Monday, May 30, 2016

"When the final line unfolds it don't always rhyme": The eloquence of Guy Clark (1941-2016)

"Songs are like Japanese painting. Less is more. One brushstroke takes the place of many if you put it in the right place. I’m trying to get whoever is listening to think, ‘Oh, man, I was there. I did that. I know what that’s about.’ Too many details take away.Guy Clark

"You know life ain't easy it takes work/it takes healing cause you're gonna get hurt/You can lose your faith, you can lose your shirt, lose your way sometimes/Ah you never really have control, sometimes you just gotta let it go/When the final line unfolds, it don't always rhyme.Guy Clark, Homeless

Very sad to hear of the death of Texan singer songwriter Guy Clark who passed away in Nashville Tennessee on the morning of Tuesday May 17th. Clark, who battled cancer and health problems, was aged 74.

I have been a huge fan of his music for over 3 decades, since I first heard LA Freeway and Desperadoes Waiting for a Train, songs that appeared on Guy Clark's first album Old No. 1 and made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker.

Guy Clark wrote songs that were vignettes of daily life that he formed into four to five minute songs. Clark was a storyteller whose songs have the feel of poetry, short stories and in his ability to create visual images, cinema put to music. 
I’d play the “Red River Valley”
And he’d sit in the kitchen and cry
And run his fingers through 70 years of living
And wonder, Lord, has every well I drilled gone dry?
We was friends, me and this old man
Like desperadoes waiting for a train.

In his songs Clark had a way of seeing the world in the pretext of the simple things- what he refers to in one song as 'stuff that works'- 'the kind stuff you reach for when you fall'. Like homegrown tomatoes, cooking, a guitar, a photo, memories of places and people, an object, a cap, an old pair of boots, a knife.

In Randall Knife, one of his most loved songs, Clark writes about his father's death and the significance of a family heirloom passed from father to son.

Although Clark did not write strident political or 'message' songs as such, many of his songs are told from the vantage point of those who find themselves forced to the margins of society- the homeless, drifters, hitchhikers, hustlers, losers, loners, people living precarious lives and those struggling to make a decent living.

In Homeless Clark sings:
"Cardboard sign old and bent says 'friend for life 25 cents
When did this start making sense? Man it's really getting cold
Sometimes I forget things and I get confused
I could still be working, but they refuse
Now I'm living with the bums and the whores and the abused, man I hate getting old
Homeless, get away from here dont give them no money they'll just spend it
on beer
Homeless, will work for food, you'll do anything that you gotta do, when you're homeless.
Betty sings a song that no one hears, as the wind begins to freeze her tears
She says 'God it's been so many years', she's way past complainin
She sings a heartelt melody, one that begs for harmony
No it's not what she thought it would be, but hey it could be raining"

In Heroes he sings about suicide among US soldiers returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The song “Coyote” describes the toll taken by the scourge of human trafficking, using true events in which 18 immigrants trapped in a scorching trailer died at a Texas truck stop.

Clark's work is a reminder that creative expression almost always emerges from, and is intertwined with everyday lived experience. Clark has the ability to embed poignant stories, lessons and observations about the struggles, suffering and wonder of daily life into his songs. He does this with eloquence, pathos and humanity, but without sentimentality.

Guy Clark was 34 before he released his influential first album. Most of the songs on that album Old No 1 become staples in country and folk music. Two notable songs ”L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for A Train,” were hit songs for Jerry Jeff Walker and have been recorded by many other singers. Guy Clark recorded 14 albums. His final album, My Favorite Picture of You, released in 2013 won a Grammy for best folk album.

Bob Dylan cited Guy Clark as one of his favorite songwriters. An article discussing Guy Clark's best songs is here.

Reflection and obituaries for Guy Clark are herehereherehere, here, herehere and here

A tribute CD This Ones for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark is a reminder of the powerful body of the work he produced over a 50 year career. On the CD you will find a stunning version by Patti Griffin of the Guy Clark's song The Cape:

The Cape
Guy Clark

Eight years old with a floursack cape
Tied all around his neck
He climbed up on the garage
Figurin' what the heck
He screwed his courage up so tight
The whole thing came unwound
He got a runnin' start and bless his heart
He headed for the ground

He's one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
Always trust your cape

All grown up with a floursack cape
Tied around his dreams
He was full of spit and vinegar
He was bustin' at the seams
He licked his finger and he checked the wind
It was gonna be do or die
He wasn't scared of nothin' boys
And he was pretty sure he could fly

He's one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
Always trust your cape

Old and grey with a floursack cape
Tied all around his head
He's still jumpin' off the garage
Will be till he's dead
All these years the people said
He's actin' like a kid
He did not know he could not fly
So he did

He's one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
Always trust your cape

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