#7: Townes Van Zandt, "Heavenly Houseboat Blues"
This is the seventh edition of Honky-Tonk Weekly, a weekly column here at the Tropical Depression Substack. You can read previous editions here. Every week, I will listen to and share a country song and write whatever comes to mind. Listen along! This week, we’re bubbling under with Townes Van Zandt.
I’m building a houseboat to heaven, to sail those deep and holy seas
C.S. Lewis described heaven as an eternal dance. “All pains and pleasures we have known on earth are early initiations in the movements of that dance: but the dance itself is strictly incomparable with the sufferings of this present time,” he wrote. “As we draw nearer to its uncreated rhythm, pain and pleasure sink almost out of sight. There is joy in the dance, but it does not exist for the sake of joy.”
“In heaven there is no beer,” according to a polka song popularized in the U.S. by Frankie Yankovic, “so let’s get drunk while we’re down here.”
In Burmese Buddhist tradition, there are 40,040 hells—one for each sin. One hell for nosiness, another for eating sweets with rice, etc.
Other Buddhist traditions had sixteen major hells, eight hot and eight cold, with subsidiaries within those sixteen main Narakas. These hells are not eternal but you have to spend quite a long time there. For example: Inhabitants on the frozen plain of Arbuda suffer from blisters on their naked bodies from the frigid temperatures. For how long? Imagine a cart full of sesame seeds, and a single seed is removed every one hundred years, until the cart is finally empty. The duration on Arbuda is at least that long. Then you proceed to the next hell, where the duration is an order of magnitude longer. And so on.
And it’s welcome aboard
Townes Van Zandt died at least three times. One night, in 1972, he overdosed on heroin. The details are a little murky, but he was clinically dead and then revived, maybe once on the way to the hospital and once when he arrived. So there’s a legend for you: The night that Townes died twice. According to his first wife, they knocked his front teeth out to put the tube down his throat. Later that year, he released an album called The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, which included his masterpiece, “Pancho and Lefty.” The album’s closer was “Heavenly Houseboat Blues,” which he co-wrote with Susanna Clark.
Many years later, Townes died a third and final time, on New Year’s Day in 1997. Townes himself thought it would be sooner. “He predicted his own death years before to the point where it became crying wolf,” his eldest son J.T. said later.
After a hip surgery on New Year’s Eve, Townes was in a bad way without alcohol in the hospital, veering toward delirium tremens. He was signed out of the hospital at around five in the morning on Jan. 1, against medical advice. He was shaking so badly, he could barely get the lid off the jug of liquor waiting for him in the car. He was more lucid once he got home, and merrily called some buddies. Townes Van Zandt was a rambling man, but that night he died at home, in his bed.
Ain’t too much along the lines a floating
“Everything is boring,” Mike Tyson once said, “except for boxing.”
“I figure there’s heaven, hell, purgatory, and the blues,” Townes told an interviewer in the late 1980s.
Like Townes Van Zandt, David Berman was a tragic boy with a rich daddy. “In twenty-seven years, I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers,” he explained in song. “They just wash against me like the sea into a pier.”
“I’m going where there’s no depression, to the lovely land that’s free from care,” the Carter Family announced.
“Until we get there,” wrote Saint Augustine, “the whole of this life is the desert for us, the whole of it a trial and temptation.”
When Townes was a young man, he asked Lightnin’ Hopkins what the blues were. “Well, son,” Hopkins said, “I think they’re a cross between the greens and the yellows.”
In 2005, in Lucknow, India, two slime molds were discovered who had been in continuous sexual union for 65 million years. I’m just saying.
I rode my old guitar to heaven, but heaven didn’t feel too much like home
“The sense of my own irreplaceable life…is inseparable from my sense that it will end,” wrote the contemporary philosopher Martin Hägglund.
Hägglund argues that finitude is precisely what gives us meaning; time is precious because it is scarce. “The depths of life are not revealed through faith in eternity,” he wrote. “Rather, our spiritual commitments proceed from caring for what will be irrevocably lost and remaining faithful to what gives no final guarantee.” One cannot be free, he says, without fragility.
When Townes was sixteen, he was sent to a military academy in Faribault, Minnesota. He marched, sniffed glue, and played on the football, baseball, and wrestling teams. He learned to play songs by his heroes, like Mance Lipscomb. In the yearbook, there’s a picture of him with a pair of socks hanging out of his mouth.
The earliest ship captains could reckon their location in terms of latitude without much trouble. They had ready clues in the sky, such as the position of a marker like the North Star above the horizon in the northern hemisphere. But longitude was tricky. That was a question of time.
If you’re traveling east or west, fifteen degrees of longitude is always equivalent to a one-hour time difference. This can be converted to distance, depending on your latitude—at the equator, where the earth is widest, fifteen degrees is a thousand miles. The closer you are to the poles, the smaller the distance you have to travel to cover fifteen degrees.
In order to determine just how far you had travelled and measure your longitude, you had to know what time it was on the ship and simultaneously identify the time at a different point, such as your original port, with a known longitude. Figuring out local time was manageable by observation of the sun or other celestial bodies: The navigator could set the ship’s clock to noon every day when the sun was at its peak in the sky. But through the first half of the eighteenth century, accurately keeping the time of the home port proved impossible. Even otherwise excellent pendulum-based timekeepers would malfunction at sea, unable to handle the motion, changes in temperature and barometric pressure, and variations in gravity at different latitudes.
