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Thursday
Feb212008

“Let Him Roll”, Guy Clark

“Guy Clark. ”

The voice had no charge, just the flat announcement of someone putting a call through. It was day one on a new job - and I was sitting with the publisher, editor and central nervous center of this inside-the-beltway-real-deal, down-low, those-who-know music trade magazine talking about editorial trajectory…

“THE Guy Clark? ” asked the incredulous managing editor.

“Well, uh, no, uhm, yeah, ” I stammered. I mean, what do you say?

Then in the interest of clarity, I tried explaining, “I mean, he's not THE to me. He's just, you know, Guy…”

Yes, he was the kind of songwriter who cast short stories in a matter of moments, picked with an exactitude a surgeon would envy and sang with a unfaltering half-spoken delivery that gave a veracity to his words that was pure hollow-point -- it'd go in clean, the emotions would start taking hold, then broaden out as they passed through you, taking ever widening chunks of your soul in the transit. Not that most people in Los Angeles even knew who my friend was.

The pause that was pregnant grew even more pendulous. Then it split open, cavernously gaping and swallowed the moment whole.

“WHY…” came the plussed response, “would HE… be calling… you? ”

When I impressed upon the receptionist that I needed that call from Guy Clark, she at first thought it was from “some guy, ” and still didn't really understand. Beyond -- in this time before cell phones --- I wouldn't be able to return the call due to his travel constraints.

“I don't know, exactly, ” I hedged, blushing at the attention. When I said I had to have the call, I'd not considered this scenario. There were three impatient powerful men looking at me. I wanted to die. I wanted to freeze time, deal and step back in. “I can pick up and find out. ”

All four of us looked at the blinking red light, suspended in time like some lighthouse in the fog. Unable to stand the moment, I reached for it.

“Hi, ” I said into the receiver while the rest of the room smirked. “No… yeah… of course.. no… absolutely… no, I'd be delighted. The usual then? Okay. I have to go. Long story. ”

Guy Clark was changing planes. He didn't have much time either.

“The usual? ” The editor said, his delight palpable.

“Yeah… he's staying at the hotel he always does…”

No one said anything.

“I'm picking him up for dinner. ”

Hardly call-out brothel service, but sadly the truth. Dinner. Like so many meals in so many cities, in so many nations, in so many states of being. Guy Clark, the Hemingway of Texas and a singer/songwriter who could hew a line to the leanest bit of truth and beauty, anchored with details and shivering with the barest emotions, was capable of far-flung and soul-stirring conversation, and heaven knows we had 'em,. And he didn't need a ride from the airport.

“You're having dinner with Guy Clark? ” The managing editor flummoxed, unable to get over it.

“Yes, we're friends, ” I said, still too off-kilter to be vexed. “I've known him for years. ”

Knowing someone for years is an odd thing when you're 26, and yet…

I'd been writing about music in a national level since I was 19… went on the road to report on Neil Young's Old Ways for Tower Records' Pulse magazine at 20… It was the kind of life that wasn't real, and yet, it most certainly was. Late nights often twined around songs, stories told, deep philosophy and old red wine. It was a world beyond imagination; it was the plains where I found my home.

You could argue that when someone writes songs like “Instant Coffee Blues, ” “Desparados Waiting For A Train, ” “LA Freeway, ” intimacy is immediate. It's not quite like that, but there is a notion of when you're seen, you're seen deeply -- and when you make friends, it's a fast bond.

Dignified. Courtly. Chivalrous. Everything it means to be a man, a man in full. Broad shoulders, broader view of the world. Not one to judge -- too much effort, but also not one to suffer fools gladly.

And so, like lacing, he had threaded in and out of my life.

And so, like part of the twisted double helix that is the basic genetic code, his melodies ran through my life whenever they suited the moment. Whether I saw him or not, shared a few lost minutes in a late night bar or watching him charm someone I had business with, then wink over their head at me to say “Now they know…, ” he was always just part of who I was and how I rolled.

