Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Proud Colorado Mountains of Townes Van Zandt

On the motivation from a recent Onion AV Club article about Townes Van Zandt, I recently tried to locate the Boulder apartment complex where Van Zandt apparently jumped/fell off of a fourth floor balcony, ending up unhurt and not having spilled any of the wine he was holding. As the story is told, the apartments were the Varsity Manor apartments, which no longer seem to exist in Boulder under that same name. The resulting search turned a simple inquiry into a much more involved project. Thinking they might provide a few more details, I picked up the two fairly recent Townes Van Zandt biographies, To Live's to Fly and A Deeper Blue, although what I found was not much more in-depth than what I already knew. Instead the books turned up a number of additional Boulder and other Colorado connections for Townes that I was not previously aware of, and which I decided would be worthwhile to document as best I could. The pictures are not professional quality, but you can click them to see a bit larger image.

To begin with, Townes and his family spent a substantial amount of time in Boulder for vacations during his childhood, frequently staying in a cabin in Chautauqua Park. I didn't necessarily want to find the exact cabin, just so I don't lead anyone to trespass or otherwise do something foolish, but below you can see a row of the cabins at Chautauqua. He actually noted in a live recording many years later that his first job ever, at age 9, was mixing the instant mashed potatoes at the Dining Hall at Chautauqua.

A few years later, Townes and his family lived in Boulder for a short span, as his family moved frequently because of his father's job. Townes attended Boulder High for his freshman and sophomore years, although his family moved again, at which time he enrolled in Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota, where he would eventually graduate.

Back to my original intention of finding the Varsity Manor apartments, the first trail I followed was to see if the currently operating Varsity Townhouses, located near the Hill in Boulder, were in fact what was once Varsity Manor. When I first checked out these apartments, the existence of a fourth floor seemed a bit doubtful, and thus I wasn't quite convinced that this was the place. A bit more searching turned up only one more useful resource about Varsity Manor, and interestingly, it involved a couple of other past residents by the name of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. I found a reference in Ginsberg: A Biography (Barry Miles 1989) that mentions Ginsberg lived at "425 Varsity Manor, in the Swiss-chalet style Varsity Townhouses complex" in the early 1980s (p. 488). In fact, supposedly he lived across the courtyard from where William Burroughs lived in the late 1970s, presumably the courtyard pictured below. What I don't know is why any apartment in this complex would have been numbered in the 400s because it looks more like 3 floors, but I guess the entire numbering system may have been changed in the last 30 years. In fact, I consider it likely that the numbers might have been changed for the explicit reason of preventing people from snooping around and trying to find Allen Ginsberg's old apartment. After reaching a few dead ends trying to find out if these apartments had housed three of America's greatest writers at different times, I have currently come to the conclusion that the courtyard below is likely the place where Ginsberg and Burroughs lived, but was not in fact the site of Townes' storied fall.

Rather, after speaking a bit with Tom Peters, who owns the Beat Book Shop, I came to find that the Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me actually shows the exact apartment where the fall occurred. I watched the film a number of years back, but didn't make the connection then because it doesn't explicitly mention that they are showing a location in Boulder, and thus it didn't register that I had probably walked by the place a few dozen times without realizing the connection. The anonymity they give the location in the film may be to avoid having people track down the place and bother whatever 19 year-old college students live there now, or worse yet, to try and reenact the fall themselves. With that, let me make my disclaimer here that I don't advocate anyone engaging in any illegal activity in tracking down any of these locations. That said, based on what the movie shows and what I now know about this general area, the picture below shows the apartment where this fall apparently occurred, not at Varsity Townhouses, but at the apartment complex across the street. One can see why there are conflicting reports in various accounts as to whether the fall was from a 3rd or 4th story balcony, as the ground contours here would make a fall from the 4th floor more like a fall from the 3rd story.

Another Boulder locale mentioned in the Townes Van Zandt biography is Tulagi's, the now defunct rock club where Van Zandt apparently worked the door for a period of time. Located on the Hill beside the Fox Theatre, Tulagi's sadly closed down in 2003, and has since been changed to commercial space. To give you an idea of how things stand in Boulder now, the once renowned rock club has been replaced by a franchise of the Which Wich sandwich chain. The Tulagi sign remains, as pictured below, but the local music scene (not pictured) has since moved to Denver.

