Song 265: Townes Van Zandt, “If I Needed You” (1972)

Van_Zandt_Late_Great_OV-22“Pancho and Lefty” is a great song and all, but why “If I Needed You” isn’t Townes Van Zandt’s signature song, I’ll never understand. I think it’s just about perfect.

I first heard “If I Needed You” on Lyle Lovett’s 1998 record Step Inside This House, which consists of songs by fellow Texans. Van Zandt has always seemed to be a songwriter’s songwriter, with musical paeans on record by Lucinda Williams and other prominent musicians. (Steve Earle once called Van Zandt “the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”) Van Zandt died on New Year’s Day in 1997, after finally succumbing to decades of substance abuse. He left behind some beautiful songs.

I always think “If I Needed You” is a simple, straightforward song until I hear it again, and I realize that it’s oddly specific, as if full of inside jokes: Who are Loop and Lil? What does “since I showed her how” referred to? Yet I like this approach; it makes the song feel like it’s a couple minutes out of this person’s day. I’m not totally sure how this story works—is “the lady” in the third verse also the woman he’s singing to, or is she the one that replaced her?—but I also don’t really care. I think the vague story works in the song’s favor, making it real, despite fanciful lines like “I’d swim the seas for to ease your pain.”

It’s also (always) possible that I’m not interpreting the lyrics correctly; maybe this is as straightforward as music comes. Either way, again, I don’t care much. Townes Van Zandt’s beautiful melody and lyrics are enough for me.


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