And so, like it always seemed to bubble up from the ground without notice, I wasn't even surprised when his hushed oak baritone began moving through my mind real slow like a freight trains laying off cars in a midnight switching yard in the wake of my mother's death. Strange that. Freefall into shock and mourning, find out how hard-wired you are for song…

Sitting at my mother's grave, not quite two decades later, hearing somewhere within that most knowing voice, those utterly clear finger-picked notes of “Let Him Roll” -- a song about a prodigal love that returns for the final good bye -- ran around my head like electric current. Clark's voice like the bellows of a furnace, smelting the regret about a life lived a bit too fully that left frayed edges and cracked moments, soothing me through an odd pain that couldn't be defined and wouldn't leave.

Later, upon returning to the house that's been my home for almost a decade and half, that voice that is all strength, musk and wisdom migrated back again, through the verses of “The Randall Knife” to hone in on the verse about returning to the family residence post-casting the-ashes-and-the-roses-to- the-wake, in search of the talisman that's symbolic of it all: “the thing that's haunted. ”

A knife that had been through the war, been through the world -- and in spite of it all, found its compromise on a Boy Scout camping trip. A half inch broken off the tip “when I tried to stick it in a tree, ” put up by the father without a word -- and left in a bottom drawer, untouched by light from that day forward.

“The thing that's haunted…”

All those nights on all those stages, melting into one stretchy surreal moment. Guy Clark, so often in a starched white shirt, black vest, black jacket… Standing straight and resolute, sketching truths and moments, stories and insight, that sweep of hair making him seem a bit like a rogue, those facile fingers saying “detail work is just the beginning. ”

Tiny pieces of lyric resonating like the sound of one's own heart, beating between the ears. So thunderously loud, echoing, reminding one of the power and potency of life. Because in the end, that's all there is: the way we embrace what's before us.

Tragically, sometimes it means holding onto the painful for all that it's worth. Spending those salty tears -- the ones that burn and seer our flesh -- like it's Saturday night. Just toss 'em out, let 'em flow, let 'em fall like there's no end in sight.

Because just as it seems time to build an arc and start gathering animals two-by-two from this endless flood of sorrow tangible, something shifts. You may still be numb, disoriented, punch-drunk, throbbing, but even in all of that, the notion that there's a limit dawns.

Not that the sky slams open, the sun pours down and a rainbow turns neon bright. No, it may still be grey and cold and shuddering, but you know that it, too, will pass.

Guy Clark is just that alive. Rippling with the force that illuminates -- and animates -- us. The man who reveled about “Homegrown Tomatos, ” who staccatoed through “Texas Cooking, ” who cast a spell of faraway places and interlocked, if disconnected famous faces in “Cold Dog Soup” knows how to put a match to the fuse.

Even in the depths of it, the looking up through the rotting leaves collected at the bottom of the cistern, there's the notion that something up there is worth swimming for. There's a sense that once you break the surface, gravity will merely anchor you here, not be a force of destruction; from there, joy will slowly thaw and grow.

To hear guitarist, high-tenor moon-beam voice and co-conspirator Verlon Thompson rain down droplets of light as he embroiders the time-honed melodies that're always somewhere between split rail and plain dirt, but utterly breaded in stick-with-you. Laying in the harmony above the sturdy songwriter, the silver-haired guitarist draws the shimmer from inside his acoustic guitar -- and makes that which is already inviting glow.

That is part of that gift of Guy Clark: the luminescence of moments. It is common things uncommonly viewed, given a steady, slow examination and rendered from the core out. Craftsmanship to honor the insight more than the sheer execution… because the more elevated and tenderly turned the playing, the more the revelatory nature of the lyrics are set off.

The Station Inn is the same kind of place: posters and photos of bands and shows that couldn't even be faded memories, they're so long gone. Mismatched chairs and tables, a counter bar where they sling beer, cardboard pizza, coffee for a dollar -- NO refills, and yet, it feels like home.

Shaking off the chill, you find a place, settle in, settle up with how transformative music played well can be. And the people who play here are all business in the celebratory, how well can we play -- versus how much will they pay -- way. No matter who's playing, something good will transpire.

But Guy Clark, in a denim shirt, that rebellious shock of hair swooping across his forehead is in the zone. On the brink of releasing Workbench Songs, which is as vital as any collection he's ever made, he has come to both play and savor the gifts of his fellow musicians. Gracious, seasoned, celebrated, aged. He knows he's good; he's content with that, he's wholly present in what he's doing in any given moment, really sinking into what's before him, and yet… He always watches the horizon for what else might be there.

Yet…

It's not just sorrow, I'm marinating in it. <p>And I know that. Just as I know I'm tired of being tired, lost, sad.

And like the man who wrote “The Randall Knife” about the demon blade that broke, then glowed with all the unspoken recriminations, hurt and need for healing, I am drawn to this place -- hand-tooled book of red leather emblazoned with a flaming heart poised for action. I am here to think about what was and what wasn't, what remains and what rises to the top.

Somewhere in the past, there are ghosts and there are demons, there are angels and there are saints. They don't always look as they did then, emerging and turning in ways you'd never ever seen them before. <p>Except Guy Clark, who remains valiant, strong, unapologetic. He is a man who has always lived beyond the rules of polite custom, in large part because he bows to the higher authority of his definition of being a man. There are places the lines blur -- for the very reasons lines blur -- but he always measures twice, cuts once and exactingly and paints with a clear-eye and measured stroke.

It is the same thing when he writes. That way when he sings, he just has to open his throat; his soul will take care of the rest. And it is the same -- whether singing “Old Friends” nearly two decades ago around a too-close Thanksgiving dinner table to people he'd know almost that long before, or bouncing the ever-elusive, cousin Willard-taunting “Rita Ballou” on his knee in a dry field at an all-day country festival at the turn of the '90s, picking “LA Freeway” as holy as it gets to a hushed over-packed room of Texas refugees at McCabe's Instrument Store's back room performance space or whispering the final verse of “Let Him Roll” to another too-full room of East Coast hipsters at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey.

No matter the place, the man remained unchanged. A temple of consistency and consumption, no matter what the cause. There is Dublin, a relationship starting to blow up in my face… and Guy suggesting that perhaps a drink might help take the edge off, evenly waiting for me to decide while probably dreading the notion of ordering me a pink squirrel. <p>The relief when I said “tequila, straight, no salt” was palpable. And then I ran upstairs to check on the state of my clothes… that they were indeed still inside the closet of the room I was sharing with the man who was on his early stages of becoming my ex-fiancee.

I returned a little more grounded, and the guitar pull that was teetering out was now gathering steam. Guy was singing, “Instant Coffee Blues, ” I believe, and the chair next to him was open, a rocks glass more than half full beside it. It smelled exceptionally brutal, acrid and punishing.

“What is this? ” I whispered, holding the glass before me.

An empty stare is what I got. Not three hours before, this was the man who refused to leave me in a pub in Dublin to wait for the now-aggressively-offending beau who'd been in a huff that I'd had dinner with the songwriter that night with the simple argument, “This is a strange country you have no sense of direction in; it's late and you're alone. If he shows up here, he'll show up at the hotel. ”

He not only showed up at the hotel. He was already there… and that was when the fight began. <p>But back at my chair, glass of clear liquid held in the air, Clark only looked at me with a suspended inscrutability and ennui that made me seem dense. He knew I knew it was tequila. What could the problem be? And why would he dignify it? <p>The move was clearly mine. <p>“This… is… a double, ” I protested. <p>Absolutely no traction.

“A DOUBLE, ” I said a little more emphatically.

He continued to look, just the tiniest bit of amusement wrinkling the corner of his eyes.

“It is, ” he confirmed.

“What are you trying to do…, ” I asked, a veteran of too many sleazy guys in too many bars to suffer the obvious well.

“Well, Holly… No one said you had to drink it all. But the way I see it: it's late and we don't know when we'll see a waitress again. So it's best to have enough than to go wanting… and if they come for another round, I'd recommend getting another double. ”

And that was it. It was done. Over. End of discussion.

That was Guy Clark's gift. Practical. Unruffled. Whatever, and then what.

It wasn't that he didn't care. He'd not left me in that bar alone, with no boyfriend coming to meet me. He knew what I needed, and he'd held steadfast to the sense of it suddenly hit me. And, frankly, over the years, several other not quite worthy potential suitors were dispatched quickly and brusquely, smoke curling around the ultimate gun fighter who chuckled at the weak knees and liver of the dismissed.

Guy Clark. He didn't even bother judging. He just was. Still just is.

Take him. Leave him. He'll be right there. Singing songs that're better written than most of The New York Times Best Seller List. Not as some kind of flexing struttage, but because Guy Clark has intractable standards: about how to live, how to stand, how to love, how to be there… and naturally, the writing followed.

It's the reason he's so damn courtly. As a young publicist for a label not his own, he once sat down with us after a show -- standing mountain tall upon approach and asking if the seat next to me was taken. He then proceeded to regale a tableful of writers I was entertaining with talk of people he and I knew, tales of artists they revered, jokes about things that made them feel included. And then when we were done, he paid the check, had myself and one of the writers join him in the town car and sent us back on into Manhattan in it…

Guy Clark didn't even act like he was being a gentleman. That was too obvious. No, not for him gestures for gesture sake, but rather walking as you were meant to. It was just how he rolled.

Which is why his songs have a way of gently rising from the morass when trouble hits. He doesn't mean to intone the words in a way that makes them glow like embers forgotten in a fireplace for too long, but still enough fire to flame and catch again. It's just why and how it is.

And so the casket lowered and the dirt filled in. The finality of my mother's death concrete and absolute, somehow those songs pulsed and beckoned. They can't undo what's happened… and they can't remove the stains of what was spilt in the name of life lived to another's specifications.

Yet somehow, hearing him sing those songs - sing the songs that've been a constant companion since discovering him shortly after realizing Rodney Crowell was a young man, and there were all these spokes extending from Crowell's hub of creativity -- offered some sense of what the future looks like. Gleaming, really, like a charmed jewel beneath the loam… some kind of treasure symbolic of something more.

You don't always know what things mean in the moment. Why we are drawn to many of the things that we are… unthinkingly tractor-beamed to the warm, the shiny, the musky. And then there we are, trying to make sense of what happened next.

Guy Clark is ever steady. And this night -- in spite of the dance with lymphoma, the continuing standards of execution and excellence, the notion that some of these very songs were older than some of the people sitting on cheap plastic molded or nuagahyde upholstered chairs -- would be no different.

It was a show to celebrate 'Workbench Songs', and he played just about all of them. A song about a rodeo clown whose love denied broke his funny bone -- with the simple statement that tears and grease paint do not mix, he wrote volumes in those few short words -- and another about an outlaw who needed to run, but needed his amour to run with him without questions or reservations, and a snapshot of the too-late-routine of any overlooked beer joint's exterior with the drunks, the fights and the carnal mergings all in full rut and revel… and there was more.

But equally potent was the respect that honored the songs that came before. Where some artists don't look back or feel imprisoned by the ones that brought them, Clark gave his well-loved classics the same care and concern he gave is newest -- and in that, perhaps the pilot light of creativity stays stoked.

For it is rare to encounter an artist whose work is as vital and visceral approaching five decades in as it is to find a master whose early work both holds up and is still give the tender ministrations normally reserved for new loves. So it is, though, that Guy Clark sets a standard, writes definitions of people lives, offers solace in the stumble, heroism in the halting crash of loss, beaming smiles for what's been found.

If there is a gift to what Guy does it's that: in every day commonality, he gives us a knighthood that can settle on flannel shoulders or heels clicking along the ground. It is a mantle that sees how well we shore up to the challenges, gives us something more than we perhaps see, even as he strips away the goop and gunk that clogs up how it is.

Guy Clark's world is planks to be shaved away into what's within. Like Michelangelo, who sees David in the flawed and rejected marble, he marvels at what's before him… he continues on unflapped, but appreciating what there is. And he invests those who listen with the same compass to navigate this world in which we bump and bruise and spin and whirl.

It's not that it's never changing. It's that his response never seems to change. As the winds of experience shift, that's a gift to cling to. Even from 8 rows out, unseen for shadows and footlights, there's plenty to take with you. With grief and tangled stories wrapped around my soul, it is just getting by -- and hoping for the mist to clear. It is the songs that steer me, though, when I cannot steer myself.

This night, onstage, an old voice that has echoed down the corridors of moments lived in the world, or perhaps within the decision to be somehow removed from it, it is clear. We all survive. We make of it what we will. If we try to consider the way that Guy does, there's always the opportunity -- within the pain, the loss, the joy, the cost -- to make it something more.

With an unwaveringly good band, that is what this moment is: something more. It is playing with sensitivity and gusto; it is singing and story-telling for the sake of being as good as what's been created; it's the man loving what is happening around his songs with a slow-burning smile that is everything we could ever hope to feel about appreciating all that we've been given.

And night's like this, what we've been given is more we should expect, indeed.

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