Puremusic: I really enjoyed the hell out of the book. What a very ambitious undertaking.
John Kruth: Thanks. I just couldn't understand why nobody had written a book about Townes. As you know, I'd written a book on Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I was done in 2000 with that. And the publisher that I was with at the time of course wanted another jazz book right away. But my goal or my ambition in writing the book about Rahsaan wasn't to be a jazz writer. I just happened to pick Rahsaan because I believe in his music, and I think everybody should know about it, and it had such a grand effect on people whether they know it or not, through Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson mimicking his flute style. But I was just looking for another figure in American music who, first of all, was below the radar. I wouldn't want to write a book on Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen, or something, somebody that we really know about and have heard about over and over. What's the point?
I've always really admired Townes, though I never saw him live, and I never met him. And maybe that's one of the reasons why I wrote a book about him. I don't think I could write a book about anybody that I knew or was close to, because I don't think you can have the perspective that you absolutely need--or that I need.
PM: Well, that's interesting. What does that mean, exactly? If it's somebody that you know, you don't have the perspective that you need. What is that perspective?
JK: Well, that's a really good question. I think that in order for me to write about somebody, I need to be as equanimous or as impartial as possible when I'm collecting all these stories. I mean, I'll laugh at them, I'll cry at them, from them, but at the same time, I have to be the one that's not attached. Everybody else is attached. Everybody is deeply attached to Rahsaan and to Townes. I mean, oh, my God, everyone I interviewed as far as Townes was concerned, was so deeply emotionally connected. People who'd just met Townes for ten minutes, or saw him play, felt like he was a close friend. He moved people that way.
PM: And in a lot of cases it seemed very enmeshed?
JK: Oh, really, exactly. And when people say, "Why did you write a book about Townes Van Zandt?" It's because I didn't know him, because I never saw him, because I wanted to hear about him, and I wanted to collect all those stories and put it all together. I knew the music. I consider it to be one of the few regrets that I have, that Jim Rooney invited me to the sessions for At My Window, and I did not attend.
JK: Well, I knew Jim pretty well, and he was one of my big connections to Townes in the first place. And Rooney had invited me down for when John Prine was doing German Afternoons. And I wrote an article about John for Musician magazine, which was, at that time, the mag.
PM: Oh, yeah, for sure. A few of my close friends came from those days of that mag.
JK: I wrote an article on John at that point, and I was thinking about doing one on Townes at that time as well. And I think Bill Flanagan wrote it himself, because he wrote that great article that I quote in the book about Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt.
JK: But I was just in the midst of recording my first album at that point, and I was really focused on doing my own thing.
JK: Rahsaan lived down the street from me, maybe five miles away. I had no idea. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, sounds like a guy that came from the Sudan or something. Though I was really familiar with his music and I knew he was an American, I had no idea he was in East Orange, New Jersey, and that for a couple years of my schooling I was passing his house. In the case of Townes, I picked up on him in about 1970, when I heard "Our Mother the Mountain," which just scared the hell out of me.
JK: I had never heard a song like that before. It was like an Ingmar Bergman movie, or Tony Perkins in a cowboy hat. It was just so dark and simultaneously beautiful, that I had never experienced anything like that. I was hip to Leonard Cohen. I had heard "Violets of Dawn" by Eric Anderson. I was familiar with the tradition of writing darker, more poetic kind of statements. Obviously, Dylan, but Dylan didn't go to that neighborhood. Dylan was a different
PM: He had a different shade of darkness going on.
JK: Absolutely, completely. I mean, this was really a trip down to the flat fish territory of the human psyche. And mixed in, all these incredible poetic metaphors that went right back to Coleridge and Blake, and all the poets that I loved back in prep school. When I was made to go to prep school, that was my saving grace, that I learned "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and I got onto William Blake, and the transcendentalists. And one of the things that completely moved me about Townes was that I had seen Lighting Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis, and Mississippi John Hurt, and to me that was really what it was all about. And as far as poetry went, he was tapping into all the stuff that I loved, too. So I connected really deeply with him. I wasn't on to the Hank Williams thing at that point in my life yet. I was from New Jersey, I was a northeastern guy.
PM: But that was certainly to come.
JK: Oh, it was definitely to come. But at that point I hadn't heard it. But early on, when I heard that second album, when I heard Our Mother the Mountain, it just blew me away. I was familiar with Poppy Records, because they were doing some really interesting things. I mean, what a fine art label it was, even for all of its shortcomings commercially, it really put out a lot of people that I admired. And Townes was at the forefront of that.