March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

Townes Van Zandt

It is perhaps the final twist of a lifetime filled with them that when songwriter Townes Van Zandt died of a heart attack in January at age 52, he was just weeks away from the release of Rear View Mirror—a live best-of album that no doubt would have helped rejuvenate the career of this troubled Texas troubadour. For now, it will have to serve as a temporary memorial to the author of such powerful classics as “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You”—at least until a proper tribute record can be put together by the many folk and country artists (such as Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle) who have long acknowledged this cult hero’s profound influence.

Anyone familiar with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s hit version of “Pancho and Lefty” or Nanci Griffith’s gripping “Tecumseh Valley” can attest to the timeless quality of Van Zandt’s songs; they seem to have dropped from the skies rather than from an earthly pen. Hearing them sung by their composer, one feels the heart of darkness that created them. While his work often dealt with death (he was plagued by mental and alcohol problems since his youth), Van Zandt viewed mortality with a surprisingly healthy perspective. “It won’t be long till I’ll be tying on my flyin’ shoes,” he sings on one of the many riveting tunes here. Hopefully they’ve lifted him up to that peaceful place he could never find down here. (Sugar Hill)

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