By John Nova Lomax
One of my earliest memories is of my mother gently lying me down in a makeshift crib inside a defunct bathtub at Houston’s venerable Old Quarter nightclub while Townes Van Zandt wailed his celestial folk and demon-haunted blues downstairs; his muffled words and guitar licks rose up to me on the humid night air.
The words of songs like “If I Needed You” and “Poncho and Lefty” are stamped on me as indelibly as my green eyes, short thick legs and turtle-like feet. After my parents and I moved from Houston to Nashville in 1974, I recall one kindergarten-ish day pushing a Tonka Winnebago down placidly suburban/semi-rural Cadillac Avenue on a lonely summer morning, singing in my tone-deaf child’s voice: “Livin’ on the road my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean, now you where your skin like iron, your breath’s as hard as kerosene …” Townes was right up there with The Beatles for me.
My parents John Lomax III and Julia “Bidy” Taylor met Van Zandt in Houston in the late 1960s and fell quickly under his sway. Though they bitterly and viciously split around 1975, they clung to their love affair with the darkly handsome, maddeningly charismatic Townes for the rest of their days. Dad became his manager from about 1976 to 1979, and Mama, known as “the original Townes Van Zandt-gelist,” worshipped him until his death on New Year’s Day in 1997. For years, I would find her felt-tip pen portraits of Van Zandt scrawled on scraps of paper, on the furniture, even on the walls in the series of ever-shabbier homes we shared; snatches of his lyrics inked in notebooks in her fine, Catholic-school-trained hand.
After Mama and Dad’s divorce, the court decided it was in my best interest to live with my mother for five days and then my dad for five – even though she had drunkenly and accidentally set my room on fire (with me in it) at a wild party shortly before the split from my dad. Mama got the house on Cadillac Avenue. My dad moved from apartment to apartment and took up with a series of women, one of whom was Jeannie Person, a Dallasite daughter of a Braniff exec. She became my first stepmother and eventually the two of them settled in a nice house not far from Cadillac Avenue. Dad and Jeannie always trended upward, at least on the surface.
The same was not true of Mama, an outsize woman of huge, though mostly wasted, artistic talent and even bigger appetites. For everything: sex, booze, drugs, long nights where the bottom was low and the treble was clear. The rebellious oldest daughter from a respectable Catholic family of five sisters and a brother, she was the kind of woman who would guzzle a jar of jalapeno juice on a bet, who bedded men or women indiscriminately, who would challenge all comers at parties to Indian leg-wrestling bouts, and who could drink even the crustiest Bandido under the table. She once made outlaw ex-con honky-tonker David Allen Coe cry at a party by taping one of his album covers on the underside of a toilet seat and seeing to it that he saw his face covered in piss. (She believed Coe had stolen songs from her friends and, more generally, that he was an all-around “shitheel,” to use one of her favorite words.)
Her good friend, the Hemingwayesque Gulf Coast songwriter Richard Dobson, described Mama once as “a big, stout woman who loved to cook and party and always kept her house open for homeless artists and songwriters.” She was Janis Joplin, right down to a Port Arthur upbringing – in Mama’s case only partial, but the years she spent there were crucially, cruelly formative. Like Joplin, she had her tender side. This was the woman who also sang me to sleep so sweetly with her strong, confident versions of “Waltzing Matilda” and “You Are My Sunshine” and who taught me The Lord’s Prayer.
In addition to the countless mutts and kitties she adopted and allowed to breed uncontrollably, much to the consternation of our upstanding neighbors on Cadillac, another stray Mama took in was a teenage songwriter from San Antonio by the name of Steve Earle. He had come to Nashville lapping at the heels of Van Zandt, his hero and reluctant mentor. For a time after the break-up of his first marriage, Earle – who was still in his teens at the time – slept in our treehouse in the front yard. He was something like the big brother I never had. He would hold me down and give me “Texas titty twisters” while I giggled madly.
