Last time I saw him, he looked pretty beat. He walked with a cane and joked that it was a “songwriting injury.” Afterwards, my wife and I chatted with Verlon Thompson, his phenomenal longtime guitar player, who told us about the immense load of health struggles Guy was going through. This was six years ago, I guess, here in Portland, and probably the last time he traveled that far for a gig.
The morning after the show, we attended a songwriting workshop he gave in the hotel where he played. He basically just sat there and did his songs. Vince Gill was standing in the back of the room, just another fan until Guy pointed him out. When it was done, I walked up to Guy and asked him to sign my guitar. He was a big man, had a white mustache at this time, and a permanent squint, and looked for all the world like the protagonist of his great song, “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.” Formidable is the word.
Whenever I saw Guy, I was always disappointed not to see more younger people there. Townes Van Zandt has become a hipster icon since his untimely death, but whenever one of his friends and peers – Guy, Joe Ely, Billy Joe Shaver – comes to town, it seems like most of the hipsters stay home, like they’d rather adore an icon whose death has preserved him in amber than to be faced with an actual old man with a song to sing, where they might have to sit in folding chairs alongside NPR guys in ponytails and old hippie mamas.
Not to sound bitter. Guy and Townes were best friends, but very different artists. If I had to be pat about it, I’d say that Townes was an impressionist and Guy was a realist, but then I could name a few songs where they reversed those roles. Or that Townes was a poet and Guy a masterful short-story author. When I think of Guy’s songs I think of clearly-drawn slices of life, bright and vivid, so real they break your heart. A song about being a kid and observing the first diesel engine train pass through Texas could easily be a routine type of country song – a “train song” – but Guy fills the tune with details and characters that succeed not only in bringing it to life as a realistic picture, but also give it a subtle mythological resonance: the passing of one age to another.
Now bein’ six years old
I had seen some trains before
so it’s hard to figure out
what I’m at the depot for.
Trains are big and black and smokin’,
steam screamin’ at the wheels.
Bigger than anything there is,
at least that’s the way she feels.
Trains are big and black and smokin’,
louder than July Four
but everybody’s actin’
like this might be somethin’ more
than just pickin’ up the mail
or the soldiers from the war.
This is somethin’ that even Old Man
Wileman never seen before.
And it’s late afternoon
on a hot Texas day.
Somethin’ strange is goin’ on
And we’s all in the way.
That’s one song, and if I kept going I’d be writing all day. Guy Clark was like some kind of combination of Mark Twain, Raymond Carver, Louis L’Amour and Jesse James. And a hell of a guitar player. His loss resonates as deeply as any other this year, through the halls of music and poetry.
And that old time feeling goes sneakin’ down the hall,
like an old gray cat in winter, keepin’ close to the wall.
And that old time feeling comes stumblin’ up the street,
like an old salesman kickin’ the papers from his feet
And that old time feeling draws circles around the block,
like old women with no children, holdin’ hands with the clock.
And that old time feeling falls on its face in the park,
like an old wino prayin’ he can make it till it’s dark.
And that old time feeling comes and goes in the rain,
like an old man with his checkers, dyin’ to find a game.
And that old time feeling plays for beer in bars,
like an old blues-time picker who don’t recall who you are.
And that old time feeling limps through the night on a crutch,
like an old soldier wonderin’ if he’s paid too much.
And that old time feeling rocks and spits and cries,
like an old lover rememberin’ the girl with the clear blue eyes.
And that, folks, is how it’s done. Rest easy, Maestro.