Guy Clark: One Last Look
A memory of a songwriting afternoon.
Shortly before Guy Clark released his last album, My Favorite Picture of You, in July 2013, the magazine asked me to write a short music column about him. The prospect wasn’t thrilling. The record was already getting a lot of national press, meaning anything we did would be late. And singer-songwriters like Guy, who was 71 at the time (and who died this morning at 74), can be tough to cover. They pour their lives into their compositions, and they’ve got go-to stories about how those songs came to be—i.e. how their lives unfolded—that they tell every night from the stage. For a reporter, it’s often hard to get anecdotes their audience doesn’t already know by heart. Crafting a deeper read typically requires a good amount of time together.
That seemed unlikely with Guy. One of the reasons Picture was receiving so much attention was that it was a strong album from an artist known to be in poor health. His publicist had been politely and rightly protective of his calendar. But after my one sanctioned interview at his Nashville home in late June, Guy told me he’d had fun. “Come back anytime,” he added, which I figured was his nice way of getting me out of the driveway before he went inside to take a call from NPR. But then he said, “Do me a favor, though. Don’t go through the publicist. That’s too much work. You’ve got my home phone number. Just give me a call.”
And so it was that, a few weeks later, I found myself back in Nashville, talking with Guy at his breakfast table for a much longer profile to run at the turn of the year. The mood was light. Picture had been released three days earlier and was headed to the 12-spot on the country album charts, the highest position of his career. His girlfriend, Joy Brogdon, was a few steps away, slicing the ends off strawberries for us. And Guy was musing leisurely about life and art while waiting for his friend Rodney Crowell to come by for a songwriting session.
His health was on his mind, chiefly because of what it was doing to his lifestyle. He’d stopped drinking and drugging a few years back, but he’d recently had to take a break from performing as well. And now a cardiologist had told him to quit caffeine and cigarettes. “I keep telling these doctors, ‘Man, I just got to feel better. You don’t have any cocaine, do you?’ Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they scowl.” Clark himself laughed hard. “Getting old is a bitch. Of course, I haven’t exactly taken great care of myself over the years. I used to be bulletproof, man.”
I knew something of that. I’d first encountered him roughly twenty years earlier, when mutual friends who were songwriters themselves had tasted enough success to book gigs opening for him. When those shows were in Austin, there’d inevitably be a party afterward, and the challenge every time was to see if any of us could outlast Guy. Even though he was in his fifties by then, literally twice our age, none of us ever did. But given what we knew about Guy and his blood-brother Townes Van Zandt—the stories passed down from musician friends, the scenes played out in documentaries like Heartworn Highways (1976) and, later, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004)—none of us ever expected to. Of the early-seventies vanguard of songwriters who moved to Nashville with dreams of writing like Dylan and partying like the Stones, Guy and Townes came the closest to pulling it off.
“Townes really was crazy,” Guy offered from across the table. “I remember one night he went into this Indian routine. We were in a bar on Twenty-first Street, and he squatted along the wall and crossed his arms. Some college kid was sitting there, not paying attention, and Townes said, ‘You stole my land, you white motherfucker.” The kid said ‘What?’ Townes said, ‘You stole my land, raped my women, took my whole way of life.’ He grabbed a spoon off the table and said, ‘I oughta scalp you with this spoon.’ The kid freaked out and left.”
Somehow Guy and Townes found time enough between the parties to write songs unlike anything Nashville had ever heard. The melodies to best-known numbers like “L.A. Freeway” and “Pancho and Lefty” were fairly straightforward, but the lyrics were miles removed from mainstream country’s middle of the road. Townes’ sounded almost metaphysical, like he’d plucked them off the air after they’d floated in through an open window, as he often claimed. Guy’s were stark and grounded, like he’d found them in the back of a roughneck’s pickup in the Monahans oil field. But all of it was poetry.
“I don’t know if I’m as smart as Townes was,” said Guy, “but I could hold my own. Most people had no idea what he was talking about.” He took a sip of decaf, made a sour face, and went on. “I learned how by just doing it. I’ve read poetry all my life. I can tell what’s good and not good, what touches you and what doesn’t. I taught myself to communicate with a sense of theater, to add an O. Henry twist. Like “Last Gunfighter Ballad” [from his second album, Texas Cookin’, released in 1976]. It’s about an old guy from the 1880’s or so. I don’t know that he ever actually existed, but I had him live through the gunfighter era and wind up in a West Texas bar. He hallucinates that he’s called into the street, then goes out and gets hit by a car. I like anachronistic stuff like that. It’s more interesting to me than, ‘I love you, I love you, why did you leave me, I’m going to get drunk.’
