When The Final Line Unfolds – Guy Clark (1941-2016)
On paper Guy Clark sounds like a thorough eccentric. You know. He was famously perfectionist; so unwilling to let others mess up his songs to the extent that in the latter part of his career he recorded all the instrumental parts himself, separately, then ran them together. He made guitars for a hobby; he wrote songs about tomatoes.
Despite preferring to record alone, he was also responsible with his wife for throwing what sound like decade-long songwriting parties; if you watch Heartworn Highways (the 1975 documentary about the folk/country singer/songwriter Nashville/Austin scene – look, it’s great; the only not-great parts are sections dealing with the odd posturings of David Allan Coe) it makes the Clarks’ house look like a Paris salon in 1970s Nashville. Less witty repartee, better songs, shaggier hair and loads more marijuana but essentially like the place to be if you could (especially if being in that kitchen meant avoiding David Allan Coe).
In interviews Clark had a lot to say, sometimes angry and bitter, generally acerbic, always interesting. On the other hand on an occasion like the 1995 benefit immortalized in the live album Together At The Bluebird Café, a joint performance with Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt for the Interfaith Dental Clinic (a fitting cause; none of the three had what I think of as all-American teeth), Clark is quiet – especially compared with that restless raconteur Van Zandt. Perhaps he was happy enough to take a back seat and let his songs do the talking. I’ve wished for a long time that there was a biography of him readily available; what I’ve learned about him apart from his songs has mostly been from magazine interviews and books about other artists. There’s a book coming out later this year, and a film in 2017 I believe.
People say Guy Clark made a huge contribution to songwriting through his patronage of other, younger writers, and I’m sure that’s true. Despite his obsession with perfection, his almost impossibly high standards for himself as a songwriter, he was famous for his generosity when he was impressed. A scene cut from Heartworn Highways but blessedly available as an extra with the DVD shows him encouraging an achingly young Steve Earle in his performance for the camera of ‘Mercenary Song’ (which Earle wouldn’t record for another twenty years), smoking proudly and then asking him if he has anything else new to play.
No doubt his ability to recognize and acknowledge brilliance was what drew him to Townes Van Zandt, and probably Van Zandt to him; they were best friends from their twenties, forming two sides of an intense triangle with Clark’s wife Susanna. Clark credited Van Zandt with showing him what songwriting could be. It must be said that his reverence for Townes’ work didn’t stop him re-ordering the verses when he covered Townes’ songs; it’s not really a slight though, he was still fiddling around with most of his own songs decades after recording them.
It’s those songs though, his own songs; he could have locked all those other guys out of his basement for his whole life and his contribution to great Texan songwriting, to American songwriting, to songwriting, would still be monumental. His songs are stories, short, perfectly formed stories, about old men and kids, ghosts and cars and roads; sometimes sentimental, occasionally political but always exquisitely formed. And though his delivery, his own singing, rarely dips into sentimentality, there are moments which can set a song off and make it perfect. ‘Texas 1947’ is a song about a diesel train, delivered fairly deadpan; Guy can hardly make his voice the voice of the six-year-old boy who’s narrating; until, after the line ‘not before I got the chance to lay a nickel on the line’ he whoops. It’s just a little whoop. It’s pure joy. (It’s missing from the version by Robert Earl Keen on the tribute album This One’s For Him; of course it’s missing, he could hardly imitate it, but it’s sad all the same. I like to think that Guy Clark enjoyed the fact his friends and disciples made a tribute album for him but that, like a good control freak, he despised listening to it.)
That first album, Old Number 1, has an outrageous number of wonderful songs on it. ‘LA Freeway’ was the one that made me bawl today; it will always be the one that makes me bawl, but Guy Clark had dozens, written throughout his life. They cover all kinds of moods, as close to perfectly as words and music can, but I think of him as a writer of sad songs. Not always tragedy sad; not the kind of sad that has to do with class or society or poverty like other country and folk writers – more the sadness of the individual life. They strike me as being about how life is sad because of feelings and flaws, because of other people, because of your own damned self. Life is sad and you have to be brave, conduct yourself through it with dignity, take your moments when you can and try to contribute something beautiful to the fragile world you live in.
Great musicians have died this year, several of whom meant a lot to me. I read almost everything about Bowie, shook my head sadly for Steve Young (another star of Heartworn Highways), shared posts about Prince and footage of him performing, wrote a blog post about Merle Haggard. But today was different. It felt like it did when I was fourteen and a famous person I loved died – briefly overwhelming. And after that, desolate.
I’m a grownup now and it’s easier for me to keep things in proportion. I know that Guy Clark was not my friend and that, even if he had lived in rude health into his nineties, he never would have been. But I still have this feeling that, even in a few years, I’ll be doing something else and I’ll look up in surprise and think, ‘He’s gone.’