Randall Knives, Desperados & Homegrown Tomatoes
By Holly Gleason
“If I can just get off this L.A. Freeway, without getting killed or caught...”
— Guy Clark, 1975
It’s 6:42 in the morning, and traffic ain’t moving. There’s no notion of how far this snake of pick-ups, sedans, mini vans twists and lays there, but nothing’s happening. I can’t help but hum “L.A, Freeway” to myself, tapping the steering wheel to keep time.
It’s too early to call anybody but my friend Kenny Chesney, and we’d hung up 25 minutes earlier. And that’s when I noticed the text.
“Guy passed this morning.” From a dear old friend who knows.
I couldn’t pull over, trapped in the ice block of cars. The road rushed up. The tears just started. Guy Clark, the troubadour poet, the regal Texan, the strong heart, the wild to the core, the rogue, the romantic, the man who dumped so many boys for me. Suddenly, that granite countenance and the sweep of movie-star hair is no more.
Guy Clark. Uncle Guy. The at times ornery, perfectionist, breathtaking son of a lawyer who was born into West Texas dust and came of age on the coast of Texas. Visual in extremes, he painted, drew, worked on instruments; but music was his real canvas, and he’d honed his craft at the Sand Mountain Coffeehouse, where he found and forged a lifelong friendship with fellow songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
Life was basted into his songs, just as turning an honest living as a luthier in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Madonna & Child, ca. 1969” and the seminal “L.A. Freeway” reflect that time with pathos and honest emotional calibration.
But by the time I crossed paths with Clark, he’d strung a garland of life in songs that mattered: the freewheeling heartbreaker “Rita Ballou,” the look back at the grandpa figure “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” the sweet “That Old Time Feeling,” the robust innocence of “Homegrown Tomatoes,” the true compassion of “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (She’s Just Leaving)” and the chilling homage to his father “The Randall Knife.” If he wasn’t a household name, Guy Clark was a litmus test to show whether you knew what was going on when it came to writer/artists who delve the depths and dark waters of desire, the small moment that captures everything and the simple pleasures.
He had a garret office in the very front of EMI Music Publishing. A lot of steep stairs to get there, a round window dumping light all over the plain wooden desk where he sat, where he took in the world slowly and deeply. Crisp white shirt, expensive boots, he looked ... perfect. And that shock of hair that fell across his brow, it made him rakish in an Irish poet way.
He had an album coming: “Old Friends.” His first in years, it was a lean acoustic collection that became the template for the more organic recording style that became his hallmark. His voice, which I described in Rolling Stone as “a mix of strength, musk and oak,” was as resonant when he spoke as when he sang. And he spoke thoughtfully, deeply, and laughed, head tossed back, with abandon.
His hands, and they were large, had fine fingers that held a mechanical pencil like it was bone china. The child of an attorney and a grandma who ran a 12-room motel, the highest levels of refinement were not lost on the 40-something-year-old. As I descended the pitched staircase in my knee high Tony Llamas, I felt a hand on the small of back – steadying me. Ever the gentlemen, he sensed my waver.
And so it began: a grand friendship with a countenance that seemed all wisdom, slightly aloof, powerfully grounded. Even when he was six sheets to the wind, he always had that bone structure, and that air that it was all to be expected and not considered.
In Dublin, Ireland, for a week of TV tapings, with a fiancé at the front end of being done, Guy swept me away to dinner – and then wouldn’t leave me in the pub where my beau was supposed to have met me. “You don’t know this land, and I won’t leave you here. He should’ve made it. It’s his loss if he comes and you’re not here.”
Turns out, he was at the bar – with a tour manager friend. I swallowed hard; Guy retired to the other side to watch. The obvious happened. I was biting my lip, swirling my finger through my lemon soda when Guy walked up, pulled out a bar stool and sat down. He didn’t ask, didn’t pry, started talking to me about Richard Ford, the novelist.
And as the night began to melt into tomorrow – the guitars out and being passed from Jimmie Dale Gilmore to Marty Stuart to Joe Ely and yes, Guy Clark – I knew I needed to check on my bad romance.
