Townes Van Zandt
IN THE late 80s, early 90s a slew of American country talent passed through Auckland, brought here by the enterprising team at Real Groovy Records. This wasn't mainstream country but mavericks like Lucinda Williams, Guy Clark and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
At the time I was a struggling singer-songwriter fronting a three-piece band called The Trains -- influenced more by Lou Reed and Television -- but I was also discovering the music we now know as alt-country.
The gateway drug was Steve Earle's Guitar Town (1986) and through Earle I got to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt among others. Their records gave me the courage to pick up my acoustic guitar and step out alone.
My first outing was opening for the now legendary, (more infamous back then) troubled, Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt on his second visit here.
Despite being one of Dylan's favourite songwriters and having his song Pancho and Lefty as the title cut on Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson's 1983 hit album, the Townes I met at soundcheck at the Leopard Tavern was polite and rather bemused at all the attention.
Back home he played to tiny crowds in rundown bars. Here, halfway across the world, he was about to be interviewed (by the late Dylan Taite) for national television. The next night he was booked to play to 500 at The Gluepot in Ponsonby.
Turns out that Townes had come straight from rehab in the States. His reputation as a nasty, unpredictable drunk preceded him and New Zealand tour manager Kevin Byrt was rightly concerned Townes stay sober. So far, so good.
I can't remember a lot about my set that night but the crowd was a songwriter's dream -- they listened to every word and applauded -- and as I got off stage there was Townes, nodding at me like we were both in on something. Everyone had great expectations around Townes' set and he surpassed them all.
He sat on a bar-stool and performed beautiful versions of his classic songs -- Pancho and Lefty, If I Needed You, Tecumseh Valley and Waitin' Round To Die among them. Best of all was a newer song, Marie, a timeless noir narrative of love and destitution so unrelenting one woman in the audience had tears streaming down her face.
Afterwards Townes autographed a record for me and took time to sketch a desert scene (see picture).
"I like your songs," he said as he drew, "Don't ever stop writing." Then "Make sure you come and say hi at the Gluepot show."
Turns out I saw him later that night at the after-party where, amid much drinking, (not Townes,yet, that I could see) someone pulled out a guitar and we played our songs.
"Slow it down, man," he told me as I strummed and sang. I did, and he was right.
He was less kind to others.
Later I watched as Townes went into the kitchen, cracked a raw egg, swallowed it (old alky stomach-lining trick) and downed some vodka.
His demeanour changed immediately -- he niggled his hosts, insisted on playing poker (few of us back then had any idea how to play) and succeeded in offending just about everyone. As I left Townes was laughing and raking in cash from another hand.
At the Gluepot show we got a different Townes - drunk, unpredictable Townes. To make matters worse this was a large room, more used to rock acts and not kind to folk singers. The audience talked through his first set. I found him backstage drinking vodka out of a wineglass, drunker than the waiting audience and more interested in telling dirty jokes than going back on stage.
"Hey Greg," he said after a particularly raunchy punchline -- "I love your songs. Why don't ya go up and play - you can use my guitar... remember, slow it down, slow it down..." And he passed me over his guitar a beautiful, brand new Gibson.
This was a gesture of respect, but he also wanted to keep drinking. That's the thing with Townes - his Texan charm hid a swathe of competing impulses.
Anyway up I went -- only to meet with the same audience indifference as both Al Hunter (the support act that night) and Townes himself had received. It was one of those nights.
Townes returned to the stage for a second set, but his heart wasn't in it. Afterwards he told me to keep in touch and gave me an address. But I never saw him again. He died aged 52, on New Year's Day 1997.
Fleming and his band The Working Poor are playing Thursday October 29 at The Tuning Fork as part of the Kiwi Country Pioneers night at the venue's Americana Festival. Their new album Stranger In My Own Hometown is out now.