It didn’t come to a head until many years later, but Earle already had a drug problem. He says now that it helped him form a special bond with Mama, that addictive understanding, as they said in New Orleans, that junko partnership. Since she was newly single, Earle decided to play the matchmaker. He called his old San Antonio reform school buddy Chip Phillips about her, describing her as the girl of his dreams. Chip was also larger than life, albeit literally in his case: a long-haired, 7-foot rail-thin reformed hoodlum of immense strength and forbearance. Not long after their first meeting, Mama became pregnant with my brother. She was not pleased; I later heard that she announced her pregnancy by clubbing Chip with an iron bar. (She named the baby Steven Seymour Parish Phillips in honor of Steve Earle, Austin’s legendary “travelin’ blacksmith” Uncle Seymour Washington, and Van Zandt’s old running buddy Caddo Parish Studdard).
And so there are the dramatis personae. The Cadillac Avenue home was the first to exit the scene. As Mama’s drugging worsened, she and Chip could no longer pay for it, no matter how hard he worked slapping up billboards for Lamar Advertising. They hoped to move into a $30-a-month country shack in the Little Harpeth River Valley about 17 miles south of Nashville, but when they showed it to Van Zandt and his achingly gorgeous, extremely young strawberry blond girlfriend Cindy, Van Zandt prevailed upon them that he must have it. They gave in and moved instead to the first of a series of duplexes on their way to living in a converted garage behind an old house on Nashville’s now-gentrified Belmont Avenue.
Tales from Van Zandt’s country shack loom large to this day in his legend. To get there, you pulled off the highway and drove several miles down a dirt road past fields of waving tobacco leaves, over a couple of cattle guards to a second dirt road that led still deeper into the gentle Tennessee hills, over lands where the Shawnee and Cherokee once hunted and where many a Confederate soldier was cut down at the vicious Battle of Franklin.
At last you arrived at a cluster of two cabins, one on the valley floor, and Townes’ place, up the hill. It had a tin roof and was made of unpainted boards. There was a long porch in front with a swing and several cords of firewood on it, and a working outhouse to the side. It was heated with a wood stove, lit by candles and lanterns, and patrolled by Geraldine, Townes’ hyper-intelligent, sweet-natured wolfdog, who coexisted peaceably with the herd of black cattle that grazed the pasturelands below.
Van Zandt’s country shack became a non-stop bacchanal of music, drugs, guns and liquor ... not in that order.
Not long after he, Cindy and Geraldine moved in, what Van Zandt hoped would become a Walden Pond retreat, a refuge of morning glories and birdsong far from Nashville’s smog and Music City hot air, became instead something like an Appalachian foothill answer to Owl Farm: far more Hunter S. Thompsonesque than anything Henry David Thoreau would condone, a non-stop bacchanal of music, drugs, guns and liquor, most decidedly not in that order.
Down the hill from Townes in the only other house in the valley lived Michael Ewah, a half-Japanese, half-American Indian (or possibly Inuit) ruffian Van Zandt had met on a Colorado sojourn some years before. Ewah loved three things in life: whiskey, guns and Townes. (That he was a hard-drinking gun nut was obvious from the bullet-riddled walls of his living room.) That mix frequently proved combustible, such as the time a friend of Townes’ said that both he and Ewah looked Chinese. Ewah, his Japanese ethnicity impugned, went stalking off for a gun, muttering mortal threats all the while. Van Zandt hollered for Guy Clark to shoot Ewah if the need arose, but thankfully the whole situation was defused by Van Zandt who managed to persuade Ewah that his time would be better spent drinking still more.
In any event, to my 8-year-old eyes, he was terrifying, Huck Finn’s Injun Joe come to life, right down to the buck knife he wore outside his faded cut-off Levi’s. While I was well used to pissing outside, Ewah would just whip it out wherever he was standing, muttering under his breath in some unknown language as he relieved his bladder of inhuman quantities of 90 proof.
Meanwhile, I had three lives going on. Summers and holidays I spent in Houston’s Museum District, in a rambling old mansion belonging to Mama’s parents, where my many aunts and cousins still lived in Thurberesque mayhem. The rest of the time was split between my dad and Jeannie, then living a more-or-less traditional hip suburban existence, and Mama, who was deeper than ever in the throes of narcotic addiction and was only allowed custody of me on weekends.
