What is there to say about Guy Clark? Out of the whole Heartworn Highways set — a loose confederation of songwriters including Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle that appear in the 1981 documentary film of the same name — he was my favorite. That’s a good place to start. Sure, Townes spoke to the black comedy of my life as a twenty-three-year-old in San Francisco at the turn of the century, hopping from temp job to substitute teaching gig, living always in A-minor, but Guy was the survivor, and I have soft spot for survivors.
His arrangements, instrumentation and delivery were plain. Not boring — never boring — but unadorned, canvases onto which we’re allowed to project our own shit. Which is a funny thing to say about someone who, by every reckoning, was a writer of story-songs that had beginnings, middles and ends. Maybe what I mean is that Guy’s records work in a whole lot of situations. If you’re feeling blue, 1975’s Old No. 1 can amplify your blues in a powerful and restorative way. If you’re spoiling for a fight, spoiling for a drink or a smoke, 1976’s Texas Cookin’ is a great mirror to glance into on your way out the door and into the night. On a lazy summer Sunday morning, after the kids have crawled into bed with you just so and you’re thinking how you’re going to sneak out and get a cup of coffee without waking them up, there might be no deeper record than Better Days (1983) to quietly play in the kitchen.
Guy Clark often gets called the “craftsman” of his crowd, a tag that I think misunderstands what he was about. For every beautifully constructed rhyme, there’s always another — often in the same song — that is stunning in its simplicity and flow, almost like the haiku poetry of Matsuo Bashō or Kobayashi Issa. I could be wrong, but I don’t get the sense that Guy spent hours and hours, day after day, pulling his hair out at his desk and agonizing over his songs. I think he waited for melody or a turn of phrase to arrive, gave it a little push now and again, and treated each song according to its needs, always with care, but not with kid gloves. His was a tough love, but always a love.
I suppose I could have met Guy Clark if I really wanted to. One of my mom’s best friends, Patti, was his cousin. And, naturally, she had only great yarns about him. Moreover, by the time he died, there weren’t so many degrees of separation between us in the music biz. Years and experience, yes, plenty of those — but it would have been easy enough to get in touch with him. But I never did, never wanted to; I just wanted to live with his records and my own idea of his tough light.
Of course, had I ever met him, I would have repeated back to him the first lines of “Who Do You Think You Are,” the first song on 1981’s The South Coast of Texas, one of my very favorites of his albums:
I like that word cosmic
It’s just the way that people tend to use it
That offends my sense of survival
And I would have had to look him straight in the eye, if he’d let me. And I would have said, “Guy, that is just about the most badass opening line to a record that I’ve ever heard.” Because it is. It truly, truly is.
—M.C. Taylor, 18 May 2016