This has been a brutal year for musician deaths. We’ve mourned so many truly unique talents, pausing to take stock of their careers, indulging in their works of art left behind, and making sense of their often complicated lives. While David Bowie, Prince, and Merle Haggard have been the most well-known of those to leave us in 2016, another towering musical figure passed away last May. Poet, singer-songwriter, mentor, carpenter, friend, father, and devoted husband Guy Clark serves as the subject for Tamara Saviano’s years-in-the-making biography, Without Getting Killed or Caught. A publicist and producer, in addition to a writer, Saviano befriended Clark during the early ’00s, thus giving her unfettered access and permission to tell a comprehensive story of an amazing and complex life.
Though best known for his songs, “L.A. Freeway”, “The Randall Knife”, and “Dublin Blues”, Clark also served as sort of an unofficial host of the Americana music scene. From his humble early years spent scattered across South Texas, to his initial grappling to come to terms with his role in life, through the tumultuous scenes that dotted his eventual long and storied career, Saviano makes sure to hit all facets of his journey. Granted essentially an “all-access pass” from Clark, Saviano talks to those who were present with him the most; Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Hayes Carll, and his long-time cohorts Verlon Thompson and Shawn Camp, are just some of the names that appear to tell the stories and events that have stood the test of time. Additionally, despite him passing nearly 20 years ago, there’s a treasure trove of documented quotes and recounts from Clark’s most loyal partner-in-crime, Townes Van Zandt.
Of course, there’s really no Guy Clark story without knowing the story of Susanna Talley Clark, his wife and muse. Born into a family of means in Oklahoma City, Susanna and Clark bonded over unspeakable tragedy and forged a relationship that stood for the next 40-odd years. A painter, songwriter, and spiritual guru herself, Saviano devotes nearly as much time to Susanna’s story as she does Clark’s. There are long published journals that serve as insights into her unique thought processes. We serve as flies on the wall for entertaining recollections of long nights and early mornings the couple spent serving as host and hostess for the Nashville songwriting crowd. Most fascinatingly, we hear her honest insight about Van Zandt, her other “true love”. It was quite the bond the pair shared, one that Clark was fully aware and cognizant of, but one that even he at times had trouble penetrating.
Throughout the pages though, Saviano regales readers with charming insights, immense details, and recollections, both fond and not-so-fond. We learn that despite the constant references to him as such, he abhors the “Craftsman” label. “I should’ve put a stop to that ‘craftsman’ shit a long time ago,” Clark aggressively recalls during a discussion in the mid-’00s. “It makes my skin crawl… I consider what I do poetry”. In reality, it speaks to lazy journalism (Confession: I, too, once used the term in a piece I authored on Clark a few backs). The book makes perfectly clear the duality of his work: there’s songwriting and there’s guitar building and wood working. Because they happen to often occur in the same room makes no difference.
However, there are similarities found within his working style that makes it difficult for onlookers to ignore. Van Zandt’s son J.T. talks eloquently of a series of weekends spent side by side learning the guitar-making trade. Later, country singer Ashley Monroe recounts observing Clark meticulously transcribing and outlining song ideas in near-perfect penmanship on graph paper, his preferred method of documentation. “It’s almost like a puzzle piece because he’ll say a line and he’ll put it up top. Then he’ll say another line and he’ll put it at the bottom, she says. Then, sure enough about an hour, an hour and a half into the writing process you see a song.”
It’s anecdotes like these, the ones that peel back the curtain from Clark’s neatly arranged processes that really add value to his story. Of course, his disciplined nature with building and writing would not often extend into other parts of his life. The rowdy and wild Clark takes up large sections of the book as we bear witness to his hard drinking, drugging, and partying ways. These magical writing sessions transpired as powerful joints and glasses of strong, red wine were passed around. Touring life, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, though his age did little to slow him down in the resulting decades, was filled with drunken shenanigans, irresponsible behavior, and tightrope balancing acts. There are some great stories here: Robert Earl Keen getting left to deal with a shady venue promoter, Joe Ely being horrified at Clark smoking onstage in a strictly “No Smoking” venue, and Van Zandt and Clark ditching their opening act along onstage, forcing him to play longer while the duo went off to find more booze.
In later years, various health ailments nearly ground Clark’s tours to a halt. Saviano witnessed much of this firsthand as she traveled along with Clark and Thompson in a large black Cadillac, circumnavigating the south while attempting to keep him comfortably focused. This section of the book is filled with natural warmth and grace as Saviano keeps up Clark’s touring pace at his insistence, even though her better instincts tell her it would be wise to pull back. She writes of kissing Clark on the cheek and wondering if it may be the last time she sees him. At another point, recalls a devastating scene following one of Clark’s last performances in Nashville in which a woman cries out loud, “This is his last show. I know this is his last show.”
Of course, Clark kept moving along little by little and piece by piece. The last few chapters revolve around Saviano’s furious attempts to complete the recordings for This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, the Grammy-winning All-Star collaborative album of Clark covers. Then, Clark himself received a long-overdue Grammy statue in 2014 for his final studio album, the Susanna-indebted My Favorite Picture of You.
The book ends sadly with an epilogue focusing on the events and aftermath of Clark’s death. Though extremely sad, Saviano was there to capture the grief, reflection, and ultimate tribute that poured forth from Clark’s countless circle of friends, family, and mentees. There’s a lovely recounting of the final two impromptu “guitar pulls” held in his honor. As the book ends, there’s no doubt that Guy Clark was truly a historic figure in the musical landscape and a beloved man, as well.