Waitin' Around To Die

Album: For The Sake Of The Song (1968)

Songfacts®:

  • In "Waiting Around To Die," Townes Van Zandt is a lost soul bouncing around through life seeking distraction from the awareness of his own mortality. He seeks that distraction first in gambling and drinking, then in codeine. In some ways the song echoes Van Zandt's struggles with substance abuse, but the character he portrays in the song is fictional.

    The character comes from a harsh upbringing of abuse and abandonment. After his mother ditches the family, he has his heart broken by a girl in a bar in Tuscaloosa, Tennessee. This accelerates his downward slide, leading to robbery, prison, and finally the grim comfort of addiction.

    Van Zandt did indeed struggle with alcoholism and heroin (not quite codeine but also an opiate), but he came from brighter circumstances. Some would go so far as to say he was privileged. His family had proud Texan roots and his father was a corporate lawyer. Van Zandt attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1962 and the University of Houston in 1965.

    Still, despite some differences in detail, the song's character seems to mirror Van Zandt's psyche. In the song, Van Zandt never outright says he's destroying himself in order to hide from the pain of his nihilistic despair, but that's the gist of the choruses. They change slightly from verse to verse, but each time they imply that life itself is just a period of waiting around to die.

    Rather than wait around for the Reaper to come, Van Zandt's character figures he might as well pummel himself into oblivion with booze and bad living.
  • Van Zandt was diagnosed with depression in his sophomore year of college. In 1998 his sister told Texas Monthly that she thought his main problem was that he was highly sensitive to the injustices of the world.
  • Van Zandt's close friend and fellow musician Guy Clark related a story that may be a look inside Van Zandt's existential disposition. He said that in grade school Van Zandt learned that the sun is slowly burning out. Upon hearing that, he could find no reason to take much of anything seriously, and certainly not the daily responsibilities of life. Clark doesn't posit this as a dark or negative realization on Van Zandt's part, but it backs up the idea that Van Zandt was preoccupied with the seemingly ephemeral nature of existence.
  • "Waitin' Around To Die" was Van Zandt's first single, and on at least two occasions (the 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways and a 1993 interview with Austin, Texas disc jockey Larry Monroe) he said it was the first song he ever wrote.
  • In the biopic Be Here to Love Me, Van Zandt's first wife, Fran, says that he wrote the song in a walk-in closet that he'd converted to a home studio in their apartment. She was disappointed because she'd been expecting a love song or at least something happier.

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