“Have a drink,” the legend urged, wincing at my lemon soda. “It’ll help.”
Somehow it seemed like a good idea. One drink, just to take the upset off. Thinking about what I wanted, I could see the terror of having to order a “Pink Lady” cross his face, cured by the instructions, “Tequila neat, no salt, lime juice if that’s all there is.”
When I came back, the drink was there. Only it wasn’t a shot, but a rocks glass. A mostly full rocks glass. Holding it up, I looked at him and scowled.
“Holly, you don’t have to drink it all,” he grinned, all wicked-child naughtiness. “But you don’t know when you’re gonna see the waitress again, so better this than not enough.”
We watched the sun come up. Every day in Dublin was rehearsals for “Sessions,” the TV show that merged British and Irish musicians with John Prine (who was chasing a wife who’d run off and was falling for a pretty Irish woman who is now his bride), Flaco Jimenez, the O’Kanes, Rosie Flores. And every night, we waited for that first sliver of light to trickle under the hotel’s doors, letting us know it was time to flee the lobby, to sleep for a few hours and dream on the stories that were told and the songs that were sung.
In Dublin, on Thanksgiving, at a giant table filled with Americans, the Irish tried to give us a traditional dinner. But the turkey was too dry, and the pumpkin pie was filled with stringy pulp. It didn’t matter; another guitar pull was fixing to happen – and Guy Clark crossed his lap with someone’s Martin guitar and played “Old Friends.”
If the song was co-written with Richard “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” Leigh, my eyes were green with jealousy. I wanted to have friends that long and true; I yearned to be one of the pretty Bohemians who populated Tavern on the Row, Close Quarters, Maude’s Courtyard – and later 12th + Porter and the Sunset Grille.
Like the little match girl, I wanted to strike all my matches and keep this moment alive forever. But it was not to be. Another airport, another country, another flight change. We all scattered to the wind like milkweed or dandelion silk, wondering and knowing we’d all be together again somewhere somehow.
When a big country festival in L.A. County booked some of the cred artists to look cool, I found myself in a Holiday Inn in the middle of nowhere, seated between Guy and Townes, laughing about art and drawing and Steve Earle, their mutual little buddy. Even Sawyer Brown, the original “Star Search” winners, were seated next to us, one of their chairs backing into Van Zandt’s. I wanted to throw myself between them “because they’re just not very good.” Guy thought it was hilarious, smoothed my hair down and assured me they were fine.
And that was Guy, always assuring me. The man who wrote with a scalpel, picked the guitar so clean and wrote with ammonia clarity was always the kind of uncle every girl needs: soothing when warranted, hardcore when necessary and always giving permission to be true to one’s heart.
He got really good at dumping boys for me, just giving them the dubious shady look and dispatching them. One night at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, I tore up the stairs, leaving my “date” below.
“Oh, you made it,” Guy said, surprised I’d not been there before the show.
“I, uhm, yeah,” I faltered. “Can you, uhm, do that thing you do for me?”
“That thing?” he echoed, as he laughed like a hay roll tumbling. “If you mean what I think, yes, get in the back of the line.”
The date was so thrilled, he was gladly waiting. Probably thinking he was going to have a wild night with Guy to tell of. When we finally were before him, Guy looked the poor fellow up and down as I made introductions. Then, as if he were ordering a plate of vegetables, he said, “Here’s how this is going to work …. She’s going to walk you outside …. Then Holly’s going to come back in here, and we are going to have a couple drinks and quite possibly talk about you.”
Smirking was probably not the appropriate response, but I felt it inside. Walking the now deposed almost boyfriend to the curb, him hissing and squalling, I shrugged. His protests of “That’s it?” were met with “Gosh, he’s my Uncle Guy and I’ve known him a long time – and if he doesn’t see it, well ...”
When I walked back in, he was shaking his head. “Holly, what were you thinking?” he admonished. Then just as quick, “Well then, let me get my guitar and we’ll go ...”
When I went to work at HITS, the trade magazine for those truly inside the music business, I’d asked the receptionist to put through any call from Guy Clark. When I was in with the publisher, the editor and managing editor, the page happened – and I sheepishly reached for the phone, knowing Guy was changing planes.
