Revinylization #38: At My Window by Townes Van Zandt

To be a poet is to be tormented. And singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt's demons were relentless: mental illness, addiction, willful recklessness. He constantly complicated his life and the lives of those around him. Even fans who felt lucky just to have him play their town were unwittingly drawn in, often exhilarated but occasionally aghast. Yet judged by his recordings, he was indisputably a songwriting genius—often sad and confused but gifted nonetheless. The scion of a storied and wealthy Texas clan, he was that rare artist who was compelled to create art.

As John Prine put it, "Townes, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen absolutely had to write. They had no choice in it. They had to get it out of 'em." Haunted and otherworldly, his songs bore the deep scars of self-inflicted wounding. They were full of what music writer Robert Palmer called "prickly uncomfortable truths and unsentimental reflection," qualities on display, eg, in the opening lines of "Still Lookin' for You" from At My Window: "Ain't much I ain't tried / Fast livin' slow suicide / Then a-runnin' in a place to hide." Artists inevitably find a strong suit; a mood, feeling, or emotion they relate to best. For Bob Dylan, it is profundity. John Philip Sousa was triumphant. The Gershwins were about joy. Primarily a ballad singer, Townes feared heartbreak.

In the mid-1980s, Van Zandt's life tornado slowed, and he entered a period of atypical calm. His finances were never better, with royalty checks arriving regularly as other artists like Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson covered his magical songs. He and his third wife, Jeanene, had a new son, Will. His hope and energies rising, his focus turned toward entering a recording studio for the first time in nine years. In March 1987, sessions commenced with his longtime producer, "Cowboy" Jack Clement, at Clement's Nashville studio, Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. The resulting album, At My Window, has been reissued by Craft Recordings to celebrate its 35th anniversary.

Remastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, this reissue was pressed at Memphis Record Pressing in Memphis, Tennessee, on speckled sky-blue 160gm vinyl in a limited edition of 6000 copies ($29.99). While Gray's remastering is up to his usual high standards, with a slightly clearer stereo image than either the original 1987 pressing or the very limited (1000 copies) 2012 RSD (Record Store Day) reissue, my copy of this edition is noisy and slightly warped.

As was often the case with Van Zandt albums, the collection of tunes assembled for these sessions was a mixed bag. The title track from his 1968 debut album, "For the Sake of the Song," would eventually appear on four Van Zandt albums. Both "At My Window" and "Buckskin Stallion Blues" were first recorded in 1973 but remained unreleased in their original versions until the 1993 album The Nashville Sessions. The closer, "Catfish Blues," a Van Zandt original, was finished in the mid-1980s but not recorded until At My Window.


Talent attracts talent. The group of musicians chosen for the At My Window sessions included the cream of Nashville players at that time. Bassist Roy Husky Jr., fiddler Mark O'Connor, and harmonica player Mickey Raphael all add their consummate voices to the proceedings. Most essential of all was Mickey White, Van Zandt's longtime guitarist. In John Kruth's excellent Van Zandt biography, To Live's to Fly, White, who'd seen it all by 1987, was critical of the At My Window sessions, saying, "Townes' skills were not consistent. ... [H]e didn't fingerpick as well as he used to. And he started getting a little lazy as a singer."

Ostensibly produced by Jack Clement, engineer Jim Rooney did all the actual work. In Kruth's book, he described fond memories of the sessions, saying in part, "Townes was in a good place. ... The musicians responded to his songs and his singing. It was all seamless. To make it sound as good as we could, I brought in Rich Adler, a real engineer, to mix the album."

Van Zandt's melodies were often simple and easy to follow. His titles often referred to the American West, no matter where the lyrics went. He often used the suffix of "Blues," though his definition of that foundational American musical form strayed far from its well-established essence.

At My Window opens with a stone Van Zandt classic, "Snowin' on Raton," which, despite a title that refers to the mountain pass between Colorado and New Mexico, eloquently dives into the downside or at least the inconstancy of love: "Shall I cast my dreams upon your love, babe?/And lie beneath the laughter of your eyes." His other ruling obsession—of course—was death. (This is a man who released The Late Great Townes Van Zandt when he was 28. It was his best album.) Here, both love and death bubble up in the title track, where he reckons, "Ah living is dancing/Dying does nothing at all."

Best known for his troubled, often desolate songs, Van Zandt also wrote under-appreciated upbeat beauties like "Ain't Leavin' Your Love," undoubtedly written for Jeanene. The album's other Van Zandt classic is "Buckskin Stallion Blues." This brilliant, oft-covered original contains some of his most intricate and persuasive lyrics: "If three and four were seven only?/ Where would that leave one and two? / If love can be and still be lonely / Where does that leave me and you?"

The cover of At My Window features a manipulated Polaroid cover shot, which many have interpreted as a deliberate representation of Van Zandt's often-fragile mental state. Yet, after several listens, At My Window exhibits the camouflaged strength that underlies Van Zandt's work. Insecure and attracted to self-destruction and its resulting griefs, he was also a tenacious survivor who understood and appreciated the visionary songwriting genius that was uniquely his.

Doctor Fine's picture

I listen to new stuff that is easily the equal of what pop had to say back in my youth---I'm 74 years old. I think I know a lot about the scene due to the fact I played the same stages as Zep, the Mothers, Steppenwolf, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and all the stuff that was hot 40/50/60 years ago. So back then I put on concerts and worked with a lot of famous people.

Those 60s era artists had a lot to say and used pure inspiration to find their voice. And some added drugs to the mix to find their voice but that's another story. Anyway, I am sure this old pop music you keep reviewing is interesting to collectors of now defunct bands and dead people that used to have something to say 40 years ago. But times change. I'm not interested in the latest Steely Dan remaster either...

Bands I like that are not dead as far as I know:
Cut worms.
Kurt Vile
Magnetic Fields
Cate Le Bon
Logan Ledger
Michael Nau
This stuff is music, not commercial noise like so much of today's offerings. It is mostly psych-pop with a good beat---just the way I like things. I was missing Grateful Dead and North Beach Beatnik music seems to be back in style again. I love this new stuff! If I never read another review of a re-released 50-year-old recording by a dead guy again---it will be too soon!