Guy Clark was one of the greatest songwriters of the modern era – and in Old No.1, he made one of the most extraordinary and enduring albums of all time. By Hot Press editor, Niall Stokes
Every day seems to bring another blow to the solar plexus. Already the year can be numbered among the very worst in the history of music, with the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, George Martin and Fergus O’Farrell of Interference, among so many more.
Yesterday, there was a desperate search for Sinéad O’Connor and our hearts were in our mouths as we waited and watched for news. It turned out to be good: the panic had been unnecessary.
And now, just as out hearts have stopped galloping, comes another resounding blow. The legendary Guy Clark has shuffled off this mortal coil, gone stage left, into the great blue yonder. And we have lost another, very different giant of contemporary music: a songwriting genius to stand alongside the very best of them.
I fell in love with Guy Clark’s first album, Old No.1, shortly after it was released back in the middle of the 1970s. Though he has written dozens of superb songs since, I don’t think he ever surpassed that wonderful, elemental record, which was richly endowed with songs full of meaning, allusion, story-telling and bruised honesty. I still think of it as one of the greatest records ever released – and I suspect I am right.
When I pick up a guitar, I still reach for those early songs and sing them. Only last week, I quickly figured out again how to play ‘Texas 1947’ in the key of E and sang it through.
Guy, who grew up in a little place called Monahans in Texas, used to introduce the song by explaining that it was a true story. I am sure it was too, embellished just a little bit, as all good yarns tend to be. It recounts a moment of huge significance in a small town, just a couple of years after the end of World War II.
A posse of locals, including the kids, go down to the train station in anticipation of what is about to unfold. They are described, sitting on their cars... and waiting. However, the narrator – doubtless Guy Clark himself as a kid – has a plan. The kids clamber down and put their ears to the rail tracks to hear them ‘pop’ – advance word on the imminent arrival of a train. But Guy has something up his sleeve.
“So we already know’d it when they finally said ‘train time’,” he sings, “You’d a-thought that Jesus Christ his-self was rolling down the line/ Things got real quiet and momma jerked me back/ But not before I got a chance to lay a nickel on the track.”
And then the explosion hits.
“Look out here she comes, she’s a comin’/ Look out there she goes she’s gone/ Screaming’ straight through Texas like a mad dog cyclone/ Big and red and silver, she don’t make no smoke/ She’s a fast-rolling streamline/ Aw, come to show them folks…”
The chorus is repeated. And then the kicker. In the background a voice remarks: “Lord, she never even stopped.”
It is the end of civilisation as the people of Monahans had known it. From now on, most of the trains will race through this small town, dismissing it and the people who live there as a supreme irrelevance. All is not lost, however, because amid this scene of disillusionment, you sense a poet-of-the-future has found something that will endure...
“There’s fifty, sixty people still sittin' on their cars,” he muses, "Wondering what it’s coming’ to and how it got this far/ But me I got nickel smashed flatter than a dime/ By a mad dog, runaway, red silver streamline… train.”
Listen to the record. That short pause before he says ‘train’ is one of the deftest pieces of songwriting that you are ever likely to hear. The rhyme occurs within the anticipated metre of the line. And then he tags on the meaning, like it’s an after-thought.
All told, it is one of the finest pieces of story-telling through music that it has ever been my privilege to hear. And, of course, the beautiful irony is that the song could never have been written if the powers-that-be had not seen Monahans as nothing more than a place to race through, just about as fast as your wheels could carry you. That, as they say, is the price of progress…
Old No.1 is full of songs of that extraordinary calibre. There’s ’She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, a song – Guy himself described it as his favourite tune – about a girl hitch-hiking her way into a different, unknowable future. It opens with what have to be two of the greatest lines in the fabled history of country songwriting: "She's standing on the gone side of leaving/ Found a thumb and stuck it in the breeze…"
There’s the magnificent 'Let Him Roll’, another song I break into spontaneously every now and then, which describes the descent of a man who is rejected in love into despair and utter, irretrievable loneliness. As with many of Guy's songs, it is about innocence learning from bitter experience...
"So he says ‘Son’, he always called me son,” he recounts, "He said, 'Life for you has just begun’/ And he told me a story that I heard before/ How he fell in love with a Dallas whore…”
There’s ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’, a song that Freddie White used to sing, which depicts the relationship between the narrator and an elderly friend – “To me he’s one of the heroes of this country/ So what’s he doing all dressed up like some old man” – in wonderful, loving detail.
There’s ‘LA Freeway’, a song of yearning for the simplicities of country life, in which the narrator orchestrates a move away from the arid, impersonal pressures of a place like Los Angeles. In the final four lines, Guy seems to address his own wife, the artist and songwriter Susanna Clark, in typically wise and solid, dependable words.
"Oh Susanna, don't you cry, babe,” he sings, "Love's a gift that's surely handmade/ We've got something to believe in/ Dontcha' think it's time we're leavin’.”
They were together for forty years, before Susanna died as a result of cancer in June, 2012. And now the great Guy has succumbed to the same illness. He too is wrapped up in what so many of his songs were about: the moment of leaving.
I was lucky enough to meet him on one of his trips to Dublin – he was a lovely, gentle giant of a man, who wanted nothing more than to craft great songs and to share them with however many people turned up an whatever gig he was doing. It is a tough life, out there on the road, laying your self bare for people, and it takes its toll. But he had a wry sense of humour and he enjoyed the odd moments of camaraderie that being a musician, playing for a living, also involves.
The hard part was something he wrote about in ‘Dublin Blues’ – a beautiful song (about Dublin, a town of 3,654 people in Texas, as it happens, but we can claim it too, of course we can) in which he also paid tribute to the woman with whom he shared his life, and who protected him, as he protected her, as he put it himself in another lovely song from Old No.1, "like a coat from the cold.”
There was a brief premonition too of the adversary that would finally catch him, sneaking up on the blindside to steal his strength and finally lay him low. But most of all there was the understanding that what you try to do – as a songwriter and as an artist – is to produce work that deserves to stand up there alongside that of the real greats…
Guy Clark, we will miss that cracked, beautiful, baritone voice. We will miss those marvellous new songs that you might have written about life, love and the pursuit of happiness. And the great presence you had when you stepped into a room. We will miss your integrity. We will miss you innate sense of decency. Your values. And your understanding of what really matters in this broken world, during the short time that we have, here together, before that son of a bitch, the grim reaper, shows up with his accursed blade sharpened.
Ah yes! But we will never forget those songs. And that cracked voice will still be listened to, by good people, in search of the truth about the way things were – the way they really were – in those crazy fifty-plus years since you first took up your guitar, opened your mouth and invited us into your world…
Thank you for allowing us to listen.
I wish I was in Austin
In the Chili Parlour Bar
Drinkin' Mad Dog Margaritas
And not carin' where you are
But here I sit in Dublin
Just rollin' cigarettes
Holdin' back and chokin' back
The shakes with every breath
Forgive me all my anger
Forgive me all my faults
There's no need to forgive me
For thinkin' what I thought
I loved you from the git go
I'll love you till I die
I loved you on the Spanish steps
The day you said goodbye
I am just a poor boy
Work's my middle name
If money was a reason
I would not be the same
I'll stand up and be counted
I'll face up to the truth
I'll walk away from trouble
But I can't walk away from you
I have been to Fort Worth
I have been to Spain
I have been too proud
To come in out of the rain
I have seen the David
I've seen the Mona Lisa too
I have heard Doc Watson
Play Columbus Stockade Blues
Repeat 1st half of verse 1