's lied She likes to pretend There's something that she should defend With her pride I don't intend To stand here and be the friend From whom she must hide
Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song
And who do I think that I am to decide that she's wrong?