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David Broza and Townes Van Zandt. Fort Worth and Tel Aviv. You couldn’t find a more unlikely candidate to adapt Townes’ final lyrics to song. Born in Haifa, Israel and a resident of Tel Aviv, David Broza was educated in Israel, Spain and Britain, and known primarily in the USA, Spain and Israel as a balladeer. As a multi-platinum artist, over the past three decades, Broza has jockeyed multiple music careers as an international artist, releasing records in Hebrew, Spanish and English. While he is known primarily in America and Israel as a balladeer, he’s also an accomplished classical guitarist. Over the years Broza has been a soldier, a peace activist and one of the founders of the Israeli peace group PEACE NOW. He is a teacher, a singer/songwriter, an artist-in-residence at Bennington College in Vermont, an ambassador of goodwill for UNICEF and has literally circled the globe numerous times performing his music. American audiences are probably most familiar with Broza after he released the David Broza at Masada DVD in 2007, featuring Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin.
David Broza’s latest collection of poems-put-to-music stems from a tale that dates back to 1994 when the Israeli troubadour was summoned to Houston to participate in Linda Lowe’s “Writers in the Round” series. That night, the lineup consisted of Lowe, David Amran, David Broza and none other than Townes Van Zandt. Anyone who has ever attended these types of shows knows that one or two songwriters usually end up stealing the spotlight. In this case, it was Townes and Broza, a true clash in styles if ever there was one—Townes, the legendary but wavering voice of Texas Americana and Broza, an international songwriter who splits his styles halfway between Middle Eastern folk rock and Mediterranean world pop. Each songwriter’s modus operandi couldn’t have been more different. Townes was best known for jotting his dark visions directly onto the page while Broza adapts his melodies to the words of poets he finds on dusty bookstores shelves from New York to Tel Aviv.
Flip forward a few more years to a phone call from Lowe to Broza. Townes had tragically passed away on New Years Day, 1997. The conversation is cryptic: something about Townes leaving David Broza unpublished poetry.
“I was dumbstruck,” Broza recalls. “Why me? I never really talked to the guy. We played together one night. That was it. But Linda insisted that I call his wife Jeanene and talk to her about it.”
Jeanene Van Zandt was just as dumbfounded as Broza at her late husband’s unpredictable endowment. So they agreed to meet in New York where it was cordially determined that perhaps some of Townes’ more celebrated, better-known colleagues should have first shot at the last shards of his poetic legacy. Given the condition of Townes’ estate, perhaps their participation would better provide for Townes’ family.
Eight years passed.
“I was in Houston when the whole story came back to me. So I picked up the phone and called Jeanene. Nothing had come of the poems. I was on my way back to Israel, but I told her I’d meet her in Nashville the next day. She said, don’t bother and asked me for my email address.”
Flying back to Tel Aviv, four days later, an email arrived from Jeanene with Townes’ last stray writings and poems. “Some of it was written in three- or five-line stanzas. Some of it was completely in prose, no stanzas. Some I had to decide how to structure it, which took some editing.”
Another year passed before Broza would take a first stab at formulating Townes’ poems into song. The first tune to emerge was the album’s opener, “Soul to Soul.” “It was eight o’clock in the morning. I was in Manhattan and I’d just woken up. I usually leave poetry out on the table so that maybe something will catch my eye. I wrote it straight on. That was the kickoff.”
What followed was the birthing of another ten songs out of the twenty-something poems he’d received from Jeanene. Broza road tested them on a couple of friends in the middle of the night, on the mountain top of the Masada, Broza’s touchstone fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, where he’s performed and filmed many of his most famous concerts.
As the songs tumbled out, so did the need to record them. Enter guitarist/producer G. E. Smith. Recruiting a tight core of musicians, including drummer Shawn Pelton, bassist Conrad Korsch and keyboardist Jon Carin, Night Dawn was recorded over five days of sessions. Enter manager Danny Goldberg of Gold Village Entertainment and Steven Greenberg of S-Curve Records who joined the cause, making the album a reality.
Of the twelve songs that now comprise Night Dawn: the Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt, ten were crafted directly from the poems sent by Jeanene. However, one of the album’s centerpieces, “Harms Swift Way,” was based wholly on a lyric and melody preserved on a ramshackle demo that Townes created shortly before his death. “Two days before Townes died, he called Linda to read her a poem he’d written for me. Linda immediately called me. ’Harms Swift Way’ was the last poem Jeanene sent. With the demo, I was able to make out the melody.”
Concluding Night Dawn is “Too Old to Die Young,” an instrumental homage David composed to his fleeting collaborator, which serves as a bittersweet conclusion to a strange and dark partnership.
“Adapting Townes’ poems to melody were difficult. He had a subconscious form of engineering his lyrics by carefully crafting the sound, the weight and the rhythm all at once. It’s quite unique. The dominant theme is one of being alive; yet knowing that death is always near. He seemed driven by that voice.”
Miraculously, a video of the only night Broza and Townes performed together has surfaced. In addition, a film crew led by director John Kirby and an army of Montclair University film grad students filmed Night Dawn’s sessions. Eventually the footage will be expanded and melded into a documentary. “In the documentary Be Here to Love Me, Townes tells a German journalist about the poetry he’s working on, saying something like, ‘Even I don’t understand it.’ And that’s what he sent me. It was up to me to understand it.”
Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt combines the anguish of Townes Van Zandt’s final words with David Broza’s own musical format, which he fondly refers to as “Country and West Bank.”
NIGHT DAWN: THE UNPUBLISHED POETRY OF TOWNES VAN ZANDT by David Broza
TRACK LIST AND SAMPLE CLIPS: Click arrow to play preview
1. Soul to Soul
2. Southern Cross
3. Holes In My Sole
4. Long Ball Hitter
5. Old Satan
6. Night Dawn (Silver Dollar)
10. The Deer
11. Harms Swift Way
12. Too Old to Die Young
See and hear more about this incredible project, view archival footage of Townes Van Zandt, see David in the recording studio, and hear samples from Night Dawn: (Running time = 6:41):