“I used to tease Richard Leigh, who I co-wrote with a lot, ‘You’re just a one-trick pony writing sensitive love songs, one after the other. They’re all the same, man.’” The joke—and it was a good one—was that among Leigh’s same-y love songs was “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” a monster crossover hit for Crystal Gayle in 1977.
“An artist doesn’t care if he sells or not,” Guy said. “A star does. They have to have that constant attention. Some people can do both sides of that, but they walk the line very precariously. John Cash was one who could. I remember walking through the Dallas airport with him. If he slowed down for one millisecond, the whole concourse would flock to him. So he had this airport pace. He’d say, ‘God, I hate this.’ I said, ‘But John, you’re dressed like Johnny Cash.’” Guy laughed. “’You’re wearing this whole black outfit, but you don’t want people to recognize you?’ There’s a contradiction to that.
“I wasn’t ever comfortable with adoration. I like people to like me, but—”
Just then Rodney appeared in the kitchen after letting himself in the house.
“Hi, darling,” said Guy wryly.
“Hi, baby doll,” said Rodney, pulling up a chair. “How’d you celebrate your record release?”
“I sat here and didn’t smoke,” said Guy. “And didn’t drink coffee.”
“Well, it looks like the world has caught up to you,” said Rodney, alluding to stories about the record in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Garden & Gun, American Songwriter Magazine, and about a dozen others. “I’m getting piggyback coverage. I’d say I’ve done ten interviews about you.”
“Thank you,” said Guy. The two had been tight for nearly forty years, ever since Rodney, nine years Guy’s junior, had shown up in Nashville and fallen in with the pack of young-gun writers—people like Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash—nurtured by Guy.
Having been one of Rodney’s ten interviewers—we’d spent nearly an hour on the phone together earlier in the week—I brought up an observation he’d made. “You talked about all the respect Nashville has always paid Guy, how he managed to have one foot in the street, with Townes and Mickey Newbury, and one in the camp of old-guard Nashville writers, guys like Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard.”
Guy balked. “Harlan and I were good friends, but I never wrote with him. Everybody else in the world did, but so much of that was just old Music Row bullshit to me.”
“Harlan was lucky enough,” said Rodney, “to get here when the language was still in such a simple form, before the other brushstrokes got in, before you heard Dylan, or Kristofferson, or Townes. After Kristofferson got here, those simple couplets were gone. For some reason, guys like Harlan and Chuck Berry never did that.”
“Ah, but Chuck Berry might have been the best,” interrupted Guy. “He was writing about what was really going on, teenage angst. And the descriptive language he used was so unique. I don’t think anyone has ever come close to that.”
“‘I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat,’” recited Rodney.
Guy held up one finger and quoted a fragment of a line. “‘Coffee-colored Cadillac,’” he said, letting the words hang in the air for a second before jumping to the chorus and starting to sing. “Nadine, honey is that you?”
Rodney nodded, then changed the subject. “I’ve got two ideas on songs. I want to write one on Texas City.”
“The big explosion?” said Guy. “In 1947?”
“Yeah. But I haven’t done much research on it yet. And I’ve got this other thing I’ve been wanting to get in front of you called ‘If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now.’”
“I used to see that written on billboards over apartment complexes off a freeway in Boston,” recalled Guy. “’If you lived here, you’d be home by now.’ It was meant for people sitting in traffic, drumming their fingers on the steering wheel.”
“Or we could just take another swing at ‘Once More with Caution,’” said Rodney.
Guy looked at me. “That’s one we’ve been working on for thirty years,” he said.
“We’re close, too,” Rodney said.
“Real close,” said Guy, pulling himself up from his chair and leading us down the stairs to his basement workshop. “But sometimes you just can’t coax them out of the bag.”
