In 1990 Townes van Zandt Got Drunk In A Small New Zealand Town and Played a Free Gig at the Pub
We look back at the time the Texan country music legend found himself boozed up in a small town on the west coast of New Zealand.
Image: Ashley Goodall
Odds are that William McPhedran was just looking for a cold beer and a casual debrief of the Townes van Zandt gig he’d just seen, when he wandered into a downtown Wellington bar on September 13, 1990.
Stumbling across the iconic folk singer/songwriter himself, drinking alone, wouldn’t have been on his radar. Nor would the potential that, two nights later, van Zandt would be crashing at his Greymouth home - and playing a free gig at a local country pub.
Yet as McPhedran wandered over to Texas-based music legend, those very things were about to be set in motion for what has to be one of the most incredible impromptu free gigs in Kiwi music history.
Described by Steve Earle as a better songwriter than Bob Dylan, van Zandt’s ability to craft melancholic, mournful songs sits alongside the likes of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen; albeit in folk/country framework.
While alive, he was a complicated figure who sadly inhabited all the ‘tortured artist’ caricatures you could imagine.
He resisted a wealthy upbringing, cast off his young family and dove headfirst in the lifestyle of a free-wheeling drunken country musician. Gigs were often at dive bars, and a dependence on booze and drugs developed.
Though he found cult fame, widespread appeal never fully fell van Zandt while alive; but a new generation was exposed to his music thanks to the fantastic 2004 documentary Be Here To Love Me. His legend has grown massively, since.
Sadly, he’d been dead more than seven years when the film came out.
Though he wasn’t well known in New Zealand in 1990, van Zandt had captivated fans just two years before on a four-stop visit in October 1988. He was sober then, having recently undergone alcohol rehab.
It wasn’t the case two years later.
In 1990, the 50-year-old Texan had just finished an exhausting five-month tour of the US and Canada with the Cowboy Junkies before he came Down Under. His old familiar battle with the bottle had returned.
Greg Fleming opened for van Zandt at Auckland’s Leopard Tavern and The Gluepot, on September 16 and 17; the final two days of his official three-stop Kiwi tour.
The Leopard Tavern gig attracted a smaller, more observant audience, allowing van Zandt to relax into his mournful numbers. Meeting the singer after the show, Fleming found him sober, shy and withdrawn, but a complete gentlemen.
“He was very kind to me, and said ‘don’t ever stop writing,” he says. “[That] was encouraging, especially for me, back then.”
A week later, for the Gluepot performance, van Zandt had been drinking. While his affection for Fleming continued, the Kiwi musician saw the other side to him, both while performing and at the gig’s after-party. van Zandt become spiteful and verbally abusive.
“The change in him was really quite evident, by then,” Fleming says. “He was quite nasty. You know how nasty some drunks can get.”
What the locals got in Barrytown sounds like something between the two.
Given McPhedran died in 2010, in Indonesia, it’s hard to know exactly how exactly van Zandt’s road-trip to the Coast transpired. But if anyone’s best placed to re-tell it, it’s Roger Ewer.
Ewer was good mates with McPhedran, who was working as a carpenter on a Wellington movie set when he attended van Zandt’s Paisley Park gig. That performance has since turned up on downloadable bootlegs across the net.
Back in 1990, Ewer ran – as he still does now – the isolated, but iconic Barrytown Hall, 28km north of Greymouth.
Image: Arista records
Over the years, the venue has hosted to a fleet of big-name international and Kiwi bands; from UK SUBS and Fugazi to The Bats, Die! Die! Die and Tiny Ruins.
Ewer says McPhedran’s gregarious nature would have got the ball rolling with van Zandt in Wellington.
“He ended up having a chat with him, and found out that he wasn’t doing anything for the next few days,” Ewer says.
“William said to Townes ‘I’m heading back to the Coast. Do you want to come down and have a bit of a holiday?”
van Zandt was keen, but McPhedran gave the country-folk legend one proviso: he had to play a free gig at Barrytown Hall on the West Coast. Van Zandt agreed, and, evidently, so did his Kiwi tour manager Kevin Byrt.
McPhedran picked van Zandt up from his hotel the next morning – a Friday - and took him across the ferry, and down to the Coast. Ewer had little warning that the music legend was inbound.
“When William turned up and told I was like ‘oh shit. Hmm, well, sure we can.’ [The thing was] nobody locally had heard of him,” Ewer says.
“Only people into Dylan and others like that knew his songwriting, but most people hadn’t heard of him.”
They decided to hold the gig the next night. Word spread mostly by phone. The Clean’s David Kilgour was one of the few out-of-towners to get word, driving all the way up from Dunedin with two mates.
The venue changed the afternoon van Zandt was to perform.
The Texan walked into the hall while Ewer was setting up. With New Zealand still emerging from winter, he complained that the hall was too cold for him.
Ewer crossed the road to the All Nations Hotel, and asked the owner if the gig could go down there. Sure, he said.
How exactly the gig transpired has been shaded by memory, and time. Ewer remembers around 60 people turning up to watch van Zandt perform from a piano chair in the corner.
He says there was only a handful of disinterested locals, while Kilgour, speaking to Radio New Zealand in 2014, Kilgour recalls the bar being packed by loud farmers with little interest in van Zandt’s music.
The playlist would have likely been similar to his Wellington show, with staples like “Waitin’ Around to Die”, "To Live Is To Fly" and "If I Needed You".
Ewer remembers van Zandt as being “very quiet” in Barrytown, but said “he was right into his booze.”
“He was out-drinking William, who was a pretty big boozer,” he says. “I didn’t actually have a session with them, though. I wasn’t in a party mode that night.”
The party shifted to McPhedran’s once the gig was over, with around dozen people heading there to keep the good vibes going.
Sitting next to van Zandt, Kilgour ended up playing percussion on the Texan’s guitar case as he launched into a set at the party.
“He just kept turning to me, saying ‘louder David, louder,” Kilgour told Radio New Zealand.
When not performing, van Zandt was cleaning out the locals from their wages in poker.
“It was like five hundred dollars or something – quite a lot of money back then,” Ewer says.
Astonishingly, van Zandt made it up to Auckland for his Leopard Tavern gig two nights. The Queen City unfortunately saw a more debauched side of the Texan than Barrytown.
Reports of his resulting tour to Australia are that he got even worse across the Ditch.
Like Kilgour, the memories of van Zandt’s unofficial Barrytown gig remain fond ones, though.
“People would ring me and say ‘hey, you never told me about Townes coming to visit,” he says. “I’d be like ‘hey man, we had like one day to get the word out on telephone.’
“If you tell people that we had Townes in Barrytown though, most won’t believe you.”