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Still Lookin' for You - Townes Van Zandt

There are many lists of the top 100 albums of all time, but none of them include the greatest album of love songs ever,

Townes Van Zandt's 1987 LP "At My Window". They should. It's up there with the best. No-one wrote a better love song than Townes, neither for melody nor poetry, neither for passion nor depth.

"......when the curtain tumbles down

I'll be somewhere hanging round

with my heart laid on the ground

just looking for you...."

When Polar Promotions (hot music in a cold climate!) put on Townes Van Zandt at the Union Chapel in Islington in the 90's (see ) he was fast becoming a cult singer/songwriter in the wake of covers of his songs by illustrious musicians such as Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. This had litttle effect on his down-to-earth approach to performing, always straight from the heart, interspersed with gentle humour. When he arrived for the soundcheck on the afternoon of the concert the stage manager asked him, "Townes, do you want a stool?" and he replied "No thanks Martin, I done one when I got up this morning."

He puncuated his act with a series of bon mots and jokes, many of which I still tell today. Not least among these is known to my family and friends as the first penguin joke. I enjoy telling it. Like listening to his music, it's another way of keeping Townes's memory alive. Short version:

On a sunny day, a traffic cop is parked, eating his lunch when he sees a man driving by on the freeway with three penguins in the back of his car. The cop drives after him, sirens howling, passes him, flags him down, parks, gets off his bike, and walks back to the car just like in the movies. After exchanging "good afternoon"s with the driver he asks him "where're you going with those penguins?" The guy answers assuredly, "I'm taking them to the zoo" to which the cop says "okay, drive on" and waves him off. The next day the cop's sitting astride his bike having his sandwich in his usual place, when he sees the same car, driven by the same guy, with the three penguins in the back just like the day before, only this time they're all wearing dark glasses. The same thing happens: sirens, flags him down, parks bike then walks back and says to the driver, "I thought you were taking those penguins to the zoo" to which the guy replies "That was yesterday. Today we're going to the beach."

While films of Townes performing live generally show a tall, affable Texan singing exquisitely and mournfully, casually dipping here and there into his vast repertoire of songs, none ever seem to capture the extraordinary aura he projected onto the audience when performing. It seemed as though his vulnerability and the poetry of his music combined in a tangible, infectious warmth, a kind of massed redemption through a shared moment of beauty.

I've seen and promoted a lot of musicians but none have been able to cast a spell over the audience in the way he did, as I imagine other great troubadors have over the ages, even, maybe, the way the great original love poet Sappho did over 2,000 years ago.

As Townes opined that night, quoting Groucho Marx:

"Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana."


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