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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt  (1944-1997)

There is a sense when learning about his life that there was an element of ‘self-medicating’ ... and that had he received some form of intervention, he may well have been capable of continuing as a creative force to a much later age.

Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) was a Texan songwriter. His intense, poetic songs and unconventional delivery distinguished him from other forms of ‘country’ music and a deep emotional intelligence is evident in his work. Although he did not achieve great commercial success in his lifetime, he was regarded by many of his peers as the greatest songwriter of all (friend and fellow songwriter Steve Earle famously declared he would inform Bob Dylan of this while standing on Dylan’s coffee table wearing cowboy boots). His reputation has grown further since his death and his influence is cited by a diverse range of artists, from Lyle Lovett to Sonic Youth. His songs have been covered by Bob Dylan, Neil Young and his friend Willie Nelson, who turned
‘Pancho and Lefty’, Van Zandt’s unconventional and abstract tale of two outlaws, into a major country hit in the 1980s. 

Throughout his life, Van Zandt struggled with substance abuse. From early adulthood, he was drinking heavily and he used intravenous heroin extensively throughout his adult life. His death aged 52, following an operation on his hip, was contributed to by his very poor underlying physical condition. Van Zandt was always adamant that drinking and using drugs was simply part of his ‘life on the road’ and took a very philosophical view of the likelihood of an early death. This was in keeping with his purist vision of song writing as an art form which required deep and utter commitment, even to the detriment of his health, finances and relationships with friends and family. 

A closer look at Van Zandt’s biography however strongly suggests that he also suffered from a severe comorbid depressive illness. His description of the ‘blues’ as a sense of deep despair beyond sadness has the hallmarks of a severe depressive state, and several of his songs, such as ‘Flyin’ Shoes’ and ‘Nothin’ also reflect this. For long periods, his creativity was severely blunted and towards the end of his life he was often unable to play or remember his songs. Although Van Zandt had a privileged and largely unremarkable upbringing, those close to him frequently identified memory loss from a crude form of Electroconvulsive Therapy(ECT), given to him on a questionable basis when in his late teens, as a major traumatic event in his life. (Those interested in ECT should see information on modern use of ECT in accordance with guidelines here). 

There is a sense when learning about his life that there was an element of ‘self-medicating’ in Van Zandt’s drug and alcohol misuse and that had he received some form of intervention, he may well have been capable of continuing as a creative force to a much later age. It is of note that contemporaries such as Dylan and Kris Kristofferson struggled with similar difficulties yet managed to produce quality material until much later in life. This is also true of Leonard Cohen, who overcame severe depression and experienced a renaissance in his later career. The difficulties encountered by those with a ‘dual diagnosis’ of substance misuse and mental illness has been identified by key figures working in this area and is in my view an important consideration when considering the difficulties encountered by creative individuals in maintaining their mental health.  

In 2005, American filmmaker Margaret Brown directed the excellent ‘Be Here to Love Me’, a biographical film about Van Zandt’s life, named after one of his songs. The classic 1970s film ‘Heartworn Highways’ about ‘outlaw’ Texan songwriters also contains some memorable scenes which give an insight into his work and lifestyle.

A biography of Van Zandt,
‘To Live is to Fly’, is also available. An erratic studio performer, Van Zandt was often at his best in a live setting, at least earlier in his career. This is evidenced by his peerless live album ‘Live at The Old Quarter’(released in 1977 from a recording of a 1973 performance).  


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Re: Townes Van Zandt
I am in USA ... doing independent project on Homeless By Choice ( HBC ) ... inspired by Townes story ... fascinated by why
creative people ... are sometimes "Homeless By Choice" ... and
if it is a chemical imbalance that can be controlled via intervention ... e-mail
geographic area Evansville,IN 47715 USA

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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.