Guy Clark: For the Sake of the Song
Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.
Throw out them L.A. papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers.
Adi¢s to all this concrete.
Gonna get me some dirt road back street
from "L.A. Freeway"
As songwriters go, Guy Clark has been touched by the muse more than most. Unfortunately, in recent years he's also been visited by illness and heartache. In June 2012, his wife of 40 years, Susanna Clark, who was both a songwriter ("Easy from Now On") and an artist (the cover of Willie Nelson's Stardust), died in Nashville. In the past several years Clark, 72, has battled lymphoma, had his knees replaced, and undergone an arterial replacement in one leg. He was being treated for skin cancer when I visited his home, south of Nashville, in October 2013.
Earlier that year, despite or perhaps because of these troubles, Clark wrote and recorded one of his best albums, My Favorite Picture of You, which has since been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. Clark has often joked that every time he's nominated for a Grammy, he ends up losing to Bob Dylan. In 2013, Dylan didn't release a new record. In 2012, This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, was also nominated for Best Folk Album. Finally, Clark was one of two recipients of the Country Music Association's Poets Award for 2013. His fellow recipient was one Hank Williams.
"Yeah, me and Hank got it. It's pretty far out. I don't usually go to those kind of things, but for this I did . . . he didn't show up."
Although frail and unsteady on his feet, Clark, fortified with a hand-rolled cigarette and a cup of strong coffee, sat down in the sunshine streaming into his combination writing room and luthier studio for a wide-ranging chat. The conversation opened with some mutual marveling about how fast Nashville is growing, and the true meaning of pro hockey in the South.
"I went downtown the other day and I didn't know where I was. I get lost. I was just like, 'Where did all this come from, man?' I don't know anything about ice hockey, but I just think, well, shit, man, you didn't play it as a kid, how do you expect to have a professional team, you know? It's like ice hockey in Jamaica. I'm just, like, stunned. Stupefied."
When it comes to the sanctum sanctorum of his writing room, Clark has a plan. "I always had a dartboard in my writing room, and when I'd get stuck I'd stand there and throw darts. Now, I write and build guitars in the same room. What I like is, if I get stuck on a lyric, I can get up and walk five steps and I'm at my workbench, doing something with my hands, and it clears my head. And then, while I'm waiting for glue to dry, all I have to do is take five steps back to the song I was working on. It's the right side of the brain and the left side of the brain. Sitting and writing is real cerebralyou sit and try to conjure up something, or remember something, or make it come together in an artistic or poetic way, as opposed to making sure you got that glue joint right. And those two things feed off of one another, I think."
Although he's often been called a craftsman, whether for building guitars or writing songs, Clark dislikes the term. "When Ken Irwin [of Rounder Records] bought the three Warner Bros. albums [Guy Clark, The South Coast of Texas, Better Days] for re-release, he decided he wanted to put them in one package, which is fine with meI didn't really care. But when he decided to call it Craftsman, I should have put a stop to it right then, which I could have. I let that happen without thinking about it, without thinking about how I felt about it. I've tried to steer it away from that ever since. I don't consider it craft; I consider it art, or poetry."
When it comes to songwriting, it's the words, like the song lyrics quoted above more than the music, that Clark considers his strong suit.
"Sometimes the melody strikes me first, of course, but for the most part it's the lyrics. I really enjoy reading. I have read all my life, and was really exposed to a lot of good literature, and especially poetryDylan Thomas. Townes [Van Zandt] and I used to think we were pretty hot shit, and we'd put on a tape of Dylan Thomas reading his own work, and it was just like, 'Oh shit.'" He rolls his eyes and chuckles.
"Lyrics have the music of the language, like poetry, and that's music to me. Is Bob Dylan a poet? Of course he is. I've always tried to make my lyrics stand on their own without the music. You can read 'em and it reads like a poem. There's not a lot of 'Oooooh, Baby Baby's in there."
At the heart of My Favorite Picture of You is the title track, its inspiration is explained in its title. The cover art is a photo of Clark holding a photo of his wife, who looks none too pleased.
"Townes and I were drunk on our ass in that house," Clark says with a dismissive wave of his hand. "She'd just had enough. She'd heard it all. And we were jerks. She just walked outside and somebody took that picture. After it was taken, I probably went outside and apologized. The first time I saw that picture, I just thought, 'That's Susanna, man, and she is pissed off. You don't fuck with her!' What I like about it is the austerity. She never took a bad photograph. She was always just . . . beautiful, you know? And she always wore her heart or her feelings on her sleeve. She didn't try to be something she wasn't, or act like she wasn't pissed off. It just struck me that that was always my favorite picture of her."
The mention of Townes Van Zandt, the late and very great Texas songwriter remembered as much for his rough and rowdy ways as for his bittersweet songs, reminds me of a famous quote, attributed to Clark, about how Van Zandt wouldn't have died "if the hospital would have just given him a drink."
"I think probably Jeanene [Van Zandt, Townes's ex-wife] said it. She was with him, and they were in Memphis, and he'd broken his hip and wouldn't go to the doctor. He was really in pain, and they wouldn't give him alcohol. All he wanted was a drink. And he was really an addict. She said, 'I'm taking him outta here!' She took him out against hospital rules and drove him back to Nashville, and first thing she did was find a liquor store so he could, you know, keep from going into delirium tremens or whatever. But there was no other way for that to happen; he was bound and determined to die. I think he was laying in bed, and one of the kids came in and said, 'Mommy, I think Daddy's not breathing.'