BIOGRAPHY / AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Harold F. Eggers, L. E. McCullough
Hardcover, 978-1617137082, 252 pages, $29.99
October 12, 2018
My Years with Townes Van Zandt: Music, Genius and Rage is an intricately woven story of contradictions and paradox, a whirlwind sometimes beautiful, mostly dreadful; often illogical, but sadly predictable. The time Harold Eggers describes sharing with Townes Van Zandt defies mortal reason, a liability the writers surely anticipated because they felt it necessary to inoculate readers with a foreword, an introduction, and a prologue before sending them into the house of mirrors, then an afterword chaser like Van Zandt’s bedtime vodka to settle them back down and chase off the conjured demons. And they’re right: there’s much that must be explained, declaimed, excused and most importantly, understood. “Hang on,” the troubled duo warns us time and again, “It’s gonna get worse.”
For the reader, the narrative is smoothly written, a stark contrast to the peaks of outlandish behavior and the depths of despair the story chronicles. From the writing standpoint, that must stem from Eggers’s calm, easy to read story-telling, and McCullough’s even hand in the engine room crafting graceful prose no matter what ragged extremes play out on the page.
As road manager and artist, Eggers and Van Zandt were matched flipsides of a black penny: Eggers was a mirror for Van Zandt, an image overlaid with the possibility of stability and forbearance in the rowdy musician’s unrelenting gale of rage, tumult, and torment laced with unlikely fits of empathy, startlingly lucid lyricism, and wicked gallows humor. For Eggers, Van Zandt reflected his own lived horror of war and the specter of swift death and personified the inner demons Egger feared most in himself. Yet at the same time, Van Zandt represented the musical and poetic genius Egger admired most. In Eggers’s quiet resolve, Van Zandt saw the wrath of a twisted past revealed—his own a casualty of electroshock therapy—plus a military excursion to the edge of combat death that was denied Van Zandt but from which Eggers had tenuously escaped -- perhaps suggesting that he might, too. Heap on a pile of drug abuse by the pair of them and Van Zandt’s epic alcoholic extremism, heroin addiction, and mental illness (bipolar disease, Eggers warns us), and it’s a wonder the story lasts more than a couple chapters, much less a few decades.
But endure it does. The musician’s road is twisted, rutted, bumpy, and circuitous coast-to-coast and abroad. Tragic waypoints include emergency rooms, jails, smoky bars, flophouse hotels, all-night diners, back alleys and gutters. Perhaps most bizarre was the rolling tour of crying spawned by shared heroin, confession, sobbing remorse, and baleful tears from a stoned carload of musicians between gigs. With every road mile, Van Zandt embraced the ascetic life and courted death; Eggers mopped up, dried Van Zandt out, both literally and figuratively, and struggled to wake up himself “un-stabbed and un-strangled.” Along the way, a veritable who’s who of country music passes in and out of Van Zandt’s life, many taking with them his original, stunning, plangent, song creations that made them—not him—rich and famous. The sine wave of Van Zandt’s death wish against Eggers’s will to survive becomes deeper and more precipitous in the run up to Van Zandt’s be-all, end-all, Geffen recording session, with predictable, cataclysmic results.
This story is trouble: a gorgeous, lyrical disaster, an unlikely quixotic tragedy that ultimately stonewalls the logical question, “Why?” But once the reader has lived the bumptious Van Zandt odyssey through Eggers’s eyes, the answer emerges in the troubadour’s ghostlike echo from the hereafter, “Why not?”
Why not, indeed.
Chris Manno is the author of the award-winning novels East Jesus and Voodoo Rush. He holds a PhD from Texas Christian University where he teaches writing.