Guy’s workshop is a fabled place to Nashville songwriters. It’s a cramped, little room where he writes, builds guitars and listens to music, and its walls and table tops are cluttered with the things those activities imply: Luthier’s tools, scraps of wood and paper, coffee cans filled with pencils, thousands of cassette tapes. And, Guy being Guy, there was also a museum’s worth of ephemera, otherwise innocuous sundries that remind him of people he loves. Like his father’s famous Randall knife. And a cane given to him by artist Terry Allen. And the snapshot of his late wife, Susanna, that gave his new album its title. I picked up a stack of composition books containing handwritten lyrics that Guy had pulled to show me, and underneath was a score sheet from an ancient game of gin rummy. Susanna, who’d been dead a year—and who had not been in the basement for years before that—had trounced him.
“She was a deadly gin player,” said Guy, noticing me looking it over as I sat down at his workbench.
“And this was her guitar,” said Rodney, pulling the instrument from against the wall and strumming a chord.
“That’s the one Jerry Jeff gave her,” said Guy. “He was holding it over his head, getting ready to break it on some rafters, and she said, ‘Wait, don’t break that, give it to me. It’s my birthday.’ Of course it wasn’t even close to her birthday. But he fell for it and gave it to her. And he made her promise she’d never put it in a case.”
That rhymed perfectly with the stories I’d heard of the young, vibrant Susanna, back when she and Guy were effectively Nashville’s year-in-and-year-out homecoming king and queen, before Townes died on New Year’s Day, 1997, and she took to the bed for the next fifteen years. She eventually died of heart failure in June 2012, but not before back problems, prescription pills, and lung cancer had exacted a heavy toll. The guitar dated back to when she was still writing hit songs herself, still an unmistakable force of nature.
“Somebody told me she used to walk into Music Row publishing houses in the early afternoon,” I said, “primp a little in the mirror in the lobby, and then shout out, ‘Who’s taking me to lunch?’ And writers and song pushers would pour out of their offices and follow wherever she wanted to go.”
“Yeah,” said Rodney, “so you can imagine how frustrating it was when she shut down.”
“Well, Townes was basically the only one she could really talk to,” said Guy. “After he died, she just stepped out. She tried chiropractors, acupuncture, but the only thing that really worked was hydrocodone or, by the end, oxycodone. Heavy-duty pain pills. We spent a fortune on illegal drugs around here.”
“A fortune on the cloud,” said Rodney, strumming her guitar. “Get me that cloud I float on.”
“Is that what Susanna called it?” I said. “Would she ask for her ‘cloud’?”
“No,” said Rodney. “That just popped into my head.”
“Rodney’s a poet,” said Guy, matter-of-factly.
Rodney put Susanna’s guitar down and picked his own back up and started playing lightly. “‘Once More with Caution,’” he announced. “How come we can’t unlock this? Oh and by the way,” he turned to me, “Susanna gets a co-write on this.” He started singing.
I can’t stop the rain from falling
But you can come inside
Until the clouds have broken
And there’s sunshine in your eyes
“Are you playing in C?” asked Guy.
“D,” said Rodney as Guy joined in. They tuned up, shifted to A, and then sang in unison.
Them old fair-weather friends
Will treat you cold as ice
I can’t stop the rain from falling
But I can dry your eyes
Once more with caution
Thrown to the wind
Long time no see, so far so good
So come on in
“So what’s wrong with that?” asked Guy.
“The next two verses,” said Rodney, who started singing by himself.
Man, you sure look lonesome
So I guess you’ve been to town
Where you wore out every barstool
On your merry-go-round
I won’t ever say I told you so
I’ll never turn you down
I can’t stop the rain from falling . . .
“But I can dry your eyes?” Guy deadpanned.
“That’s the problem,” said Rodney, as they both stopped playing. “If we need to get back to ‘dry your eyes,’ we’ve got to set it up. With ‘pride’ or something. ‘Lied.’ Or ‘tried?’ We are one set-up away from unlocking this.”
“What was that line Susanna gave us?” said Guy.
“Was it the ‘barstool’ line?”
“No,” said Guy. “I had that. She had something else, one of those great lines she carried around for years.” He started to sing, ‘We’re like two ships passing in the night/I still see that shipwreck in your eyes.’”
“That’s perfect unto itself,” said Rodney. “It’s like haiku.” He looked at the neck of his guitar. “This song is so near being ready. What if we go back to the first line of that verse? ‘I’ll never say I told you so.’ The next line, ‘I’ll never put you down,’ seems short of that. What’s a better way to say it? ‘I’ll never say I told you so . . . Just so I can win.’ Or ‘Just to make a point.’”
“Or ‘Just to justify,’” said Guy. He shook his head. “It’s so elusive.”
