How Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” veers from Platonic epistemology to magic realism

How Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” veers from Platonic epistemology to magic realism

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“Breathing became slow and stertorous,” writes Dr. Max Fink of insulin shock therapy, otherwise known as insulin coma therapy (ICT), the since-discredited treatment for schizophrenia and manic depression that Townes Van Zandt’s family submitted him to in the early ’60s. “Eye movements wandered. The pupillary response to light was still present. Occasional spasms of the main body muscles were seen. Sweating was severe, and temperature rose. In time, breathing became irregular, pulse rapid, and corneal and pupillary reflexes absent. Deep tendon reflexes were lost.”

That wasn’t all that was lost. Another side effect of ICT is retrograde amnesia. When Van Zandt was discharged from a Galveston, Texas hospital after three months of the treatment, huge holes in his memory had blossomed. Prior to the treatments, the promising college student had been groomed by his wealthy parents to become a lawyer or perhaps even a politician. For the rest of his life, he wound up wandering the country, living in shacks, abusing drugs and booze—and penning some of the greatest folk and country songs of all time.

Van Zandt may not have remembered his slow, stertorous breathing during his ICT treatments—let alone tapped into that trauma—when he wrote his 1969 song “Lungs.” It doesn’t matter. The song draws a ragged breath all its own. Appearing on his third and self-titled full-length, “Lungs” is the sound of a man haunted by loss, twisted by futility, and imprisoned within his own scarred body. “Well, won’t you lend your lungs to me? / Mine are collapsing,” he drawls, his fractured twang as much of an accusation as a plea for help. “Plant my feet and bitterly breathe / Up the time that’s passing.” A lonesome melodic figure twitches across the strings of his acoustic, taut and jangling like unearthed nerves. A percussive thump against the guitar’s hollow body spasmodically mimics an erratic heartbeat. Or the kick of legs against a hospital gurney.

But there’s more than morbid metaphor to “Lungs.” Lines like “Breath I’ll take, and breath I’ll give / Pray the day ain’t poison” seem to hint at the insulin injections Van Zandt received as part of his therapy, but the song’s narrative telescopes into something less obsessed with death—and more fixated on the hidden nature of truth and the universe. “Gather up the gold you’ve found / You fool, it’s only moonlight / If you try to take it home / Your hands will turn to butter,” he sings, veering from Platonic epistemology to folksy magic realism in the span of half a verse. Jesus and salvation are name-checked in a Dylanesque rush of biblical imagery, but it’s when Van Zandt halts his sacred hyperventilating to dwell once more on pathology—“Wisdom burned upon a shelf / Who’ll kill the raging cancer”—that his poetry elicits the iciest, most existential chills.

The song’s last lines, though, are its ultimate implosion. “And I for one, and you for two / Ain’t got the time for outside,” he rasps, leaving the word “outside” as an ambiguous noun, the null space beyond walls that Van Zandt, for all his itinerant freedom, rarely knew. “Just keep your injured looks to you / We’ll tell the world we tried.” That final couplet is the killer; in a pique of weary frustration, rage and surrender are locked in stasis, equally matched, mutually destructive.

Van Zandt died on New Year’s Day, 1997, of cardiac dysrhythmia—which was determined to be natural, although there’s little doubt it had been triggered by a recent bout of substance abuse. His wife Jeanene, upon seeing him stop breathing, administered CPR. His lungs, however, could not be refilled. In the 2004 documentary of his life, Be Here To Love Me, Van Zandt is heard saying—over a crackling, otherworldly phone line—“I don’t envision a very long life for myself. I think my life will run out before my work does, you know?” If the definitive live version of “Lungs” (from the Live At The Old Quarter album, taped in 1973) is any indication, though, he was able to siphon a staggering strength while onstage—although he always shunned large crowds, preferring to play cramped, intimate venues where he could ostensibly feel the collective breath of his audience in the air.

If there’s a single lyric from “Lungs” that serves as a worthy epitaph for its author, it’s this: “Fill the sky with screams and cries / Bathe in fiery answers.” Barely out of adolescence, a promising life laid out ahead of him, Van Zandt held all the answers—only to have them flushed from his brain chemistry in a series of barbarous, artificially induced comas. By Dr. Fink’s account, those who undergo ICT aren’t even given the chance to scream. It’s a silent procedure, a quiet torture.

“Townes said, ‘This song should be screamed, not sung,’” recounted Lyle Lovett, prior to performing the song with Steve Earle during a tribute concert following Van Zandt’s death. Lovett and Earle are two of many artists who cite Van Zandt as an inspiration—a devoted legion that includes Bob Dylan (whose request for a collaboration Van Zandt inexplicably denied), as well as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (who covered Van Zandt’s “Pancho And Lefty,” turning it into his biggest hit). Lovett’s “screamed, not sung” comment drew giggles from the audience at the star-studded Van Zandt tribute, apparently due to the fact that the barrel-chested Earle has never been shy about issuing a howl or two. But in spite of that tantalizing setup, Lovett and Earle practically whispered Van Zandt’s stark, apocalyptic lyrics—their voices hushed and their lungs on loan to a man whose own breath had been stolen from him.

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