by Wolfgang Pracht

This is not just another gambling story about Townes. This is a very special gambling story. But that’s not what it’s really about, although it has to do with Townes and gambling. The subject is totally different. It’s about respect. It’s about goodheartedness and kindness. It’s about intelligence.  And it’s about spirituality. Because those are all qualities that fit Townes absolutely perfectly.  

We met up often in the Fall of ’93 when Townes was touring Europe. For his show in Cologne, Townes was not in a really good mood that day, rather sad. We got together before the show and I gave him an old Tibetan bracelet, heavy silver with a mantra inlay made of bone.  I had been given that bracelet, over 300 years old, by a Tibetan Lama as a gift for the right person “who has to have that”. It didn’t fit me. Holding it in my hand, I knew it was meant for Townes.  When I talked about the bracelet with Lama Gendun Rinpoche, he put a special blessing for Townes into it. I told Townes about the blessing when I gave him the bracelet. It fit him absolutely perfectly. And it brought a little sunlight into his heart.  He played a really short, but a strong show that evening.      

 When I got to the backstage room after the concert, there were lots of people there, journalists, and all sorts of music business people from Cologne talking with him. I got myself a cup of coffee, sat down in a corner and watched the scene unfold.

One guy stood out in the whole crowd. Talking loud, trying to get really close to Townes and cursing all the time.  While giving interviews to the writers, Townes turned around to that guy and said in an especially polite voice, “Excuse me, you don’t curse under a roof.” But that guy didn’t pay any notice and kept up with his impolite behavior. Even during the interviews, he had no respect for what Townes and those journalists were doing, he kept on with his cursing and loud talking, making sure to get everybody’s attention in the room.

After the interviews, Townes turned to him, pulled out a deck of cards and invited him for a game. Right away, that guy accepted. They were in some kind of poker or blackjack kind of thing. Then Townes noticed I was in the room. Again, he told the guy not to curse. “Hey, don’t you curse in front of Wolf.” But in the next sentence the “F” word turned up once more.

After a couple of hands of cards, Townes pulled a quarter out of his pocket and said “Let’s toss the coin here. What do you put in?”  

So they started playing for one or two Deutsch Marks and as the amount of money went up, you could see the greed in the cursing guy’s eyes. And when it was up to a few hundred Marks, Townes put it on a spiritual level. He offered the guy “invisible gambling”. Without a clue as to what he was getting himself into, that guy accepted the offer. He didn’t say anything against it. So Townes put the coin away and just pretended to flip a coin up in the air. Townes won, flip after flip.

It was then that the guy started to complain, saying “Hey, there’s no f***in coin, so why do you win?”  

And Townes replied “Well, you accepted. And the next time, well, you might get it all.”

I watched Townes play with the greediness of that man, the hard heartedness and rudeness of that guy. And when he knew that the guy didn’t have any more money in his wallet, Townes encouraged him to bring in something else, like his car, or other things. To make that story a little bit shorter, that guy not only put in his car, he also put in his wife, his house and his children. And lost.

Of course.

Townes made that guy write him out an IOU on paper. That was the moment when that man realized what he’d done.  He started begging, with tears in his eyes, saying “don’t take it serious, it was just a nice game, it was all just a joke.” But Townes made it very clear that gambling is a serious thing. As well as cursing. Not a joke.

Before we all left the club, Townes was intelligent enough to make it perfectly clear to that guy that he could show up at his home, on any day, with that IOU, and take everything over. Everything.

That man left the room crying all the way out the door and down the hall.

Later, on the way to the hotel, Townes said “Did you see that Wolf, did you see that?  How can anybody bring in his wife or his children? He doesn’t own other people.”

Townes ripped up that IOU paper and threw it in the gutter, saying “I hope that guy will learn his lesson, because now he has to think about what he did, every day, for the rest of his life.”

Poster from Townes Van Zandt's last tour on earth.

Poster from Townes Van Zandt's last tour on earth.