Ode to Mediocrity

'Be Here to Love Me' is an interesting documentary about a solvent-loving songwriter you've probably never heard of

The documentary Be Here to Love Me is exactly the film that Townes Van Zandt's fans have been waiting for. Oh, I should mention that there was this guy named Townes Van Zandt, and he has fans.

Which points out the weird place of this film in the cultural landscape: Townes Van Zandt was only a little bit famous. At the height of his career, he lived in a trailer home, and he wasn't doing it to gain street cred. Nor does Van Zandt really have a notable cult following. Sure, he has fans, but they're more like Stephen Tobolowsky's fans: They appreciate his work, but they're not exactly dressing up like him to go to Tobolowsky-Con 2006.

So who was Townes Van Zandt? Some claim he was the greatest songwriter of 20th century. Of course, they're wrong, but Van Zandt's songs were covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and The Cowboy Junkies. As a performer, Van Zandt never had a hit, and his records tended to drift out of print after selling a few thousand copies. So a documentary on him doesn't have the immediate commercial potential of, say, a TV movie about the short and tragic life of Lindsay Lohan.

In fact, Van Zandt's life was terribly ordinary, at least by the standard of VH1's Behind the Music. As a high schooler, Van Zandt was an upper-middle-class kid, a star football player and, most importantly for his future musical career, an avid glue-sniffer. Discovering that playing guitar was a more fashionable accessory to his brain-destroying activities than playing football, he embarked on a 30-year musical voyage into better living through chemistry.

If that was the extent of this documentary, it would be fairly uninteresting. As far as films about music stars treating themselves like medicine cabinets, we've seen it before and better. What makes Be Here to Love Me interesting is that Van Zandt wasn't exactly a star. This is the story of someone who didn't fail, but didn't exactly succeed, either. It is in many respects what this country really needs: an ode to mediocrity, an elegy for the passing of someone who was good, but not too good. It's Death of a Salesman for the MTV generation.

Director Margaret Brown uses a lot of stock footage from Van Zandt's life and career, but when she takes the helm, the film acquires the look of a 1970s American auteur project. There are shots through a car's windshield, superimposed imagery and montage effects, double exposures and variations in film stock. The dreamy style works well in exposing the life of a man whose talent was mediated by the fact that he found a magical wardrobe that opened to a fantasy world, and that wardrobe's name was "huffing toluene."

Van Zandt's brain damage becomes markedly noticeable in the later footage, and it's tremendously sad to see his abilities dissolved by something as insipid as solvents. Not that Van Zandt stopped with Testor's model glue: He was also known to inject himself with bourbon and cola, take dives off four-story buildings just for the thrill of it, and occasionally partake of lighter drugs like heroin.

Of course, people who live like that are often amusing to watch. One sequence features a shot of Van Zandt relating the tale of how a tube of glue got stuck in his mouth. As he speaks, a nameless hippie repeatedly fires a BB gun over his shoulder. It's a freakishly surreal scene, as no one seems to even notice that there's a gun being fired.

With such an odd subject at her disposal, director Brown had no trouble finding good interviews. Especially memorable are the reminiscences of borderline country star Guy Clark, who traveled and toured with Van Zandt. Clark is so amusing and affable, and has such an odd skill with the English language, that you could basically just turn a camera on him and ask him to talk for two hours about hemorrhoids, and I'd pay to see it.

And of course, there's the obligatory interview with someone from Sonic Youth, because no obscure music star really exists until Sonic Youth says they do. In this case, it's Steve Shelley, who has an advantage over the usual suspect, Thurston Moore, in that Shelley doesn't always sound like he's incredibly wasted. His presence also makes sense as a coda to the film, because it was Shelley who made one last-ditch attempt to revive Van Zandt's career with a recording session that did not end quite as well as the Nixon presidency.

Of course, Van Zandt himself is the centerpiece of this film, and he's not a great interview subject, but it is interesting to watch him transform from a tremendously handsome youth into a weathered and confused middle-aged man. He probably sums up his career best when he says, "I'd like to write some songs that are so good that no one understands them, not even myself." Perhaps seeing that he couldn't achieve that merely through the quality of his work, he worked instead on obliterating his ability to understand.