Frank Gutch Jr: This One’s Personal— Tamara Saviano and Guy Clark; Plus a Compendium of Notes (Whatever a Compendium Is)
Tamara Saviano has written a biography of Guy Clark. She dedicated it to Chet Flippo who I know as a music writer and historian who wrote for and edited a series of important zines back in the seventies. The article which struck me the most was the piece he wrote for Phonograph Record Magazine in the March 1974 issue titled “Texas Rock and Roll Spectacular” which broke Texas music into regions and highlighted the most notable musicians. Buddy Holly was in it, of course, as was Doug Sahm and Johnny Winter and Waylon Jennings and even Groovy Joe Poovey, all cited as influential to Texas music. Even Townes Van Zandt got mention and I mention that not in the sense that he did not deserve it but in the sense that Guy Clark, very much a cohort of Van Zandt, was conspicuous in his absence. I have scratched my head over that for years. I can stop scratching. Saviano, in this book, sets the record straight.
I thought I knew Guy Clark. I thought I knew him as well as I knew any other musician, at least. I found him early on, shortly after his first album was released. Old No. 1 was not my cup of tea, I remember thinking, but I somehow ended up taking a copy home and occasionally putting it on the turntable. Many of my friends loved it but I had trouble with it— something just did not ring true— until one day I listened to it alone sometime around three in the morning. I sat by the turntable lifting the tone arm again and again, needle-dropping at specific points to make sure I heard the lyrics right because that night it became clear to me that Clark was not just a cowboy with an acoustic guitar but a lyricist. He would soon become a lyricist of very high standing as he released album after album packed with word-dreams the quality of which I heard all too seldom. I didn’t always like the music, but I always loved the lyrics. Man, that guy could write!
This very night I put aside her biography of Guy Clark titled Without Getting Killed or Caught handcrafted by one Tamara Saviano and now know how much I do not know, at least in the abstract. Clark, it turns out, was not the man I thought nor was he the god that many would have you believe. He was good at what he did— exceptionally good— but he was not the end all of songwriting or performing. One of the best, yes, and I am pretty sure Clark knew it, but even he would argue for limits. He was, after all, just a man.
A man of extraordinary talents, yes. And Texan to the core. And human. Oh, so human.
I am sure Saviano had no idea but she soon learned. She not only learned about Clark and what made him tick, she learned about who was to become Susanna Clark and became acquainted with Clark’s closest friend, Townes Van Zandt. She learned about the record business from the artists point of view (she had been in the music business for some time before this biography project came along). She learned about Rodney Crowell, who I always thought was from Tennessee or Virginia or somewhere closer to Nashville (Crowell is also a Son of Texas), and a string of artists who call Texas home, from Jerry Jeff Walker (who was the first to record a number of Clark’s tunes) to Joe Ely and Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. She learned of the struggle to survive in music and the workings of the venues and the camaraderie. Without the camaraderie, it would never have amounted to much. And she saw the love and loyalty among Clark’s friends and family.
There are revelations throughout this book, or at least there were for me, which made it hard to put it down (or should I say, shut it down, for what I read was on a computer screen, a medium I absolutely hate when it comes to reading). Saviano made it easy. She outlined everything and made it flow. She chose the right words and put them in the right order and let the story tell itself. Of a typical high-schooler of the fifties and sixties who was feeling his way toward the future. Of the young man who discovered a love of working with wood and who was destined to be a luthier (erm, he made guitars, sports fans). Of a young man who picked up a guitar and never wanted to put it down again.
Does any of us ever know what our future holds? Does anyone ever really know what they want when they’re young— to the point that it is practically written in stone? Did The Beatles’ appearance really spawn a thousand rock bands or were those musicians already musicians in the making and just felt the jolt? There is a difference, you know.
No matter here though because Clark made his impact without the help of Sullivan. He made it through hard work and a semblance of discipline, and I say semblance tongue-in-cheek. The truth is, and I am sure this is no secret, Clark drank, sometimes to excess, and did drugs. He didn’t always but when he started he did not stop. Saviano does not hide this but to her credit she does not make it the storyline. Clark lived a full life and had many sides and levels to it. She concentrates on each chapter of his life including the pre-history— a look at his relatives and how they came to be who and where they were.
Here’s the thing. I knew of Clark and liked him as a musician and especially as a songwriter but it would not have mattered. The story is key and Saviano went way out of her way to tell it the way it should be told. She brings the characters to life for, amazingly, they were characters (and I don’t mean that in the oddball sense). This biography is about everyone, really. Everyone who were solid parts of Clark’s story and the ones who were lucky enough to have passed in the night. She makes reference toward the end of the book that Clark was a sun and Susanna the moon and vice-versa and all of the players revolved around them and I think that is more than likely true. As true as it would be with members of The Beatles or any other major artists.
That is what makes this more than a good book telling a life story. She knew Guy and Susanna. She was one of those planets in their system. She accepted them for who they were and they accepted her likewise. The story she tells is one about people she loves. And it is one hell of a story.
I have picked out a few segments so you can see what I mean. From her interview with Radney Foster: A lot of people write songs, and they write them well, and they’re in love with songwriting, but they’re really in love with their own songwriting. Guy’s in love with the art form of songwriting— everybody’s songs.