“Wait,” Dave Adelson barked. “Why is the Guy Clark ... calling you?”
“Because we’re friends – and he’s changing planes in Dallas, and wants to let me know about dinner.”
“Dinner? You and Guy Clark have dinner?”
“Yes. We do. We have. For years. Let me pick up.”
The three men, all hardened record-business minds, were slack-jawed.
Me, I was used to it. Guy Clark was the smartest man I ever had the pleasure to dine with, with the strongest sense of dignity but enough brio and bravado to go all the way to Brando or Bogart and never flinch. And he never left me hanging.
Once during the New Music Seminar, I took Rob Patterson, then the music editor of The Village Voice, to see Guy at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Guy had no idea we were coming, but Patterson was about to move to Texas – and this felt like a rite of passage. Armed with record company plastic, I was fearless ...
When Clark left the stage, he brushed right by on his way to the downstairs dressing room. “Good show,” I murmured to the shadow passing, and felt exacting fingers make a bracelet around my wrist. Following him into the stairwell, he wanted to know what I was doing there, and when I explained and asked if he’d come have a drink with the reporter to make the new record company publicist look good, he said, “Sure.”
He was good as his word, regaling my friend with tales of Austin and how Texas was, until closing time. And when we spilled into the night, he looked at his town car and said, “How are you two getting back to the city?”
“I don’t …. Well, Rob’s from here. We’ll figure it out.”
And when we arrived at his hotel, I wiggled out to say “good night.” With the trunk of that Lincoln Town Car popped up, the unthinkable happened: My good friend kissed me. It happens: long nights, lots of drinks, lines blur.
But this kiss? The world changed rotation. Gravity failed. My knees buckled.
“But the car needs to go into town ...”
“There are cars in the morning.”
“I can’t ...”
And then just as cool as anyone I’ve ever seen, he smiled. Jacket over his shoulder, he picked up the guitar and nodded. Even now, my stomach swims.
That’s how potent he is, or was. Guy had been sick for a long, long time. Lung cancer, pneumonia, this, that – and somehow, he always bounced back. Rugged, solid, unwavering: Cancer wasn’t going to stop him.
Like the kid in “The Cape,” Guy Clark was a superhero deep down. No life-devouring illness was going to kill him. Sure, there were scares – ambulance trips to the hospital, emergency technicians telling his compatriot Rodney Crowell to “say goodbye to your friend.” But those folks didn’t know Guy, didn’t understand how fierce his will to live was.
Always before too long, Clark – the man who made 13 near perfect albums, won a Grammy, was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame and painted exquisite pictures – would be charming the nurses, getting fussed over and rounding the corner to home. He had things to do, songs to write. Cancer? Get the cure, get on with living.
And live did he. Whether he was doing those legendary four-ways with good friends Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely and John Hiatt, or more acoustic gigs with Verlon Thompson and Shawn Camp, the elder Texan was always about making music, taking the songs to the people and showing up at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Merlefest or Nashville’s Belcourt Theater, where he recorded a live album in 2013.
Those legendary four-ways paid for wife Susanna’s medical care towards the end. Theirs was a fractious love, like roman candles – so hot, explosive, shooting, it could burn a lesser mortal. Together, they were Hemingway meets Zelda Fitzgerald, and they held the hip creative community of Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and beyond together for decades.
It was an amazing thing to watch, an even better thing to see. Just to be there, letting it unfold without special attention. To slide into a restaurant bar and see Guy in a corner ... To tuck into a pew, and see the dignity he gave his best friend Townes at the funeral ... To find a spot under a tree and watch him transfix a meadow with tales that embraced the hollowness of hook-ups in “Instant Coffee Blues,” the good ol’ boy honky-tonk of “She’s Crazy For Leaving” or the elegiac toast “Hemingway’s Whiskey.”
Those are just some of the ways he lived. And loved. Songwriters of all stripes beat a path to the basement bunker of his house near the little strip mall by Belle Meade. An unassuming house, the magic came from the inhabitants – and the power of what was conjured in those walls.
When I finally came out as a songwriter – as “Lady Goodman,” the co-writer of Kenny Chesney’s No. 1 “Better as a Memory” – I balled up all my courage to see if he’d write with me. Knowing how hard “no” always was for him to say to me, I had the publisher ask. Guy pronounced it “the best idea you’ve had in a long time.”
Standing at the top of those stairs, I felt like the 20-year-old going to interview Clark for the first time. Never mind all the miles, meals, cities, moments, this was clearly out of my league – and who preys on the people they love? Worse, what if I truly couldn’t make it work?
“Well, come on, what’ve you got?” he asked after pouring us both coffee. I threw out an idea – one that stemmed from something he said to me that night in Hoboken – and he recoiled like I was presenting an angry rattler.
Rattled, I folded. We got through the painful few hours, then ascended and ate fried chicken at his kitchen table. Still, songs are meant to be finished. “Well, when are you coming back?” he asked.
And then, well, huh. We could relive the horror. Or I could – and did – when I returned, say, “How do you know when to kill a song?”
Again, the height of chivalry, he protested, you just never know. There was only one recourse, “Well, that’s fine. This is awful. Your name’s not going on it. Now what do we do?”
He laughed. “Got anything else?”
“Well, my original idea: ‘Greyhounds Are for Leaving.’ The notion hit me on 71 out of Cleveland, and you were the person I thought should write it.”
“Well, OK then.”
And that is how it happened. How I held the Randall Knife, listened to Dylan Thomas read his poetry on cassette tapes, looked at a guitar he was building, wrote one of the sweetest, most classic Guy Clark kind of songs there is – and you’ve never heard.
When I went back the third time, during CMA Awards Week, I was wearing “school clothes,” which added to my discomfort. I didn’t want to look all showy, and what I got was “You look very pretty.” He played me the plucky little song – a build-out on my dear “Rita Ballou” and the notion of the girl the boys all want, but can’t quite catch, with just enough morning after wash-out – it was perfect.
“Oh, wow, it’s a Guy Clark song!” I exclaimed like a teenager, tension rushing from my body.
“Well, now, Holly, no...” he responded. “All these lines are yours, and these, too – and these. And the melody is pretty simple, but it suits. So it really is our song.”
How many people he did that with, for, it’s hard to say. He loved young writers, young artists. He didn’t suffer fools, or lower his standards, but he always welcomed those who wanted to try – just as he welcomed whatever misadventure he could find. And he was unrepentant about those things, as well.
That was the best part: He never backed down from the man he was. Drink too much? He’d done it. Drugs? Of course. Reefer? Some of the best in town. Ironically none of it meant much of anything, especially not sitting next to the songs.
Toward the late middle of his career, he wrote “Dublin Blues,” about an unrequited love affair – a song that, while sad, showed how much of the world he had drunk in and savored. All those places he wished he could be, all those moments cast upon the Spanish Steps, Austin’s Chili Parlor Bar, made the world instantly more exotic and desirable.
Over the last couple of albums, it got even more personal and grew to fill even larger frame. “Somedays the Song Writes You” embraced the way creativity can turn us into the people we were meant to be, while “The Coat” considers that morning after wreckage without ever caving into (self) pity. Yes, “Magdalene” is a desperate man’s plea to the woman he loves, but “Heroes” offers compassion to the soldier returned and completely out of sorts with the world he was born of.
Like a coat, Clark’s songs fall close to the body and hold the warmth in. When my mother died, the last voice I heard in my head sitting at the hole in the ground was Clark’s, a line from “Let Him Roll.” Final. An epitaph. A benediction.
Sitting here in another truck stop, people milling about around me, I can’t find that song. Or that comfort. I can’t pick up the phone and call. Nor can I even think that this is an option. It’s disorienting to be in a world without Guy Clark, and yet, there’s nothing that can be done but pack up the computer, get back in the car and keep driving north.
It is not how I thought my Tuesday was going to go, nor is what I would’ve wanted. I tell myself after the years of chemo, pain, surgical procedures, Guy Clark is free. Up in heaven with Townes and Susanna, cutting up, telling stories and trying to write still better songs.