While introducing his seminal ‘Pancho & Lefty,’¹ Townes Van Zandt says, “Sorry about the air conditioners being off, but it won’t be very long.” He’s lying. The 1973 double album Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas stitches together five nights of shows and tops out at over ninety minutes. “It gets really hot,” he says, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Live albums have this tricky problem of simulating an event that consumes your sensory capacities wholly and overwhelmingly. According to the 2007 John Kruth biography, these Townes shows fit a hundred people “packed shoulder to shoulder” into a barroom whose square footage totaled a little under 700 square feet. Sweat and BO and warm beer. Enough Texan heat to give you a case of the blues. It didn’t help that a heatwave swept through the state that month. Temperatures peaked at 110 degrees. It turns out that the Old Quarter burned down later that year. Suspected arson. A likely crime of passion and summertime delirium, according again to Kruth.
But in these ‘73 live recordings, Townes mutters on about the quixotic and essentially American ramblings of a bandit (Pancho) and a fool (Lefty)². Then, he slides into his well-worn saddle seat of bluesy anhedonia. He plays a lot of his hits on the record, but it often takes him a few moments to work up to them. He tunes the guitar, strums, tells a few mostly miserable jokes to cut through the tension that burns hot through these shows³. And these are the moments that are interesting to me because it’s like you can detect the heat. It almost buzzes, reverberates off the audience’s applause. Excited molecular activity in the slack moments before and after all these familiar TVZ hits. Paranoid languor and lethargy. Something palpable and uncomfortable emerges from the sonic. Townes sweats. You can tell without looking at him.

That same July, Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel shot their The Texas Chainsaw Massacre about a two and a half hour drive from Houston. Also seminal. Poor Leatherface suffered through 16 hour shoots the whole hot month, caked in make-up, clad in unwashed slaughterhouse garb. His five young victims also work up a sweat in this one. “It’s all the more tragic in that they were young,” claims the opening crawl of text.⁴ The screenplay occludes this introduction and, instead, begins, “There is no sound. The sun is larger than the frame and white hot.”
Like Live at the Old Quarter, sound does important work in the movie, especially its back half. It accretes into a hot, frenzied ambience of women screaming, inbreds laughing, and the eponymous chainsaw whirring, whining, cutting. But Massacre unmistakably centers the visual. We learn this early on, when the young victims pick up a hitchhiker outside the slaughterhouse.⁵ He shoots a discolored, poorly developed polaroid of the young victims and tries to sell it to them. “It’s a nice picture,” he says. “Two dollars?” All five young victims sweat some more.
Heat opens up the belly of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Thematically, the “white hot,” soundless sun signifies exhaustion, expiration, madness. It raises the stakes, limits the five young victims’ options, and pulls a line of tension tight across Central Texas. Hooper and Kimmel’s narrative economy prioritizes representation of heat, sun, sky, and shimmer over the asphalt. Townes doesn’t really have any songs about heat. In fact, he mostly avoids it; “Pancho & Lefty” has a line that goes, “The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold.” Is the desert hot? It turns out, whether you try to represent heat on its own terms like Hooper and Kimmel, or evade the problem like TVZ, heat manages to inscribe its own signature into the stuff of the media. No getting around it. So, what kind of traces did the ‘73 heatwave leave in Live and Massacre? How can these traces assemble a representative toolbox to better communicate this new landscape of excessive heat?
We’re still mired in the sludgy, gray wastes of February, but we just escaped the hottest year on record. We hopped bloodsoaked into the bed of a passing pickup, à la Massacre. We should attend to the heat. If everything’s getting hotter, maybe it’s worth thinking about what exactly that means for our various modes of representation. We should keep an eye on it especially in this climatically disrupted winter. We don’t know what’s coming next. I heard the sequel’s really bad.
Two readings. It won’t be very long.

We’re returning to the hitchhiker scene because it’s so strange. A van full of the five young victims cruises alongside a slaughterhouse paddock, and you would not believe how sweaty everyone in this van looks—Franklin in particular⁶, who has been telling the group about various methods of cattle slaughter. They pick up a hitchhiker, who whoops and throws up his hands in a way that’s very reminiscent of Leatherface’s emblematic chainsaw dance at the close of this movie.⁷ The hitchhiker delivers the incredibly dumb and corny line, “My family’s always been in meat.”
Already, the heat seems to have erected walls around the five young victims. Now, they are locked up with this total lunatic after making the generous but admittedly dumb decision to pick him up. The windows are down, and this humid breeze sort of moves through the van, and some jangly, nondescript music echoes in the backdrop, and they pass miles of land. Outside the window, there is only white.⁸ On the radio, the music keeps running the same riff again and again.⁹ There is nothing except the stifling contents of this van: five young victims and this semi-rabid hitchhiker they’ve picked up. The heat renders the background register inaccessible. There is no escape to the endless backdropped country. Everything pushes up to the foreground. Everyone is close and sweaty, sweating more when the hitchhiker takes Franklin’s knife from his hand. So, here is one thing: the heat restricts access to regions that aren’t in immediate focus. All the matter of the movie is right where you can see it and close enough to touch.
The whole scene is bloated to a level of discomfort. It approaches an inexcusable ten minutes. Hooper and Kimmel hang onto these weird, languid shots of the five young victims, paired against similarly weird shots of the frantic hitchhiker. They are confused, disturbed, amused, and tired. The sequence isn’t cut very tightly. There’s a lot of screaming. They boot the hitchhiker out of the car. He keeps kicking the bumper. The victims keep screaming. Franklin keeps staring at the back of the van in a state verging on shock. Here’s another thing: the heat pulls sequences into uselessness. This entropic agitation of the story. A restlessness that pervades even the following, more tightly edited sequences.
These moves–entrapment in the foreground register and dismemberment of a tight narrative economy–do a lot of work. Texas Chainsaw Massacre pummels you with an affect of terror. These traces of heat freak you out. But, as much as I love the movie and the heaving effort of its production, I don’t want to suggest that Hooper and Kimmel deploy these moves with a whole lot of intention. Instead, I’d argue that these moves are signatures of heat that have embedded themselves into the film. We can feel them even in this post-productive stage of editing, which, I hope, occurred in a room with functional air conditioning. I imagine that, in some maybe immaterial but creatively significant way, the heat inscribes a sign of itself. After all this time in the heat, the footage leaves itself as distorted and discolored and terrifying as the hitchhiker’s photo of Franklin.

Now a reading from Townes. He has this track “Waiting ‘Round to Die” on the record.¹⁰ “I’ll play this,” he says at The Old Quarter. “This is the first serious song I ever wrote.” Good job, Townes, because this one is great. It gets even better because in the James Szalapski documentary Heartworn Highways, which is also great, we get some footage of Townes in his trailer outside of Austin. Footage of his girlfriend Cindy. Of his dog. Of Rex Bell, who owned The Old Quarter. Of this incredibly old guy named Uncle Seymour Washington. They all hang around. Townes plays “Waiting ‘Round to Die.” He says, “This is the first song I ever wrote,” and Cindy says, “Is it? I had no idea.”
I’m not going to break down this video of Townes. But the cramped conditions of the trailer, the persistence of this song through the TVZ discography, and the fact that Cindy forgot about it are important. I don’t want to say it’s overwrought, but you can mostly tell it’s his “first serious song.” It sounds like he was a young guy on the circuit, and he wanted people to think he was all that. At the Old Quarter, Townes plays it just like all the rest. The “gambling,” “booze,” and “rambling” melt away into a sort of professional sincerity. So here’s something else: the heat vaporizes any memory of its own inception, especially the irony surrounding its inception. All of a sudden, the heat has always already set heavily across the bar, Texas, this great country. It has always already made you sweat.
“Waiting ‘Round to Die’” spirals around codeine addiction and typical southbound bluesiness. This one’s unabashed about being a live track, but the living part is difficult to detect.¹¹ Other than the introduction, you might forget you’re listening to a recording in the field. The audience falls silent until the eventual applause when Townes says, “Thanks. Boy, it’s really nice in here.” That’s weird. Townes has spent most of the record complaining about the heat, the nonfunctional air conditioners. Townes has played five shows that coalesce into the greatest performance of his outlaw country career. As much as it’s counterintuitive, membranes become more permeable under heat. Saturation points become higher. One final thing: the heat facilitates transmission of these stories, especially stories that are beat up, fried, otherwise discolored. In Townes’s codeine ballad, everyone just shuts up, maybe enraptured. The performance is adulterated and well-inscribed but just really solid. Aesthetic excitation. Acceleration. We listen a little deeper. Maybe we absorb it through open sweat pores.

“I’ll play this song I wrote in Oneida, New York,” says Townes while closing out the record. “It’s a good song to play last. It’s kinda about leaving.” The sun is out shining while I write this. It’s sixties and sunny, and people are eating outside. February. I’m starting to sweat a little bit, quietly, subtly under this sweater. I’m listening to Townes Van Zandt in the afternoon, and, boy, it’s really nice out here.

¹ Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas calls this song ‘Pancho & Lefty’ while The Late Great Townes Van Zandt calls it ‘Poncho & Lefty.’ The Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson versions both adopt the Old Quarter spelling convention but drop the ampersand. Troubling.

² American and drawing parallel to McCarthy in that they are wrapped up in what exactly that Southern border means to the Union.

³  A dumb one from Jerry Jeff Walker. Another that starts: “There were these two drunks having this argument outside a bar. They were arguing as to whether that object up in the sky was the sun or the moon.”

I have heard that they paid the crawl’s narrator in weed, but I cannot verify. Wouldn’t put it past Hooper and Kimmel.

⁵ Allegedly, this character’s name is “Nubbins Sawyer,” but I have no recollection of them naming him at all. I will call him “the hitchhiker.”

⁶ The most interesting of the five young victims. Mildly but playfully sociopathic. In a wheelchair. Survives far longer than anticipated.

⁷ At one point, Franklin calls the hitchhiker “Dracula,” which mostly serves to remind you that Massacre is only really preceded by movies like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead and all those b-movies.

⁸ I mean this literally. In every shot from the interior of the van, you cannot see any of the outside Texan country. There is nothing out there.

The song is “Fool for a Blonde” by Roger Bartlett, and I’m listening to it again now, removed from the movie, and it’s awful. Unlistenable. 

¹⁰ In an earlier draft, I had a line about how the title of the track tied in well with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it doesn’t. Everyone in Massacre ends screaming, struggling, spasming, dying in myriad horribly grotesque ways. Nobody waits around.

¹¹ Another living: I swear that you can hear crickets chirping in the quiet moments of “If I Needed You.” You can also hear a guy coughing in the audience.