Yesterday morning I was making tweaks to the new post I planned on publishing later in the day when I received the news about Guy Clark’s death. I had seen Jerry Jeff Walker in concert at the Birchmere in Alexandria recently, and he mentioned Guy’s failing health before playing the title song from Guy’s last album, so the news wasn’t a surprise.
Still, this was a finality I dreaded. It made me think of lines from a song on his album Cold Dog Soup, which Steve Earle wrote following the death of their mutual friend Townes Van Zandt.
“In Ft. Worth all the neon’s burnin’ bright
Pretty lights, red and blue
But they’d shut down all the honky tonks tonight
Say a prayer or two
If they only knew”
We’ve lost so many wonderful musicians in the last year or so, giants from Allen Toussaint to Merle Haggard and from every corner of the music world. Some famous; some not so famous. In the big picture, I suppose Guy falls in the second category, but none of the others have meant as much to me personally. Almost every time I pick up my guitar, I play one of his songs.
Every list of my favorite songs, no matter how short, includes at least one of his tunes. No matter what mood I’m in, there’s a Guy Clark song that suits it. I read somewhere that Guy maintained he didn’t make up songs. Rather he wrote about things he knew to be true brought to life by details in scene, character and narrative. Certainly his songs seem like the truth to me.
He was a songwriter’s songwriter. One time I heard Jerry Jeff sing a new song he’d just written. When I told him it was great, he replied, “I know; Guy said so.” And he’s just one of the great songwriters whom I’ve heard say the same thing, all reveling in Guy’s validation of their work. He was almost more poet than songwriter, often extolling the pleasure he took from working with words. For Guy, words really had meaning. And he made phrases from those words which in themselves were musical. Still his melodies have such appeal and such variety in support of his lyrics, they could not have been secondary to him. So he was also a singer’s songwriter. Great singer’s love singing his songs, and I can attest first hand that amateurs love singing them too.
For twenty-three years, my brothers and I produced a music-based fund raising event, the Western Classic Benefitting the Foundation Fighting Blindness. In the mid-1990’s, Guy honored us by performing on our bill with his friend Jerry Jeff. It was not really his kind of gig. He preferred small, quiet rooms over an outdoor festival environment like ours. Still, being from Texas, this was not the first party crowd he had encountered. Accompanied only by his son on a guitar bass, he soldiered on and soon seduced a small core of real music lovers among our crowd. He didn’t do it with glib repartee or showy machinations. Focusing on the core who were focused on him, he did it with the enveloping presence of his calmly looming visage and the quality of his material.
Some of Guy Clark’s songs strike deeply into your emotional core. Others make you throw your head back and grin. They range from outrageous tales of dance hall tarts to the dreams in his grandfather’s immigrant eyes.
Either way, he made me feel he was letting me in on a secret; I was somehow a silent participant in the story he was telling. He made me feel I intimately knew the places and characters about whom he sang. Maybe I do. Maybe we all do. Because as specific in focus as his songs are, they’re equally universal in the truths they tell.
A month of so after Guy’s appearance at our Western Classic, I saw him with Van Zandt at a club called the Tin Angel in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time. After his set, as he made his way to the bar where I was sitting, our eyes met. Without hesitation he called out “los Leas, how’d you find your way here.” For just a flash, I felt like we were old friends. I know Guy didn’t know me well enough to consider me even a new friend. But his songs feel like old friends, and they bring me comfort today.