“Artistic Temperament” or Bipolar Disorder?
Early on in John Kruth’s “To Live Is To Fly,” a biography of singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Fran Lohr, Van Zandt’s first ex-wife, recounts an incident from 2004. While sitting in a hotel bar, she became engaged in a conversation with a man who told her that his son was bipolar, and that they came to understand this illness through certain music that they shared. Lohr told him that she understood because her first husband, Townes Van Zandt, was bipolar. The man was stunned, explaining that Van Zandt was the artist whose music he had shared with his son.
I also understand. In 1999 I was diagnosed as bipolar.
Townes and his music helped me to understand bipolar disorder, or manic-depression as it was called before political correctness drained the blood from public discourse. And somewhere along the way, the music helped me understand myself.
I don’t think my case was as severe as Townes’s, but then I have taken different steps to cope with it. At least lately I have. But back in 1975 when I first met Townes, we were more or less coping the same way.
In the mid 1970’s I took up residence in a house on a mountain top in Bristol, Tennessee. From there I toured a lot with my band and made frequent trips to Nashville. So many great artists who have gone on to have incredible careers were there – Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, John Hiatt and Marshall Chapman among them. And there was Waylon, Willie, Cash, Hank and Roy Orbison. And there was Townes.
Townes was different. He was super, hyper real and most people didn’t know how to take him. He seemed to have a dual up and down personality. I did, too. I was about eighteen years old then, and Townes made me feel like it was okay to have radical mood swings. If they were radical enough, folks would even call him a genius. I had radical mood swings, but no one ever called me a genius.
Back then I was in desperate need of good role models and was pretty much adrift. I didn’t understand Townes and didn’t understand myself, but I knew that we had something in common – something besides our love of Doc Watson’s music.
Townes was a huge Doc Watson fan. Doc had been one of my big guitar picking influences since childhood. One day Townes and I were at a party at a friend’s house and there were little clusters of musicians jamming in different parts of the big old house.
I knew who Townes was and I had his early records. I had listened to them over and over, particularly “My Mother The Mountain.” And I found some strange comfort there in those darks songs. It was the kind of comfort you get when, after a long period of illness and isolation, you look in the mirror and recognize yourself. You’re still there, still hanging on and you are surviving.
Townes’s music made me feel that as a young, disturbed, sensitive and confused adolescent, I was not alone. I felt better knowing that someone else had the same feelings and they understood. He survived. And maybe I could survive, too.
Townes first approached me after hearing me play Doc Watson’s arrangement of “Deep River Blues.” I followed it with Doc’s version of Townes’s song “If I Need You.” There stood the writer and performer of these life-altering songs asking me to show him how to play “Deep River Blues.” I was awestruck.
From late 1975 to early 1978, when I moved up north, Townes and I occasionally hung out when we were both in Nashville. At that time Townes was mostly living in an old cabin in the woods outside Franklin, with his wife/girlfriend, Cindy. I was never sure which she was, and I heard Townes refer to her as both. Drink and drugs were always prevalent, usually the cheap stuff, because no one had much money. A lot of folks grew their own grass and Townes never did like good booze. We also used to find mushrooms in the cow shit on a local farm.
During those days I learned a lot about what it takes to be an artist from Townes. Great art, art that reaches out and grabs people, and even perhaps changes their lives, must be true and real. Compromise here isn’t a part of the equation.
I was just beginning to think of myself as a songwriter and to have people like Townes as a direct influence, and as a yardstick to measure my growth, was incredibly helpful and downright petrifying at the same time. At that time I was a better player than I was a writer, but I did have a few things I had written – a couple of Dylanesque protest songs, some bluegrass and country numbers, and several talking blues songs, a form that Townes was big on using. We both probably got that from Dylan, or Woody Guthrie.
Townes was always very encouraging to me, and he did a lot to bolster my fragile self-confidence. It was really hard to tell at the time, and I was too young and inexperienced to realize, that Townes and I had what was referred to at the time as manic-depression. It should have been easy to figure out, though, as we seemed to be either manic or depressed. The worst, most dangerous time was when we were both.
There was a lot of what was called “cycling” going on, around and around on a roller coaster of moods - up, down and all around. Our moods seldom coincided, and that was probably a good thing. Drugs and booze didn’t help.
Back then there was a term called “artistic temperament.” It’s not a term that’s used as much any more, and it’s likely that it is really nothing more than manic depression. Beethoven had it, and so did Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, Sinatra, Picasso, Judy Garland, Hank Williams, Dylan Thomas and Miles Davis. It appears that most highly artistic people suffer from some kind of mood disorder. Townes was an artist, and I hoped that I was considered one, too. And we sure had our moods. Artistic temperament. Bullshit.
It seems that most of the people I’ve been drawn to for inspiration have been deep feelers and thinkers. They lived life deeper and felt it deeper than other folks did. These people were my teachers, and the gauges I would use to measure myself and my life.
Townes had a very schizophrenic personality. He could be mean and petty, abusive and dishonest. He could also be incredibly kind, sensitive, courteous and trustworthy. He seemed to be a little bit of everything. These attributes, this schizoid, bipolar personality is readily reflected and addressed in both John Kruth’s fascinating study and in Margaret Brown’s dreamily moving documentary “Be Here To Love Me.” The schizoid, shifting, unsettled feeling of bipolar disorder comes across particularly strong in Brown’s film. Using interviews with friends, family and associates, and wonderful video footage including home movies, the film is tied together with unsettling voiceovers from the late, great Mr. Van Zandt himself. This is difficult stuff.
Watching this film brought back a lot of feelings and memories. It upset me because I could see so much of myself there. It is obvious that Townes’s mood swings had an incalculable effect on his life and his art. I can think of very few artists in whom the qualities of dark and light are so equally divided, at least early on. As Townes spiraled downward, the dark gradually seemed to overtake the light.
In Brown’s film, there is a scene near the end where Townes is being interviewed by a foreign reporter who alludes to the sadness in Townes’s music. Townes fixes him with a withering look and asks “You don’t think that life is sad?”
To see the look on Townes’s face and to feel and understand what it is like to be a sensitive person living in our crazy world with this emotionally crippling illness is something I won’t forget. The first time I watched that segment, it literally made me shudder. For weeks afterwards I found it difficult to get that, and several other images from the film, out of my mind.
Townes passed over on New Year’s Day 1997. He was 52 years old. I was devastated. There went my bipolar role model off to meet his bipolar role model, Hank Williams, on Hank’s own death anniversary date.
My mother and two of her sisters had died just two weeks before Townes died. This was the beginning of the darkest time of my life. I had just been through a failed marriage and two seriously dysfunctional relationships and was very close to the bottom with my own moods and addictions.
Within the next eighteen months I would lose over forty friends and family members to death of an assorted variety. And by the new millennium, I lost a dozen more. During this time I also had two pre-cancer surgeries in my mouth, which was a great source of stress, since I am a singer. I survived a tornado that destroyed my neighborhood. And I injured both my hands in a car accident. That was another source of increased stress, since I play guitar. I had lost my income and the ability to work, and was close to being homeless. Then, for more than two years I was a human lab rat for doctors and their so-called “medicine.” This only added to the stress and anxiety. I was finally diagnosed as bipolar, and was at the end of my rope.
Hospitalized in Nashville, I was put on more drugs, not of my choosing. Haunted by all the deaths in recent years, particularly the deaths of my mother and Townes, I wished I hadn’t been too sick myself to see him more in his last years.
Back in the day I listened to his music a lot, and occasionally ran into him in a club. I found, however, that as much as I loved and admired him, I couldn’t be too close to him. Being around Townes reminded me of all the things the doctors said were wrong with me. I was trying to save myself from myself and Townes was a real bad influence in that regard. But I never stopped listening to his music. It haunted me and sustained me with its unrelenting truth and beauty. More than that, it helped me understand the duality within myself. It helped me remember that Townes was bipolar, too.
I remember Townes talking about some things like his early treatments, but that was back in the 1970’s and I had never really put it all together. Maybe a part of me didn’t want to. But years later, I put the pieces together and it gave me a new understanding of our friendship and our illness.
When Townes died, at home on his sofa, I was saddened but not surprised. He was worn out with being Townes Van Zandt. To be that real can kill you. And so can bipolar disorder, if it goes untreated.
There are things that I have to do to take care of myself, things that Townes wouldn’t or couldn’t do. I wish he had. I miss him.
But the world will always have his music. The light, the dark. The happy and the sad. The harrowing and the gentle. The beautiful and the ugly. The uplifting and the downheartening. In all of its bipolar glory.
I have lost a friend but found myself. What more can a friend do?
Thank you, Townes, wherever you are.
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I highly recommend both John Kruth’s biography “To Live Is To Fly” and the documentary “Be Here To Love Me” by Margaret Brown. While all the people who knew Townes may never agree on the details of his life, and many facts and viewpoints may not be represented, it is heartening to see that such a worthy and unsung artist as Townes is finally getting the recognition he so richly deserves. Sadly he is not here to enjoy the attention. Hopefully he’s enjoying it from somewhere else.
His songs and legend live on and will influence future generations. With so much frivolity in the music and entertainment field, this sad world is more than ever in need of truth telling troubadours like Townes Van Zandt.
Even though the times we shared together were brief, Townes’s friendship and influence are deep and lasting gifts.
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Kenny Mullins is a singer, songwriter and guitarist. He has recently been in the studio working on his next CD,