For the avid music lover, a hurried rush to the men’s bathroom at Open Shutter Gallery quickly turns into a moment of curious distraction: How did a picture of Townes Van Zandt playing in Silverton end up here?
The story unfolds an interesting tale of the small mountain town in the mid-1990s, of a photographer with only a few shots left in his camera and of a prolific – yet tragic – musician performing through the final throes of a tumultuous and drug-fueled career.
Bob Zahner, a local photographer who works at Open Shutter, took the photo in 1994 at the Silverton Jubilee Folk Music Festival, an annual event that ran from 1988 to 2005.
“I loved going up to Silverton, and I knew there was going to be a festival up there, so I camped out by the river outside of town,” said Zahner, 65, who has lived in Durango since 1985.
“And I knew Townes was going to be there. He was a big attraction for me. Being a songwriter myself, I couldn’t help but gravitate to it.”
Van Zandt never enjoyed widespread success, failing to record anything close to a hit in his 30-year career.
However, through his dry, witty and dreamful lyrics, a dusty voice and heartbreaking melodies that were backed by Lightning Hopkins-inspired guitar playing, he was able to earn himself a small and devoted fan base. Today, many regard him as one of the most influential and admired songwriters as well as a prototypical cult figure.
Some of his better-known songs include “Pancho and Lefty,” “If I Needed You” and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” in the Coen brothers’ film “The Big Lebowski.”
As legend has it, songwriter Steve Earle once said: “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.”
And Emmylou Harris said of first hearing Van Zandt: “I had really never seen anything like that before. I thought he was the ghost of Hank Williams, with a twist.”
Yet, his years on the road were plagued by heavy drinking, drug addiction and episodes of depression, which left audiences at the mercy of the Texas-born musician’s shaky temper.
Moving to the frontOn this Saturday in June 1994, Zahner and others lucky enough to be huddled under the music tent above 9,300 feet were treated to a clairvoyant Van Zandt – even if it was an intoxicated clairvoyance.
“It was the middle of the afternoon – it must have been about 3 p.m., and he was already well on his way to a ‘blissful mood,’ you might say,” Zahner recalled.
Zahner, three or four rows back from the stage, worked his way up front. With only a few shots left in his camera and no flash to light the dark tent, he moved around the front row to find the right angle.
“Townes closed his eyes in this soulful state, and I took one shot,” Zahner said. “He opened his eyes and smiled like it didn’t bother him at all.”
The black-and-white photo captures Van Zandt in an intimate moment, slightly out of focus, Zahner said, but wholly apropos.
“The image itself is far from a perfect image. It was about as blurry as he was,” he said. “He’s obviously deep into his song, and I think the image, because it is a little blurry, actually communicates the feeling and intensity of that moment.
“Especially if you know his history and soon demise after that.”
Van Zandt died just two and a half years later from a heart attack at the age of 52.
Booked at the last minuteTom Evans, a Silverton resident who has served on the Silverton Arts Council, said the Jubilee brought in musicians from all over, and Van Zandt was just one among many talented acts throughout the years.
Evans remembers the day Van Zandt took the stage – sort of.
“I remember he was great,” he said. “I think he was a little (expletive) up. But we were all (expletive) up. That was part of the fun of that whole festival. Wretched excess was sort of the rule of thumb.”
Jane Legge, one of the directors for the arts council responsible for booking acts, still can’t believe how she was able to land Van Zandt.
When another performer canceled, Legge scrambled around to fill the spot. At the last minute, she received a phone call from an acquaintance in Nashville who told her Van Zandt wanted the two-day set in Silverton.
“I was just absolutely thrilled to find out he was available,” Legge said. “A lot of the people were really stunned that he was there because he wasn’t on the original program.”
Legge said Van Zandt arrived in Silverton the Friday night before the festival started, driven in from Texas by a caretaker that looked over the ailing, alcoholic 49-year-old.
She immediately took to the dark but comical man.
“Very shortly after we met, whenever he would come by he’d say, ‘Jane, are you sure you’re still married?’” recalled Legge, laughing. “I’d say, ‘Unfortunately, Townes, yes, I am.’”
“He was just so humorous and fun, but you could tell there was a lot of inner turmoil,” she said. “There was always the light and the dark with Townes.”
Legge and Van Zandt enjoyed a few private moments together, where the singer-songwriter confided to the longtime Silverton resident how he’d escape into the mountains on horseback to write, without drugs or alcohol – a striking polarity for the performer known for his wild ways.
Two shows, two TownesLegge said Van Zandt played a memorable hour-long set to a crowd of about 1,500 people Saturday, June 25. The next day, however, his dark side took hold.
“The show Sunday was not the show Saturday,” she said.
According to Silverton lore, Van Zandt headed down to the Miner’s Tavern after his Saturday set to play with some local musicians, and ended the night crawling on the barroom floor.
“I don’t know all he was into that night, but I was just surprised the guy could show up and sit on the stool the next day,” Legge said. “There are wild stories that still travel around Silverton about that night.”
Legge decided to hold the last Jubilee festival in 2005. That weekend with Van Zandt remains one of the memories she looks back on most.
“The whole flow during the Jubilee was such a sweet thing,” said Silverton resident Freddie Canfield. “These musicians would be on tour playing for the rich and famous and all that, and then they’d come up here and everything would get real.”
Canfield said he and Van Zandt spent some time “pickin’ and grinnin’ by the light of the sun” backstage. He said the two had previously met during their time living in Texas.
A musician himself, Canfield can relate to the toll that drugs take while on tour.
“Well, that’s one of the parallels of the path when you’re out there on the road,” he said. “The bottle tends to be an omnipresent part of the picture. A lot of us wonder how we made it through those years.”
Even San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad was in attendance. He had just moved to Silverton from Philadelphia – though you probably wouldn’t have recognized him.
“I had hair down to my belly button,” said Conrad, who was elected sheriff in 2014. “I remember seeing him and being impressed with his sheer showmanship. I had no idea what I was in for.”
Zahner, typically a landscape photographer, said he’s just fortunate to have had that afternoon to enjoy Van Zandt on a good day. The picture, at least, captures that.
“It was a beautiful show because he was soulful and friendly to the audience with uninhibited stories in between songs,” Zahner said. “He was exactly what I hoped for, even if he wasn’t very far from his own end at that point.”