To Guy, everything was a song. “We were out visiting Terry (Allen) around Christmas band he said, ‘Man, they shot my dog.’ Someone shot his dog and it crawled up under a tree and died. I just looked at him and said, ‘We gotta write that.’”
Kyle Lehning was brought in to head the rejuvenated Asylum Records label, which they hoped would serve as an Americana- and country-based outlet. He said, We put out (Guy’s) Dublin Blues (album), which I absolutely loved, but about that time I had a nervous breakdown. It was clear that everything we were putting out was just failing miserably and I was in the darkest possible place you could be. I had what I thought was the greatest opportunity on Music Row and it was for shit. We put out records and they wouldn’t just fail, they would throw themselves into a big hole and cover themselves with their own dirt. This record company thing was not working and it was heartbreaking and there was nothing I could do to change it.
The tension was palpable. Everyone in the company knew something was up so Guy called Lehning and put him on the hot seat. Are you going to give me the option for the album as per our deal? I don’t need an album right now. Are you dropping me? I just don’t need an album right now. Maybe in a year. I have the album now. Are you dropping me? Yes, I’m dropping you.
At a conference a few weeks later, there must have been two hundred people crammed into a room to talk about the state of the music business. We’re sitting there trying to have a conversation and all of a sudden, I hear, ‘Hey, Kyle.’ The whole room looks toward the door. It’s David Briggs and Guy and they’re both bombed. They’re barely able to stand up at the door. I said, ‘Hi, Guy, how you doing?’ He just gave me the finger. I said, ‘It’s nice to see you, too.’ He left and Joe Galante looks over at me and says, ‘Don’t feel bad. I had to drop him too.’ The more I think about it, the sadder I get about the way we ended up not being able to do more together. My head went to a totally different place. I wasn’t able to backpedal from that space. That’s really on me, not on him. I should have been able to take a deep breath and look at it from a little different perspective. We could have done another record or two and it would just fill the catalog and be ultimately good for him. I do have regrets about that.
Guy himself gained major points in my mind when he said: I don’t think it makes a bit of difference to me artistically to win a Grammy but it’d be nice to know that my peers appreciate it enough. I’ve been to two Grammy Awards thinking I might win and would never go to that fucking thing again. It’s a cattle call of schmoozing and if you don’t do things in the order they tell you, you’re in some deep shit with the Grammys. The last time I went, I just said, man, I’m never doing this again even if they call me and tell me I’m winning. Every time I’m nominated, Bob Dylan wins, so what the fuck.
Clark was never a Grammys kind of guy anyway. Schmoozing is a kind word for what happens at the awards ceremony. I haven’t been able to stomach it for years. But that’s just me.
I suppose this is where I rate the book. I dug it. I mean, I really dug it. It has the perfect balance of music and reality and you really don’t need to know that much about it. Saviano fills you in and by the end of the bio, you’re comfortable. Cary Baker over at Conqueroo wrote to me and said he felt like he knew Clark by the end. I think what he meant was that he knew everyone because it was not just about Guy Clark. Like I said earlier, it is about the world in which Clark lived. It is more than a biography. It is a piece of history which reads like fiction. Gripping fiction.
Tamara Saviano, wherever you are, I thank you for this book. I pulled out one of my Guy Clark albums this afternoon and it already sounds better. Now that I know the circumstances in which it was recorded and the songs were written.
After all of that, it’s time for some…
Notes….. Jesus! Fellow DBAWIS writer Pat Blythe put together a column last week I found fascinating. A string of new artists I had not heard of outside of the excellent Julian Taylor, who Pat had forced me to listen to a short while ago. For instance, this freaking guitarist named Christian Vegh. I know he sounds like somebody but I think he also sounds like a lot of somebodys. Hot guitar! Tell me who. And I repost this video in case you missed it.
Blythe’s column was fully loaded, including this beauteous track by one Claire Hunter. How easy it would be for anyone to miss this impressive artist. Blink an eye and she’s gone. We need to keep musicians like this in the public eye.
Crap! I’m doing nothing but paraphrasing Blythe’s column here, but if you listen to the music, you will understand why I want people to hear it. Let us reprise Jennis…
… and Matt Nakoa…
Normally, I feel a kind of pride in finding the unknowns and lesser-knowns. This time, I have been outdone. I have a feeling none of these artists will be little known for long. Good, good stuff.
I know I have posted this video before but sometimes you have to beat people across the head to get them to take a moment to listen. I love the instrumentation and feel of this song. Adaya.
I laugh at this because Dad, when he listened to rock ‘n’ roll, would always say “the music ain’t bad but I can’t understand the words.” Well, I can’t understand the words here either but it is damn beautiful. Kyle Carey is the female lead vocal, fast becoming a force on the Gaelic music circuit.
These tracks are rare! The Warloks were the predecessors to Notary Sojac, one of my favorite bands ever to come out of the Pac Northwest. I never had a chance to see them perform and have not heard these studio tracks until recently. Very sixties/pop/psych. There is even a Family Tree track hidden somewhere in the two videos Steve Riihikoski has put together. First, Part One, then Part Two. Just so you don’t think I’m not organized.
Canadian favorites, Blue Rodeo, have a new vid out.
From Aaron Lee Tasjan‘s upcoming release.
Speaking of protest songs, here is one which takes me back to the sixties. Phil Ochs would love this, methinks. From Radney Foster.
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.