“How old is this song?” I asked.
“It was ten years old when I got in on it,” said Rodney.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me,” said Guy, standing up from the table, “I’m going to go to the bathroom. Rodney, finish this song while I’m gone.”
Rodney kept strumming and humming. “We’ve worked on this a hundred times. Really. Usually we end up writing another song. We wrote a song on Guy’s new record, “I’ll Show Me,” that way. He always says, ‘Be grateful for the unfinished song because it gets you back to work the next day.’”
Guy returned, sat down, cleaned off a space on the table for a piece of graph paper, and picked up a pencil. He wrote deliberately, taking care to put one meticulous, capitalized, script letter in each box. The process was slow, which allowed time for lines to brew. Rodney kept strumming while Guy wrote.
Eventually Guy looked up. “‘Man, you sure look lonesome/I guess you’ve been to town.’ I’m not sure that’s right. Depending on whether we have a male or female singer, we might want to change ‘man’ to ‘babe.’ That’s what Dylan would do.”
“No,” said Rodney, “he’d change it to ‘Man, you sure look lonesome, babe.’” They laughed. “But maybe ‘Wore out every barstool’ is such a good line that it’s made us buy into the lines around it,” said Rodney. “There used to be a line, ‘Every time you get lost . . .’”
“‘. . .You find your way to town,’” Guy said. He started writing again, taking even longer this time. Finally, he looked up. “‘I never said I told you so/when you came unwound/Not a thing I wouldn’t do to help you . . .’”
Rodney finished his thought, “‘. . . I can talk you down.’”
“‘Standing on a high wire, a thousand feet off the ground,’” said Guy.
“Or, ‘Girl, I love your high wire act . . .’” said Rodney before changing directions. “You know what we had at one point? ‘I can’t stop the rain from falling/But I won’t let you drown.’”
“‘I’ll throw you an inner tube/if you ever start to drown,’” said Guy, dropping his pencil and folding his arms.
“Let me break the spell,” said Rodney. “I want to play you something new.” He changed keys and lifted the tempo a little, fingerpicking an airy melody. “This song is for Guy.”
May the wind be at your back
And the world be at your feet
May you waltz across Wyoming
With a rose clutched in your teeth
May the answers to your questions
Fall like raindrops right on cue
May you set up shop in Heaven
Before the devil knows you’re due
Ooh, here’s to love, here’s to life
All the fair and tender ladies
And the plain dirt-farmer’s wife
Yeah here’s to you, here’s to me
Some old mad dog mountain flyboy
And the kid from Tennessee
Guy’s gaze shifted from Rodney’s face to his picking and back again. He lit a hand-rolled cigarette, one of two he allowed himself each day, and inhaled a shallow draw. He and Rodney had played this scene a thousand times, in backstage lounges and on cross-country tour busses, at late-night picking parties around Guy and Susanna’s kitchen table and at afternoon workshop sessions just like this one. They’d tested an unknowable number of new songs on each other before taking them into the studio, back to the drawing board or off to oblivion. But this was different. Rodney’s new song was about him. Guy tilted his head back, cocked his jaw, looked past the tools lining the wall over Rodney’s shoulder, and listened.
If you had the sense to come in
When the storm clouds start to grow
Then you wouldn’t be my right hand
And the best friend that I know
Ooh here’s to love, here’s to life
All the fair and tender ladies
And the old fishmonger’s wife
Yeah here’s to you, here’s to me
Some old mad dog mountain flyboy
And the kid from Tennessee
Yeah, set them up, drinks for free
It’s the mad dog mountain flyboy
And the kid from Tennessee
“Well, that’s sweet,” said Guy when the song was over. “Thank you, Rodney.”
“I’ve been meaning to play it for you.”
“How long have you had it?” I asked.
“Almost three years.”
“Well, Rodney,” said Guy, “you’ve been holding out on me.”
“I’ve been trying to coax it out, trying to get that last verse.”
“I see,” said Guy. He grabbed his own guitar, made sure it was still in tune, and then led Rodney through a song they’d written together in the seventies, “The Partner Nobody Chose.” But when it was done, the afternoon was too. Rodney had an early-evening appointment to pull a granddaughter’s tooth—“It’s a Crowell family tradition,” he said—and Guy needed to get back up the stairs while he still had the strength. The writing session ended in a draw. One new song had been debuted and deemed completed, and an older, still unfinished one was left for another day.