From Dava Sobel’s wonderful book on longitude:
As more and more vessels set out to conquer to explore new territories, to wage war, or to ferry gold and commodities between foreign lands, the wealth of nations floated upon the oceans. And still no ship owned a reliable means for establishing her whereabouts. In consequence, untold numbers of sailors died when their destinations suddenly loomed out of the sea and took them by surprise. In a single such accident, on October 22, 1707, at the Scilly Isles near the southwestern tip of England, four homebound British warships ran aground and nearly two thousand men lost their lives.
The problem stumped Isaac Newton. But John Harrison, an English clockmaker with no formal education, eventually solved the puzzle after working on it for decades. He engineered a marine chronometer that could accurately maintain the time of the home port in the brutal environment (for clocks, as well as sailors) on the ocean. Even far away in the open sea, the ship’s navigator could know what time it was back home.
“For where shall the likeness of God be found?” asked Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.”
What’s your take on eternity? On finitude? On disguise? I’m not sure.
So I’m headed out on to them lonesome oceans
Perhaps Townes died other times, unreported. When he was a student at the University of Colorado, sometimes he would hole up alone in his room, sometimes he would go out and party. One time, he was at a party and sat on the edge of a fourth floor balcony, his legs dangling over. Something happened. He fell, or let himself fall. He leaned backwards, he said later, “just to see what it felt like all the way up to when you lost control.” As the story goes, he fell flat on his back with a bottle of wine still in his hand and didn’t spill a drop. Some say it was a third-floor balcony. He felt no ill effects and kept on partying.
According to John the Revelator, upon entering the door to heaven, he was at once in the spirit, and he saw a throne. And the one seated on the throne looked like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald.
Heaven is always ineffable; people are very creative and particular on the details of hell. For example, there is no nice way to put this, but according to some medieval visions, there were large crows in hell that tore your entrails out of your tailhole. This torture was eternal. You never ran out of entrails, they were ever replenished, departing your rear exit on a never-ending loop.
The thermodynamics in hell are curious.
Martin Luther advised mocking Satan by having a wild good time. “Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men, or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing,” Luther wrote. “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.”
St. Augustine had a different take: fast and pray, for tomorrow we shall die.
Townes was diagnosed with manic depression when he was in college. The stories about just what happened are foggy. Maybe it was mostly hijinks or maybe Townes was desperate. He later claimed it was a scheme to avoid the draft. In any case, his parents sent him to a hospital in Galveston, where he underwent three months of electric-shock and insulin-shock treatments. According to Townes, when it was over, his childhood memories had been permanently erased. When his family finally came to pick him up from the institution, the medical staff had to introduce him to his mother and his fiancée. At first, he had no idea who they were.
In my ruby-studded houseboat to roam
“I must go in,” Emily Dickinson said as she was dying, or so the story goes—“the fog is rising.” Mahler died in bed, waving his arms, conducting an orchestra that only he heard. Winston Churchill’s famous last words: “I’m bored with it all.” The physicist Richard Feynman: “This dying is boring.” Vladimir Lenin’s dog brought him a dead bird one day. “Vot sobaka,” Lenin said (good dog). The last words he ever said. Or so the stories go.
Pancho met his match on the deserts down in Mexico. Nobody heard his dying words, but that’s the way it goes.
There’s a story about an eighteenth century French princess who farted before being killed in the Revolution. “Good,” she said. “A woman who can fart is not dead.” This story doesn’t seem to be true. She declined to denounce the monarchy and was killed by a mob. No time for flatulence, or final jokes.
“I’d like to alter the course of the universe,” Townes said in 1977, “make it a happier place.”
Once my daughter got in an argument with a boy on a playdate. “Marigold says that ‘boring’ is a bad word,” he told his mother. His mother told him, “it’s okay, different families have different values.”
“Be excellent to each other,” Bill said to the people of the future.
“Party on,” Ted said.
Build yourself a houseboat. Follow the instructions for Noah’s ark: a length of three hundred cubits, a width of fifty cubits, and a height of thirty cubits. Further instructions, and these are just from me: There must be a bar on the houseboat. The bar should serve doubles of every kind of drink—every kind of sake, every kind of cocktail, every kind of beer, and so on. It should serve hot pretzels, olive tapenade and crackers, and all manner of mochi snacks and desserts. You may bring a marine chronometer or not, that’s up to you. Build a fine stereo system on the houseboat. Play some fine tunes. Do not pack sunscreen. You will not need it where you are going. (Where you are going, the sun is only nourishment. You cannot overdose on the sun.) Do pack slippers and long books. Do not pack a camera. Do pack art supplies and a guitar and a hat that you’ve always been a little ashamed to wear. No need for drums, you’ve got your hands. No need for tv, you’ve got the puffins and the storms. Listen to the waves. Listen to the sky. Do not be bored. Untie your rope and float into the waters beyond the boundaries of your maps. You will not go hungry; you have your fishing pole. Have a daiquiri. Take a swim. Try not to worry when your radar goes haywire. Wherever you go, the sun will guide you. Old buddy, old star. It shines up here, it shines in the great beyond. In heaven, in purgatory, in hell. Even in nothingness, even in the otherwise unrelenting darkness of the void. I know that doesn’t track, but you’ll just have to trust me. From the very beginning: Let there be light.
Draw nearer to that uncreated rhythm. Follow the sun, be excellent, eat fish, drink beer.
According to his sister, Steve Jobs’ last words were: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
The fog is rising. Party on.
For Lowell Landes (1946 - 2023) and Levy Easterly (1963-2023), in memoriam.
loved it. this may be my favorite HTdubz yet. But i'm bringing my drums on the ark