Another location of interest mentioned in A Deeper Blue was a small coffee shop where Townes played called Barefoot Charlie's. Finding where this was located was no easy task, as Barefoot Charlie's does not seem to have been in business for a long time, possibly since the 1960s. After speaking over the phone with Townes' college roommate and lifelong friend Bob Myrick, I was able to gather roughly where the coffee shop was located, which is on University Hill in Boulder, not far up the street from Tulagi's. As you can see in the pictures below, the building now houses various businesses such as a college apparel store and a food court. According to the book, Van Zandt wasn't performing original material when he played Barefoot Charlie's in college, although Myrick noted that Townes returned to play the coffee shop later on while touring behind some of his early records, by which time he was playing almost solely original material. I don't think there is much point in arguing this location is the "first" place Townes ever played a show, but I think it holds historical significance in being one of the places he played early on and before he actually made the decision to pursue a full-time career in music.

While in college, Townes was reportedly quite fond of rock climbing, although he apparently didn't do so using the fancy climbing equipment like you see in Boulder today. Rather, accounts from the biographies say that he more often went climbing at night and after a fair amount of drinking. Below is a picture of one of many places a young Townes might have gone climbing in Boulder Canyon, although there are many places where he might have done his climbing. Today, however, one has to be careful where one stops and takes pictures because of all the private driveways, so this locale just up the road from Boulder will have to suffice as a hypothetical example.

This is a late addition to this blog post, as I only recently found one location I had been looking for. In A Deeper Blue, it is mentioned by Fran that she and Townes and others would have picnics in the canyon outside Boulder near an abandoned railroad station. I went to some great lengths trying to find this area in the canyon, but to no avail. However, out for a recent run, I found this small plot for sale on the edge of town. Fifty years ago, there is little doubt that this spot wasn't even part of Boulder proper, so I think it could have been construed as being up the canyon. Anyway, it's a little spot at the entrance of Boulder Canyon that looks as though there is a small train depot and an old railroad bridge. The lot is actually for sale, and the buildings will likely be torn down at that point, so I doubt it will be there for too terribly much longer. Nonetheless, my guess would be that this was the area referred to in the book.

Moving beyond Boulder, A Deeper Blue details that Townes played a small tour of mountain towns around 1974 or 1975 with Mickey White and Rex Bell, with the three collectively calling themselves the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys. The book describes that the tour wasn't exactly a resounding success, far from it, in fact. However, Van Zandt and company were on the road for a number of weeks, playing multiple nights at many of the venues. One of those venues was the Oxford Hotel in Denver, which can still be found at 17th and Wazee in downtown Denver.

I was quite surprised to find out that the final gigs of this mountain tour were played at the Pioneer Inn in Nederland, CO, a small mountain town just 18 miles up the canyon from Boulder. Apparently the group had quite a harrowing drive just to get there, which is no surprise considering how quickly the weather can change and conditions can deteriorate at 8,000 feet or more above sea level. Mountain towns in Colorado have a culture all their own, and I can only imagine that in the mid-70s, Ned was likely a pretty interesting place to play. When I took a picture of the Pioneer in early 2010, it was a bit unfortunate to see that someone is trying to sell the place with the pitch of "Own 37 Years of Music History," but such is life I guess.

Townes' time in Boulder would eventually come full circle, returning to his childhood vacation spot of Chautauqua Park in August of 1990 to play a show at the Auditorium with Guy Clark and opener Robert Earl Keen. Various live recordings of this show exist around the internet for those who search for it a bit. Chautauqua was and is one of the most impressive places in Boulder, sitting adjacent to open space in front of the Flatirons and looking out over the city to the east. Following the Chautauqua show, Townes returned to Boulder in 1992 and 1994 to play the radio show E-Town, which took place at the Boulder Theater. Pictured below are the Auditorium, the open space near Chautauqua in summer, and the marquee at the Boulder Theater, located at 2032 14th St.

I know various other Colorado locales exist with connections to Townes, but these are the ones that I could find in the Denver/Boulder area. I do welcome corrections/additions from anyone with additional information, as this is by no means an exhaustive accounting. The books provide a number of interesting stories and are well worth your time if you are interested in Townes' life. Interestingly, neither book provides much perspective from Steve Earle, who has recently brought a great deal of attention to Townes Van Zandt and his music. At his in-store at Twist and Shout last year, Earle emphasized Townes' great love for the mountains of Colorado, and I have to say it became a minor obsession of mine to track down the places where he spent his time in the state. However, like most of the places in Townes' life, Colorado was but a temporary stop on a fairly continuous life on the road. The longing for the mountains heard in his songs is both poignant and powerful, yet the longing to keep moving seemed to be the most powerful of all:
"It's snowin' on raton, come mornin' I'll be through them hills and gone."
--Townes Van Zandt, "Snowin' on Raton"

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