First Images

By Tom Erikson

I was first introduced to the Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt by my friend Hobart. The three of us drank together for a couple of days and through two concerts, one in San Francisco and one in Mill Valley. We stayed at Hobart’s house on Golden Gate Park and Townes and I slept on the living room floor. On the second day I wanted to make a portrait, but I had left all my gear in the studio, not wanting to lug it around. I borrowed a friend’s camera, but the battery was dead. I remember being very drunk and thinking that it was far too much trouble to go home and fetch my equipment and it seemed to take forever to make it on foot all the way to a store where I could find film and a battery. Somehow I got their old manual Nikon working and Townes sat for me on Hobart’s couch. This first picture has always seemed to me the saddest of all the shots I took of Townes over the next ten years.

I remember waking up on the hardwood floor at about seven in the morning of the third day and opening my eyes to Townes crawling on all fours over to his suitcase, pulling out a fifth of vodka, and taking a long draw from the bottle. He couldn’t remember what he had to do that day, so when we took him to the airport we pointed him in the direction of Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was to sit on a panel at a music conference that afternoon. I tried never to drink with Townes again, although I spent time with him every year or so throughout the rest of his life, in sober times and not so sober times. I could see where it all was going and I didn’t want any part in helping Townes get there. He died New Year’s Day, 1994, one of America’s greatest songwriters.