A very pregnant Allison Moorer joined Steve Earle for a few songs during her husband’s two-hour acoustic show Friday night at the Society for Ethical Culture off Central Park West, a block from Lincoln Center.
The gig came during a brief respite back in their adoptive hometown, between legs of a tour promoting Earle’s new album of compositions by his hero, the late Townes Van Zandt, whose songs he’s now teaching to legions of new cultists.
Arguably America’s greatest living songwriter laughed as he noted that “Townes” has become one of his best sellers, “which in a way is discouraging cause I didn’t write any of the songs on it.”
The first song he recorded for the collection in his and Moorer’s downtown apartment off Houston Street was probably the greatest of Van Zandt’s mini-masterpieces, the classic “Pancho and Lefty.”
Earle equated it to his first day in prison (he spent a few months behind bars on a drug conviction), when he walked up to “the biggest guy in the yard” and knocked him out so he could keep his radio, “among other things.”
The “short list” of tunes he was ready to lay down numbered 35, but he got it down to 15 by following the advice of a prolific guitar maker who once told him he was able to produce a certain number of instruments by “throwing out anything that doesn’t look like a guitar.
“I guess it worked” he told the crowd in the church-like amphitheater, which has pews instead of seats, a large semi-circular stage and terrific acoustics in its catherdral-like atrium.
“I’ve always wanted to play here,” the Virginia-born, San Antonio-raised, anti-Nashville renegade said, looking up at the balcony.
Earle told stories of how Van Zandt at first intimidated him when he was starting out. Townes was one of only six or so people in a club in Houston one night, so he stage down front with his feet on the stage, wearing moccassins, heckling Earle — who had actually booked himself there in the hopes of meeting his hero.
They soon became fast friends. “My teacher,” Earle said, adding that he immediately bought his own pair of mocs. Their mini-cult of following eventually included Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams and others.
Zandt, an alcoholic and manic-depressive whose excesses somehow could never be severed from his art, had come all the way to Nashville from Texas unannounced one day when Earle came home one day, arms tattooed by needle tracks, to find him waiting.
His “teacher” then sang “Marie,” a song he’d written as an intervention for Earle.
It was easy for Earle to remember when he wrote one of his own, “(Can’t Remember If We Said) Goodbye.”
It was 15 years ago, when he finally kicked cheap street drugs, like Dilaudid and skanky heroin, he said. He cradled the song as he always does, a special treasure amid a chestful of lyrical brilliance that Springsteen himself will tell you no modern songwriter — not even Dylan — has been able to match. CONTINUED….
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