Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Townes Van Zandt: Rake


WRITTEN BY Townes Van Zandt

APPEARS ON Delta Momma Blues (1971) / Townes (2009)

One of Townes Van Zandt's greatest of many many great moments? Impossible to say. There are so many classics in his almost peerless catalogue.

But playing Steve Earle's remarkable new reinterpretation of this classic track over and over this past week - a version less ostensibly mournful and a little more revved up perhaps, yet also strangely, at the same time, gloriously sparser than Townes' original - we'll say maybe it is!

Beautiful poetry. Magical music. A superb performance. A
pristine piece of wonderful art.

A true classic. If not only for the superb unforgettable line "except for the turning of night into day and the turning of day into cursing'"! You daren't even hear magic like that in a Dylan song!

For years and years now, I've been in awe of the sculpted lyrics and sublime music of Townes.
And here again, in "Rake", from his 1971 album Delta Momma Blues, the sculpted lyrics and sublime music magnificently mesh.

A one-time ladies man, and lover of excess, as he lays close to death's door, uselessly and tortuously harks back to a blighted youth devoted to frivolous waste. However delusional, he hears the grim reaper speaking, poetically telling of his imminent grim fate ... "It's the night to the day that we're a bindin."

Death is very almost here. A step away. But what's even worse is that there will be no hoped-for redemption. Even though the Rake had futilely always "thought I'd be forgiven."

This song perhaps could have been called "Death of a Ladies Man"! (maybe Lenny was listening to this track when he felt inspired to come up with that great title for his wrongly maligned, excellent 1977 album!)

However, it's possibly a death that the Rake welcomes in order to finally soothe his agonising pain and put a final end to his countless regrets, these including the vast expanse of time wasted on "wine and guitars" and "women he can't hardly stand", as well as the immeasurable pain he's inflicted on numerous innocents (as beautifully expressed in the line "I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds.")

The song's almost an Old Testament parable. A powerful and timeless tale. A story that's impacted down the ages and that shall eternally impact. There will always be wantonness and there will always always be a Prodigal Son!

The lyrics are spiked throughout with Townes' trademark melancholia. A melancholia that emanated from Van Zandt's pained troubled soul. An essential and undeniable part of his essence, of his songwriting. Never maudlin though. Never false. On the contrary, immensely powerful, impactful, unforgettable.

A melancholia of the type described by John Donne that "leaves behind a kind of sorrowing to the mind." A type that's tortured many other great musical artists in recent times, such as Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain and Elliot Smith - all who inevitably sadly succumbed to it's incomprehensible force. A type we still see in the work of artists such as Shane Mac Gowan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits.

All songwriters compelled to express their inner pain through art, perhaps in order to thereby attain some modicum of relief. All songwriters whose work is laden with what Federico García Lorca called Duende.

What Lorca meant by that was true soul, a raw inherent sadness, a heightened awareness of death. An inherent quality of art, most usually musical art, that is most clearly found in, for example, the old traditional music of Portugal and in ancient Irish traditional music - particularly in the "Sean Nos" keening songs.

Federico García Lorca in his essay "Play and Theory of the Duende" wrote; "Duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation."

Lorca also wrote "This ‘mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio's siguiriya ..... Duende brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm."

Nick Cave, speaking about Duende in his lecture on the nature of the love song (Vienna, 1999), said "All in all it would appear that duende is too fragile to survive the brutality of technology and the ever increasing acceleration of the music industry. Perhaps there is just no money in sadness, no dollars in duende. Sadness or duende needs space to breathe. Melancholy hates haste and floats in silence. It must be handled with care."

The music of Townes has duende in spades. It climbs up from deep inside him, from the soles of his feet to the tip of his skull. This great song "Rake" is overflowing with duende. A song that hates haste and floats in silence. A song full of true style, of blood; a song harking back to the inherent soul of man, to timeless art.

If it's not a nigh perfect piece of modern musical art, then it's as close to that as can feasibly be expected.


I used to wake and run with the moon
I lived like a rake and a young man
I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds
my laughter the devil would frighten
The sun would come up and beat me back down
but every cruel day had its nightfall
I'd welcome the stars with wine and guitars
full of fire and forgetful

My body was sharp, the dark air clean
and outrage my joyful companion
whisperin' women how sweet they did seem
kneelin' for me to command them
And time was like water, but I was the sea
And I'd never noticed it passin'
except for the turnin' of night into day
and the turnin' of day into cursin'

You look at me now, and don't think I don't know
what all of your eyes are a sayin'
Does he want us to believe these ravings and lies
they're just tricks that his brains been a playin'?
A lover of women he can't hardly stand,
he trembles, he's bent and he's broken
I've fallen, it's true, but I say unto you
hold your tongues until after I've spoken

I was takin' my pride in the pleasures I'd known
I laughed and thought I'd be forgiven
but my laughter turned 'round, eyes blazing and
said "my friend, we're holdin' a wedding"
I buried my face but it spoke once again
It's the night to the day that we're a bindin'
and now the dark air is like fire on my skin
and even the moonlight is blinding

(Original piece on )


  1. I like the way you tied duende into the understanding of Townes' music. It really describes what he was about.

    BTW, I agree with you about Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man. He apparently doesn't like the production that much himself, but if you listen to the albums immediately preceding it, there's an argument that its sound is a logical progression. Interestingly, Cohen happens to be a disciple of Garcia Lorca: His song Take This Waltz is his version of a Garcia Lorca poem, and he named his daughter Lorca.

  2. Thanks for this-- great review of a great song. Townes' best? I'd never be able to pick one, but this one really can send chills up your spine. The thing about Townes' melancholy-- it goes all the way thru (& sometimes comes out on the other side). It was never a pose.

  3. Was listening to the song by Townes live from Carnegie Hall since Monday, because I heard Earle covered it. Was always one of my favorites. Thanks for posting the lyrics.

  4. Oh, this Texas girl is a forever fan of Townes. Not his lifestyle, not his demons, but his music speaks volumes to my soul.

    I am not sure Townes knew how special his music was, and that's sad. Does it take a tragic life to produce such artistry? I wished it weren't so, but seems true.

    Townes was the real deal.

  5. Yes, as bleak as it gets folks. None speaks the truth like the vinos veritas : "and the turnin' of day into cursin'"

    In verse 3 my take on it is

    "A lover of women
    he can't hardly stand,"

    and not

    "A lover of women he can't hardly stand,"

    i.e. he loves women but due to being drunk he can't even stand up.

  6. I love this song... plan to review it myself, but will struggle to top this one. I always thought this song was about a vampire. The imagery and how the story plays out, it seems to me that the Rake is a vampire and that by the end of the song, when his laughter/face is speaking to him... it's two sides to his personality... his vampire ego struggling to control his human longing to be mortal, but free.

    here are the lyircs:

    I was takin' my pride in the pleasures I'd known
    I laughed and thought I'd be forgiven
    but my laughter turned 'round, eyes blazing and
    said "my friend, we're holdin' a wedding"
    I buried my face but it spoke once again
    It's the night to the day that we're a bindin'
    and now the dark air is like fire on my skin
    and even the moonlight is blinding"

  7. In general, I think the song is an attempt to deal with multi-personality disorder:
    "my laughter turned 'round eyes blazing an' saying, friends we're holding a wedding."
    The endless interplay between the dark night of the soul and the bright light of genius is binding all the demons and angels together while they fight it out for possession of the soul. Townes's problem was he used the demon of alcohol to try to silence these "voices".