When John Townes Van Zandt walked into the theater at the Museum of Modern Art Friday, all eyes were magnetically drawn to the lanky man on the stage, nearly indistinguishable in appearance from his legendary father.Van Zandt’s father, Fort Worth-born songwriter Townes Van Zandt, is the subject of director Margaret Brown’s new documentary “Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt.”
The film follows Van Zandt from his well-to-do birth in south Fort Worth, through his long recording career, and finally to his death of heart failure in 1997.
“I don’t know who wrote ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Merry Christmas,'” John Townes Van Zandt said, “I think some of Townes’ songs will carry on like that.”
John Townes Van Zandt played three of his father’s tunes, including “Only Him or Me,” and “If I Needed You.”
Much of Townes Van Zandt’s life was spent battling (or giving in) to addictions with drugs and alcohol, and Brown subtly portrays the effects on those around Van Zandt, and ultimately, Van Zandt himself.
The most startling portion of “Be Here” deals with Van Zandt’s shock treatment during college. The treatment wiped away almost all of Van Zandt’s childhood memories, leaving him with a curious detachment from his family and friends.
A host of ex-wives, sons and daughters parade past the screen, sharing anecdotes about the troubled troubadour. Van Zandt’s first wife, Fran, recounts the time a young Van Zandt locked himself in a closet to write the song “Waitin’ Round to Die,” when she was expecting a love ballad.
Van Zandt is often more associated with other people who sang his songs than remembered for his own renditions. Artists ranging from Willie Nelson to Lyle Lovett and Counting Crows have all covered his work.
“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that,” Steve Earle said. The quote is prominently displayed on the poster for “Be Here.” While Dylan’s coffee table is fairly mark-free, “Be Here To Love Me” is a staggeringly tragic look into the life of a true songwriter.