Mama and I spent a good chunk of my every visit chugging around Nashville in a battered VW van, going from supermarket to supermarket, loading up shopping carts full of meat, and then simply walking right out the door. We were never challenged, not even once. From there, it was off to her network of junky fences to convert the steaks into drugs, or possibly cash. In the latter scenario, we would make another series of trips to any of several pharmacies where she had arrangements.
To buy my silence — Chip would not have approved of her thieving, and knowledge of same would expose the well-concealed though gargantuan extent of her codeine, heroin and downer habit — she would also take me to swipe toys. In our grandest capers, we walked out of a Kmart with a Green Machine (a souped-up Big Wheel) and from Nashville’s finest toy store, the Star Wars Death Star playset. We would concoct elaborate tales to explain this bounty to Chip: Grieving parents having a yard sale to dispose of their dead child’s toys was one such. We didn’t call it stealing: We called it “techniquing.” I believe the coinage was mine.
Trips to Van Zandt’s cabin with my two sets of parents varied immensely. They were almost like Mayberry with my dad. Sure, he would toke on a joint or two and knock back a quart or so of Bud, but he would also plot world domination with his client Townes and still find time to take me on rambles about the property with my Red Ryder BB gun. We would pop bottles in the stock tanks and climb the ridges, counting deer and looking for arrowheads and Minie balls.
With Mama, Chip and Stevie, it was another story. These were the vodka-drenched party trips. And here it must be confessed that I was in love with Cindy, enraptured with her halo of sunset hair, her peach-colored lips, the chocolate brown depths of her eyes, the freckles on her cheeks and nose. She wasn’t all that much older than me, and sometimes she would give me extra attention, tousle my matted, tangled towhead. It galled me that Townes treated her so cruelly.
Chip was privy to one such scene. At the time, Steve Earle was pretty much living at the cabin and Chip spent many a night there drinking vodka and picking guitar. Van Zandt had added a cat and four chickens to the menagerie. The three hens were named Eenie, Meenie and Miny and the rooster was, of course, Mo.
One night deep in the wee small hours, Townes delivered a grave announcement to Chip and Steve. “Man, y’all are gonna have to shoot Mo,” he said, sadly. “He crows before dawn. I just can’t take it any more.”
“Townes, I can’t do that, amigo,” Chip said. “Plus, I know Cindy loves Mo.”
“No, she’s cool with it,” Townes assured. “She’s sick of getting woken up too. Plus, my cat just had kittens and I’m out of cat food. Mo will make a nice meal for her, and she needs one.”
Chip and Steve agreed to take part in this murder, but only if Townes, who had one arm in a sling from a recent truck wreck, would be the triggerman.
“Alright, here’s what we’ll do,” Townes said. “Steve, you flush Mo out in the open. I’ll prop the shotgun on the porch rail here and shoot him. Chip, you take this hatchet and give him the coup de grace.”
Amazingly, the plot went off without a hitch. Soon enough, Mo was plucked and boiling in a pot on the wood stove. About then, Cindy started to wake up, and Townes picked up one of Mo’s claws and carried it over to the groggy Cindy. “Hey Cindy, Mo wants to say goodbye,” Townes said, pulling Mo’s tendons to make the gruesome claw look like it was waving.
Cindy shot awake and lunged for the shotgun at the side of the bed and chased the laughing Townes out into the gray dawn. Obviously, she hadn’t been in on the plot after all.
Somehow, things calmed down a bit. Chip remembered that later that morning a journalist – he thinks it was Chet Flippo – had made the pilgrimage out to interview Townes. Townes was showing Flippo around his rural Eden: “Here’s my morning glories, here’s the outhouse,” and so on.
And then he comes to the henhouse. “We’ve got three hens – Eenie, Meenie, and Miny,” Townes said.
“Where’s Mo?” asked the journalist.
“There ain’t no Mo,” Townes cracked.
“To this day,” Chip insisted to me, “I think Townes concocted that whole horrible scene just to set that one-liner up.”
I remember Townes treating Cindy badly pretty much constantly, and I vowed that if she were only mine, I would treat her better. Naturally enough, Cindy never was mine, and I cannot say that I have always treated the women in my life as well as they deserved. And, it has to be said that Townes’s mistreatment of his women was far funnier than mine ever was.
