🎧 For to Ease Your Pain | A Story and a Song Episode 3

Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" and "At My Window."


A Story and a Song Episode 3 Transcript:

🎵 "If I Needed You" 🎵

Welcome to A Story and a Song, where I, Brian Leli, tell you a story about a song that someone else wrote but I like to play, and then I play it. This episode's song, and the one you just heard, is Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You." Here's my story.

Beyond his songs and albums, everything I know, or think I know, about Townes Van Zandt comes from the documentary Be Here to Love Me.

One of the great things about the film is that there's no narration. It's the story of Townes in his own words and the words of those who knew him. He comes across as a half-mythical figure only insofar as he actually seemed like one to the people who knew and loved him.

But that's not the whole story. It never is. And the film doesn't overindulge the myth. It also shows Townes as just a guy, a flawed individual finding his way through life's pleasures and pains, and the great conflicts that exist therein.

The interviews with his close friends and family members exemplify his dual position as both myth and man. One internal narrative in the film that's stuck with me in this regard is when one of his sons, JT Van Zandt, talks about how he, too, had bought into all the hype about who his (often absent) father was: this glorified, mystical folk singer. But then, when he went to visit him, he saw him for the troubled man he was, and called his mom asking her to come and pick him up. Later in the film, he says that, as a kid, he probably didn't recognize some of the magic of Townes. But a lot of it, he says, wasn't magical. A lot of it was just cigarette smoke and stale potato chips.

Both things were true. There was magic. And Dad still did all of his grocery shopping at a 7-Eleven up the road, and even that food went bad.

At a couple points in the film, Townes talks about writing "If I Needed You" in his sleep. Waking up, writing it down, and never changing a thing. The song's origins aside, you can add me to the chorus of people who've said that "If I Needed You" is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

Some years after first watching Be Here to Love Me, in the fall of 2018, I'd been doing a lot of shadowboxing in my apartment. Sometimes it's the only thing that makes any sense to me to do. Whenever I shadowbox, I need musical accompaniment. And it needs to be some form of extreme metal, hardcore punk, or something in that range. Put on an album and go until it stops. That was my approach.

For a while, my album of choice was Philip H. Anselmo & The Illegals' Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue. I shadowboxed to it a lot. But I also sat and listened to it a lot, reading the lyrics. I've been listening to the band's singer and his many bands since I was about 15, and some of his recent lyrics, in my opinion, are absolutely stellar. And the lyrics on Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue are high on that list.

One night, I went to sleep and woke up with the beginnings of what seemed to be a lyric or poem in my head. It reminded me of a lyric on the PHA & the Illegals album, but it was different. In the morning, I started writing it all out, and it just kept coming and coming. And it didn't feel like it was coming from me. As I wrote it, I felt like I was reading something that I related to.

It made me think of Townes' story about writing "If I Needed You." So I started listening to Townes as I continued to write what could only be called a poem. And then I heard someone Townes-like telling the story of this poem they'd just written in their sleep. So I wrote that down and related to it, too. And then I had something like a story in front of me, something with the sensibility of a folk song that also happened to be about a poem inspired by extreme metal lyrics. Only the story wasn't really about the poem. The poem was the story.

I don't want to say too much about what it means to me. But I will say this: When you leave places, you lose people. To not being there anymore. To falling out of touch and sync. But also to changes. The ones that occur in one person and don't in another, or that occur in one place but don't in another. That sort of thing. And when the distance is great enough, and the timeline long enough, even subtle changes can start to appear giant and insurmountable. And anyway, I've left a bunch of places.

Here's the story I wrote. Or at least wrote down. It's called "If I Needed You."

If I Needed You

I’m working from a sort of cloudy memory here. So you’ll have to please forgive me if I get it wrong. But the story as I remember it is he’d written the song in his sleep. He’d woken up in the middle of the night, and it was all right there, on his doorstep, so to speak. He’d needed only to pick up a pen and some paper and write it all down. So that’s what he did, and then he went back to sleep. When he woke up the following morning, he picked up a guitar and played the song straight through, exactly as he’d written it that night, and exactly as you can still hear it now. Said more than once later that he never changed a thing. “Not a lick,” I think were his exact words, the ones I’d heard him say, in a documentary, if memory serves. But isn’t that something? It sure is a beautiful song. And he sure was a beautiful writer of ‘em. Both songs and words.

Anyway, like I was saying, certain words came to me in my sleep last night. Now, I’m no songwriter. So let’s just be real clear about that. But still, something was compelling me. So, same as him, I woke up and got myself a pen and some paper and wrote down all the words. After that, I turned and went back to sleep. I don’t own a guitar or anything like that. Nor am I able to play music or sing songs. But this written account of something or other was still sitting there beside me when I woke up. My words aren’t as pretty as his. But here they are just the same.

Welcome to here, where
It’s vexing and hypnotic
Inside tunneled covens of illogic
Polus (from the Latin)
Bomb shelters
More or less
But organisms
Frustrated in protest
To serve
And protect from
And winds
Four scored leaves
Scored poorly
Wet and whipping
And adrift
Over and above us
That plus the miasmic
Burning noxiously
Under land, under feet, under seas
So sore from shining
Browned and grayed beneath
Currents of anguish
The Barrier’s grief
In jest
And great relief

It’s not like we’ll be missed or remembered. Not by anything here now, I mean. But maybe later. Like dinosaurs. By whatever comes next. After us. If anything comes next after us. Anything like us, but better, probably, I mean.

I’ve been meaning to speak with you
About something
About several things, actually
Not least of which,
With all due respect,
Is the metastasized invective
You’ve been carrying
Curdled in your deepest reds
And gone raw

You know that stuff’s toxic, right? I get it though. It finds its way into me sometimes, too. Not sure where it comes from. Maybe the red meat. Or the meat eaters themselves. Or the vegans. I don’t know. But I think about it a lot. I see my flaws magnified and under bright lights. Don’t think I don’t. And I see yours sometimes, too. But I’m much more forgiving of yours than mine. In the end, I mean. I just wish I could speak with you more about it. Because I’m happy to discuss and assess my flaws and potential misperceptions with you. And I mean it. I want to grow and be better. But we need to talk, absent all the outrage, or at least with some checks on the outrage. Otherwise it just muddles everything. On that note, I don’t mean to be overly critical or impolite, but I’ve noticed something rotten in a lot of people’s Denmarks lately.

And stricken
In our
And I hear we’ve been
Wearing our insides out?
Has that ever been effective?
But I guess it is the fashion now
Like carpet bombing the equator
Also known as
Saturation bombing
According to Wikipedia
Also breathing fires
And blowing bubbles
Into the coddled
And the watered-down
Washings ashore
Dispersed, as it were, or as they were, rather
In binary form
Out of Mother’s earthen womb
Into Mother’s open wounds
In style
And in all the magazines
This cool autumn

That’s how I’ll remember us, anyway
From my muted perch
On alien ground
Or somewhere in the trees, maybe
Sustained by all the empty spaces
Surrounding me
Indivisible old me
Born again
But not like that
Not like you might think
From those words, I mean
Born again
With those words
I just mean
Born without
Born not with
Any more than what I bring
Any more than what I mean
All misunderstandings but a singular echo

Or maybe even right here,
All barriers and towers
Might one day be mightiless
And invisible
As far as the eyes can’t see
But still there, unfortunately
A history
Built backwards
In fevered pain
And branded bigly

But not just in his name
Now in the names of everyone
@etal and
In a case of

Or, on second thought,
Fuck it
Let’s start an electrical fire
With all this technology, I mean
A light to sit around
And stare inside
And also God
Don’t forget God
Or to remain motionless
In staled stories
Always remember to never move forward
Unless it suits your competitive interests
Like picking up
After all the pedophilia
Still happening
All over
The map
In the areas outside our phones
Which we can locate from our phones
And drop pins

But let’s tune out all reason, too
And deny man’s upward climb
And woman’s
No one should be excluded
Is what I mean
Do you see?
Because it’s the right thing to do
Never mind all our anger
And our rage
Or all the recklessness
And ineffective
Let’s operate from our purest wrath
To impede the rise of all genders equally
And to impede the rise of every person of color
And every person absent every color
Under every flag of every color
Under the wailing sun
And under our poisoned skies
And under land and feet and seas so sore from shining

But, hey, fuck that, too
Because fear is what’s really important
People need to be afraid
So we’re going to need to hold on to some hope
If we want to keep everyone afraid
Which we do
That’s how we learn
From constructing fear
It’s the best wall of all, really
For keeping things out
Or holding them in
So let’s keep building!
Smaller enclosures
Let’s hold on to that
And venting
And God
And war and apple pie

But I’m afraid I might need to leave all that to you
Because I walk over here now
I guess I’ve been moving this way for a while
Inch by inch
Burdened not less, but distantly, more distant
By those giant and infinite structures
Simultaneously opposed and built
By my own ilk
In a day
Or a generation
Or this lifespan
Of a species
More or less

I haven’t really kept up with it all
To be honest
And who can?
And be still?
Or still be?
My head
And its constituent parts
Keep me pretty attuned
To all the ways
In which all the things
Might go wrong
It’s anxiety, I guess
Which comes on with certain
Negative connotations
But it can be a useful tool
In moving us forward
And keeping us hungry
For its end
Or some small sense of relief

I am still on your side, by the way
Always here if you need me
To listen,
Or to speak
About all things
Just as I’ve needed you
And now
To listen
And to speak
To me

But so...
If you do
Come looking
I’ll be the one
Way over here
And separate
With the heart splayed open
And the mind less burdened
Opened wide and wandering
Through all the love and muck

Suffice it to say, I didn’t wake up with each of these words already lined up from front to back in my head. But the first bunch of ‘em were there, fully formed and waiting, and as soon as I started writing ‘em, the others quickly followed, like a sort of rushing water, the whole lot of ‘em moving of their own accord and without pause. I guess you might call it a poem since there’s no music.

But I don’t really know anything about that. And, whatever you’d call it, I must admit to also not really knowing what it means. Though I feel like it must mean something. Otherwise, why would it have been waiting there, on my doorstep, so to speak, all through the night and then there beside me still on this cool October’s dawn?

That's my story. You'll find Townes' "If I Needed You" in the video below. You'll also find a video of my next favorite Townes song, "At My Window," which I'm going to do my humble best to play us out with now. Your mercy, as with all of these songs, is appreciated. Thanks for listening to A Story and a Song.

🎵 “At My Window” 🎵

“If I Needed You” (Live)

”At My Window”