Guy Clark Biography -- Without Getting Killed or Caught

Without Getting Killed or Caught by Tamara Saviano is a biography of singer-songwriter Guy Clark that I just finished. I enjoy biographies.  I enjoy songwriting and love to learn about songwriters. So this book was a natural fit for me.  I bought it in hardback because the iBook was the same price and I can pass the hardcover on to someone else to read. After finishing the book, I decided to write a review, of sorts. 

I met Guy Clark briefly at the Kerrville Folk Festival back when George Bush was still President.  I don't recall the year; but I do recall stopping in for a Sunday evening of the three-week festival to catch the night's music as part of a longer road trip we took on the spur of the moment. I was a New Folk finalist in 1982 and had enjoyed a moment in the sun at Kerrville. I had gotten to rub elbows with some of the best Texas songwriters around including Gary P. Nunn, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Hal Ketchum, and others. I even met the legendary Townes Van Zandt, thanks to my friends Benny and Dana Garcia, who ran Canadian River Music and knew everybody. I don't recall Guy being on the bill during the years I was active in New Folk, which is a shame since he helped a couple of other up-and-coming writers from New Folk, like Lyle and Buddy Mondlock, get their start.  Who knows, I might have been "discovered."  

For those of use who cut our teeth on Desperados Waiting for a TrainL.A. Freeway, and other Guy Clark originals, it was a thrill to see him in person.  I introduced myself to him during the run-up to his concert and he seemed like a nice guy, no pun intended. When I talked with Vince Gill a couple of years ago, I learned that Guy was one of his heroes, as well.  So, when I saw the biography, I had to check it out. 

I enjoyed how Saviano told the origins of some of Clark's biggest hits. For example, "Texas 1947" was written about an actual experience Guy had of seeing one of the first diesel locomotives blaze through Monahans, Texas when he was a boy. I grew up by the railroad tracks and watched those same red and silver diesel trains go by right behind our house when I was a kid. Then, in 1975 I moved to Monahans for my first job out of school and lived in an old motel on old U.S. Highway 80.  I'd hear those trains rumbling through in the middle of the night on the tracks that paralleled the highway, never realizing that I was within a stone's throw from where the Guy Clark song originated. 

When bought a couple of 8-track tapes for my moving adventure to West Texas, I never knew that Jerry Jeff Walker's rendition of "Desperados …" was written about a character right there in Monahans who was Guy's grandmother's boyfriend.  It was no wonder the music I was listening to felt so close to home.  It was.  

So, the biography brought back some memories. It also caused me to remember dipping my toes into the Nashville scene, too. While it didn't take Guy Clark long to make an impression once he moved to Nashville, he had been playing cover songs and playing all over Texas and out in California for years before he got an invitation to go to Nashville.  It had taken a lot of time to build the relationships and to get the performing experience he needed for things to finally "click" for him.  That opened my eyes and made me realize how much it takes to reach that critical mass of being recognized in the music business. 

I guess the biggest surprise I got from reading Clark's biography was not any one thing I learned about him or the times in which he lived. It was more in my reaction to the book. I learned that he and many of the others in his circle were drinkers, pot smokers, and cocaine users. Apparently, the Nashville music scene was not much different than when my grandad knew Hank Williams here back in the late 40s and early 50s.  Maybe my parents' fears that, if I pursued music instead of a solid career, I would be derailed by drugs and alcohol weren't that unfounded.  I couldn't help but think that I would rather not have hung out with that crowd of songwriters if the peer pressure would have been to participate.  I know how people using drugs are suspicious of those around them who don't and I would not have fit in. 

I guess it is just the way I think now; but I found the book a little disappointing in one respect. It managed to tell Guy Clark's entire life story without making reference to any aspect of his spiritual life. The description of Guy's memorial services in Nashville and Santa Fe suggested both were wholly secular affairs; but that says nothing about Clark himself.  Maybe Guy was a Buddhist like Butch Hancock says he is now and that wouldn't have fit the theme and narrative of the book that Guy Clark was a Texan's Texan, beginning to end.  Maybe he was never really exposed to Christianity; but that is hard to believe of someone who grew up in the small towns of Monahans and Rockport.  Maybe he rejected Christianity, as many of the humanist-thinking hippies of the era did.  But, for me, omitting the mention of any spiritual aspect of the man was like an author of a book about Corvettes covering the car's body style variations over time, the various frame and wheel specifications, and et cetera; but never mentioning the engines. 

When the last page was turned, I knew the basics about Guy Clark -- his comings and goings, the times and places in which he developed into a legend. I learned a considerable amount about where his songs came from, and a little about his writing process; but I never felt like I knew the core of the man. I don't know if it was the author's lack of candor that she didn't share about his spiritual journey because it may have spoiled the image she wished us to walk away with, or if the author herself and the people she associates with in that world are all so secular that it never occurred to her to ask the questions. It just left me with a feeling the story was incomplete.