Townes Van Zandt is a music legend in Texas and was, without a doubt, one of the most talented songwriters of his generation. In addition, Van Zandt had a memorable singing voice and style that make him instantly recognizable to anyone even casually familiar with his work. Sadly, Van Zandt also was an alcoholic of epic proportions, and that contributed to the fact that, though he is legend to many, he is largely unknown to even more. John Kruth’s To Live's to Fly, the first official Townes Van Zandt biography, could help change that.
Those expecting to read the Townes Van Zandt story in typical biography style will be somewhat disappointed in To Live's to Fly. John Kruth has made little effort to portray Van Zandt’s life in anything remotely resembling chronological order, relying instead on recollections of Van Zandt intimates to provide details of their personal experiences with him in a way that often has the reader jumping from year to year and decade to decade in confusion. In fact, because it relies so heavily on page after page of long, detailed quotes, the book reads more like a wake than a biography, a gathering of Van Zandt’s old friends who decide to spend the night trading stories about the man they all called friend.
Kruth devotes a substantial portion of his book to reviewing the Van Zandt songbook, a review that leaves the reader with the impression that very few Townes Van Zandt recordings are even listenable due to the incompetence and poor decisions of most of the producers working on his projects. It is doubtful that many fans of Van Zandt’s music will agree with Kruth’s assessment of the recordings; in fact, most of Kruth’s criticisms will seem strange to those who decide to listen to the music in question while reading the book (as I did). Kruth himself is a musician, but the fact that he would have produced Van Zandt’s albums differently than they were in fact produced adds nothing to the Townes Van Zandt story, and his song-by-song criticism of the actual producers soon becomes boring.
This is not a comfortable read because of the way that Kruth jarringly switches between first-person and third-person narrative at odd times, and because he does not always make it clear exactly who it is he is extensively quoting from page to page. Some of the quoted passages run together, and it is only well into them that the reader realizes that the speaker has changed from one paragraph to the next. Those geographically familiar with the ground covered in the book will also be irritated by the kind of sloppy fact-checking that places the University of Texas in Houston rather than in Austin and mislabels Houston’s Interstate 45 as Interstate 35, a designation it picks up somewhere near Dallas.
But despite its numerous flaws, To Live's to Fly has something to offer those who are curious about Townes Van Zandt, the man. The numerous stories told by his friends paint the picture of a generous man with a keen sense of humor, a womanizing gambler and substance abuser who was probably lucky to make it all the way to 52 years of age. Those closest to Van Zandt were generally not surprised by his death, some of them remarking that toward the end they could not help wondering if they were seeing him for the last time each time he walked out the door. The poignant chapter detailing Van Zandt’s sudden death at home, and what led up to his final day, is by itself enough to make this book worthwhile. Townes Van Zandt, though, deserves to be remembered for the music he created and left behind rather than for his destructive lifestyle. He will have to wait a while longer for his definitive biography. This is not it.