Steve Earle was reasonably close in age to me, and one day he decided he would take it upon himself to teach me to shoot a pistol. Maybe I’d begged him to show me how to shoot, or maybe he’d decided it was time I learn. At any rate, there we were: me, Steve and what Earle remembers as a “big f---in’ black powder old Civil War replica gun.”
We set up a bottle on a fence post and walked back 30 steps. Steve showed me how to load the pistol with black powder and put the ball in. With a smile he handed me the gun, and its heft astonished me. It was hard to lift up to eye level. “Two hands, Nova,” he said. “This ain’t TV.”
“Now Nova, don’t pull the trigger,” Earle said. “Just squeeze.”
BOOM! Acrid, tangy black powder hit the back of my nostrils almost like a blast of wasabi. The recoil from the gun propelled the barrel back over my shoulder and clipped my right ear. The bottle remained on its post unmolested. Earle doubled over cackling. “Well, Dirty Harry you ain’t,” he said.
That gun, which informed the writing of Earle’s hit “The Devil’s Right Hand,” wound up in a pawn shop around the same time all his guitars did, in his vacation in the ghetto sojourn of the early ’90s, just before he went to prison and finally kicked drugs. Now he says his “beatnik with an arsenal” days are over.
The last time I went to the shack, I remember clearly that the cattle were going crazy: bawling and lowing constantly and with a distinct note of sadness and even hysteria. I was alone with them for much of the day, and as the sun set on yet another scene of general depravity, one that left both my mom and Cindy glassy-eyed, incoherent and vomiting, I asked Townes why the cows were so sad.
“They came yesterday and took the calves away,” he said. “They are looking for their babies.” (Years later, “Silence of the Lambs” would electrify me because I knew exactly what made Clarice Starling what she was.)
Not long after that, Mama lost any right to visitation with me, and she split Nashville for San Antonio with Stevie and Chip. She couldn’t even bring herself to say goodbye to me. I would see her only once between 1979 and 1989. During that time, she almost never wrote or called.
The booze finally cut townes down and and it eventually got to Mama, too. We reconciled somewhat in the early ’90s. Mama and Chip moved back to Nashville, Mama had gotten on Methadone, and she’d had my two sisters Peggy and Libby. Chip was Steve Earle’s roadie, and Earle was a worldwide rock star. Earle paid the downpayment on Mama and Chip’s East Nashville home. I rented the upstairs apartment from her, and then, after we had forged an uneasy bond, I took off for Europe for three years.
While I was away, Mama backslid. This time it was booze: vodka, wine, malt liquor spiced with Louisiana hot sauce. She took up with a drunk guitar player named Jimbo and Chip kicked her out. Then Jimbo kicked her out and she was on the streets. By then I was back in Nashville and I tried to take her in. She sneak-guzzled an entire box of wine, messed up my car, and passed out on the front porch of my condo, all in 48 hours. My (now-ex) wife was not amused.
I moved back to Houston shortly after that debacle. Then one day there came a call from Chip: Mama was dead. She had been run over by a car on Interstate 65 in Nashville in the early morning hours of a gloomy November day in 1998. She was in search of one last 40 ounce of malt liquor to get her through one more Music City night. She’d lain unclaimed in the morgue for days. No Nashville media source made note of her demise.
None of us grieved her more than the Mexican man she’d recently met in a mission she’d been thrown out of. He called her his wife, though there was nothing official. He’d been by her side when she breathed her last, and he grieved her as much as any of us.
It’s a hard way to lose your mother, even if her whole life had prepared me for a scenario like that. I was numb to it for years, and then one night, while on psychedelic mushrooms, I told a stranger about it. Of all places, this confession came spilling out of me on East Sixth Street right in the middle of Austin’s South By Southwest.
My homeless mother. Got run over. On the Interstate. While looking for malt liquor.
Finally, I felt what those bereft cattle had felt, and I wept there on Sixth Street as a thousand bands played and a million lights flashed.
It’s only now that I can grieve her, through the words Townes wrote that she loved so well:
Days up and down they come,
like rain on a conga drum,
Forget most, remember some,
but don’t turn none away.
Everything is not enough,
and nothin’ is too much to bear.
Where you’ve been is good and gone,
all you keep’s the gettin’ there.
To live’s to fly, all low and high,
So shake the dust off your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes.