By Blaine Schultz, Special to OMC   Published Mar 22, 2007 at 5:22 AM Photography: OnMilwaukee Staff Writers

John Kruth began his musical odyssey as a young knowledge seeker haunting the Fillmore East and the NYC folk clubs. An encounter with the Violent Femmes led the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter to settle in Milwaukee for several years where he made records, wrote articles, played gigs and held down the wildly eclectic Friday morning slot on WMSE radio.

On March 24 Kruth appears at the Miramar Theater and the following day he has a 2 p.m. book signing at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Bay View. After Racine and Madison appearances, Kruth and John Sieger perform on April 3 at Linneman's.

Kruth -- who wrote "Bright Moments," a biography of jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk and has penned another of Townes Van Zandt, "To Live's To Fly" -- sees the biographer's role as similar to that of an archaeologist, piecing together history often with source material that may not make sense at the time. Van Zandt is arguably the greatest songwriter who ever put pen to paper, yet his legend preceded him to every one-nighter he played from Milwaukee to Madrid.

At his peak, his songwriting genius was untouchable, but his battle with the twin demons of depression and addiction made him the poster boy for the tortured artist. Somewhere between legend and fact lies the truth. For this enviable but daunting challenge Kruth enlisted Van Zandt's ex-wives, children, fellow songwriters, producers, running buddies and even Van Zandt's fellow Texan Dan Rather to offer their version of Townes' life, often glazed through the prism of time.

Kruth also has a new record out. "Eva Destruction" -- on Madison-based Crustacean Records -- is a project that has been in the works for a decade.

Recently, Kruth the biographer answered a few questions for, as did Kruth the musician. Did your opinion of Townes change in the course of researching and writing the book?

John Kruth: Strangely enough I would say no, not really. I thought he was a genius going into the book and I still do. I knew he had serious psychological and drug problems and I tried to handle that as best as I could with out rummaging through the junk drawer of his life too much. It was depressing at times for sure and might have impacted my life in negative ways but if you wanna ride the road you gotta pay the toll as my old pal Eric Von Schmidt used to say.

OMC: Of all the interviews you conducted, which opened your eyes the most?

J.K.: Boy that's hard. Janene Van Zandt (Townes third wife), of course. She was just as up front and honest as you can get. Guy Clark, who I really admire, just gave me the direct transmission, although at times it was far from pleasant. Talking with Cowboy Jack Clement was a kick; he produced "Great Balls of Fire," after all! Kevin Eggers (Van Zandt's longtime manager and controversial figure) was a trip, too, and talking with Mickey Newbury just weeks before he passed -- wow, what an honor. There were so many. Eric Anderson was intense as hell, Townes' guitarist Mickey White (was) sweet, honest. Griff Luneberg who owns the Cactus Cafe in Austin -- damn that was a wild ride. And Darryl Harris, Townes' "guru," his ex-wife Fran ... hell, nearly everybody that gave me an interview.

OMC: Who among Townes' peers had the biggest impact on him?

J.K.: Peers? Well before peers came Lightnin' Hopkins, Hank Williams, Robert Frost and Bob Dylan -- but peers, I don't know. It tended to go the other way except maybe for Darryl Harris, who was a flamenco guitarist/dishwasher who Townes called his "guru"; a very interesting guy who had the most fantastic Christmas tree!

OMC: Why do you think Townes' legend has become so romanticized?

J.K.: Well, you know there are those who worship "hard livin'." Like Keith Richards and William Burroughs, he drank the most, and had the junky credential, too. Townes went down the deepest into that murky flatfish territory of human emotions and waded through the psychic turbulence and lived, sometimes despite himself, to tell about it. Hell, he wasn't afraid of blowin' his head off playing Russian roulette. There are a thousand stories out there and more than you might imagine wound up in the trash can. Jeanene summed it up best. She said, "All the girls wanted to be with him and all the guys wanted to be him."

OMC: Have you met any artists who have given you the impression that they were somehow really in tune with something bigger than the rest of us and did it change over time?

J.K.: There's a great story about Joan Armatrading. Years ago Van Morrison's office called her asking her to sing on his new album. Although she loved the man she said no. When they asked her why she said he had a bad rep for losing his temper and belittling his sidemen. She said if he said anything that she could even possibly have misconstrued she would've crawled up in a ball and died. So in other words, yes, I've met a number of people whose art I adored and then after working with them dumped their discs or books off at the closest used book/record store. Sometimes it's better to just dig the art and not get to know the artist too well. On more than one occasion people told me, "If you knew Townes you wouldn't write a book about him." But the bottom line is his songs are an important part of American culture and although I hate the President I love my country, so I wrote this book out of a patriotic calling! North or south of the Mason Dixon Line, I don't give a damn!

OMC: What were your thoughts in revisiting your "Eva Destruction" tunes?

J.K.: This was really producer Paul Kneevers' baby. I'd laid down basic tracks back in 1995 after I got out of the hospital with a hyper thyroid that put me in the ICU. I left the tracks with Paul and moved to San Francisco where I recuperated and started the Electric Chairmen with Jonathan Segel and Victor Krummenacher of Camper Van Beethoven. We recently cut some tracks in NYC for my next album with Matt Darriau of the Klezmatics. I never thought there was an album there but with a couple more overdubs, some edits and one more song we put it together. It never would've have happened without Paul stickin' to it.

OMC: Was anything tweaked or changed or left all intact from then?

J.K.: A lot of the songs were longer when I cut them. My tunes are usually three to five minutes long but because I was ill and had been in bed for a few months I kind of lost all sense of time and "Eva" and "Night Train To the Ukraine" came in originally at eight to 10 minutes long. Paul chopped 'em down to a more digestible size.

OMC: I think of the album as sort of a bookend with "Cherry Electric."

J.K.: Well it's got some connections to Cherry but I see it more as Banshee Mandolin part 2. I've been working on a second "Cherry Electric" album -- all instrumental -- cut on my Fender four-string electric mandolin, that will hopefully feature U. Rajesh, the Indian electric mandolin virtuoso/brother of U Shrinivas. I played a show recently with Rajesh in Chennai India and he was phenomenal!

OMC: How were you able to keep the Eastern tunes under control as songs?

J.K.: The Eastern European melodies/Jewish/Greek stuff really comes natural to me -- part of my DNA, I suppose. It has been in pop music since "Paint It Black" and "Over Under Sideways Down." I always felt that gypsy music and rock had strong ties not just musically but also in terms of image -- starting with Keith Richard and Jimi Hendrix with all those scarves and bone earrings... "

OMC: How much of this material will you be playing at the Miramar?

J.K.: At least half of the live show will be songs from "Eva Destruction." Paul Kneevers will be on keys, bass and trumpet, Jeff Hamilton on guitar, bass, mandolin and John Sparrow on drums/percussion. My friend Jeff Greene, a wild musicologist/multi instrumentalist from NYC, will be flying out for the Miramar show to play instruments from East Blecchistan -- that's a Mad magazine-ism -- and other countries that I've never heard of.