At one point during a Writers in the Round concert that took place in Houston in March 1994, Townes Van Zandt gestures at his fellow songwriters — David Broza, David Amram and Linda Lowe — and declares that they are “genuine giant talents!”
He did not use the word “we” in that assessment, but most observers of the contemporary singer/songwriter scene surely would include Van Zandt. Steve Earle, whose album of Van Zandt covers won the Grammy for best contemporary folk album this year, 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.”
Van Zandt, who died at the age of 52 in 1997 after years of what one writer described as “living out his songs,” always remembered Broza and mentioned him in his will, bequeathing some 20 poems to him.
After 13 years of waiting and working, the Israeli troubadour now graces us with a CD of songs based on the poetry of one of the great country and folk artists. “Night Dawn: The Unpublished Works of Townes Van Zandt” (S-Curve Records) has a backstory as dramatic as Van Zandt’s tragic life.
Not long after Van Zandt passed away, following years of heroine addiction and alcoholism, Broza received a phone call from Van Zandt’s widow, Jeanene, informing him of the poetry.
“I was completely stunned,” Broza said.
A month later he met with Jeanene, who asked whether Broza would mind if she first offered the poems to three major entertainers who had recorded Van Zandt’s songs: Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. The Israeli songwriter was gracious and said to go ahead.
“I didn’t feel slighted,” Broza insists. “I waited for it to be good waters to jump into.”
Eight years went by before he asked her if any one had taken up the offer of turning the verses into songs. No one had. So, in November 2005, the first of several e-mails, each containing a batch of four or five poems, arrived in Broza’s inbox. Out of some 20 poems, he created 10 new songs. The new album also has a song, “Harm’s Swift Way,” for which Van Zandt had written both the words and the melody, and a new instrumental, “Too Old To Die Young,” which Broza wrote in Van Zandt’s memory.
In some of these new songs, Broza renders Van Zandt’s verse in a way that sounds almost like he’s reciting it rather than singing it. But he does manage to make the lyrics his own.
Guitarist G.E. Smith — who in the course of a long career has led the “Saturday Night Live” band and played lead guitar for Hall & Oates — co-produced the album. It was recorded in New York City in just three days.
“I think Townes’s songs, from day one, were about the fragility of life and the unfairness of life,” Broza said in an interview at his Manhattan loft. “I think Townes [had] a poetic touch which enabled him to look death in the eye and say, ‘I’m not afraid.’ The fact is, he walked right into death’s arms, much younger than he should have.”
Van Zandt’s poetry also shows signs of his dark take on the world. In “Southern Cross,” he wrote, “I’m tired/Of the morning sun.” And the poem “Long Ball Hitter” features this poetic metaphor: “I’m a long ball hitter/On a losing streak.”
“I knew that David would be completely in tune with Townes, because he had such respect for poets, and Townes was the greatest poet alive that I knew,” said Lowe, who produces the Performances of Writers in the Round, where Broza and Van Zandt met.
Broza’s passion for poetry is so intense that he spent a few years at a bookstore in Manhattan’s Diamond District, going there three or four days a week and reading, as he said, “everything on their shelves.” It resulted in visits to the American heartland to meet with poets. Broza collaborated with Indiana poet Matthew Graham on eight songs.
Broza has had a long history of making songs out of the poetry of both living and dead poets, including Federico García Lorca, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In fact, the first song that Broza wrote in 1977 — timed for the arrival in Israel of Egyptian’s then president, Anwar Sadat, and dedicated to the start of the peace process — was written with Yonatan Geffen, an Israeli poet and journalist whom Broza describes as his closest friend. He also collaborated with Israeli poets Natan Alterman and Motti Baharav.
The fourth singer/songwriter in Texas during that fateful meeting between Broza and Van Zandt was Amram, who is not at all surprised that Van Zandt bequeathed his poetry to Broza.
“I was watching Townes’s expression when he heard David play that night, and I could see his eyes light up,” Amram recalls. “I think he chose David as the legal guardian of his unfinished works because he knew David wouldn’t ruin it in a sea of hot licks and overproduction. It was almost like entrusting the care of your children to somebody.”
Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer.