In Honor of Guy Clark, Singer, Songwriter, Storyteller: 1941 – 2016

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Texas Singer/Songwriter Guy Clark died yesterday, leaving an unfinished chapter–make that chapters, considering all the songs he didn’t get to write–in the anthology of story songs he has written so long and so well, from Texas to LA to Nashville. When I first heard “Desperados Waiting on a Train” back in the late ‘70s, I was pulled into the story of this relationship between a young boy and his friendship with a wildcat oil-well driller, what we called “oil-field trash” back then. The narrator grew up learning about life from this old man, everything from driving a car to playing dominoes, as well as how to talk to girls. I knew those same old guys and lived out this same story time and again, working with my father when I was a boy, and then when I went out to work in factories and on the powerlines, and even when I went to university to learn how to write and tell my own stories. I’ve always sat and listened to my own “Desperados.” Hopefully, one day I’ll be the desperado and pass something along to a younger generation as well:

“Desperados Waiting for the Train”

And I played the Red River Valley
And he’d sit in the kitchen and cry
Run his fingers through seventy years of livin’
And wonder, “Lord, has every well I’ve drilled gone dry?”
We was friends, me and this old man
Was like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

Well, he’s a drifter and a driller of oil wells
And an old school man of the world
He taught me how to drive his car when he was too drunk to
And he’d wink and give me money for the girls
And our lives was like some old western movie
Like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

From the time that I could walk, he’d take me with him
To a bar called the Green Frog Cafe
And there was old men with beer guts and dominoes
Lying ’bout their lives while they played
And I was just a kid, but they all called me “sidekick”
Was like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

And one day I looked up and he’s pushin’ eighty
And has brown tobacco stains all down his chin
Well, to me, he’s one of the heroes of this country
So why’s he all dressed up like them old men
Drinkin’ beer and playin’ Moon and Forty-two
Just like a desperado waitin’ for a train
Like a desperado waitin’ for a train

And then the day before he died I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen
And sang another verse to that old song
Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin’
We’re desperados waitin’ for a train
Was like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train

 

Listening to the NPR story on Guy Clark’s death yesterday, they played a bit of an interview from a few years ago, where he talked about moving from Los Angeles to Nashville to write songs. He was a part of that tradition that included Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. In Nashville, he described the scene as similar to Paris in the 1920s, when the Lost Generation gathered on the Left Bank to exploded the barriers of art, music, and literature. His songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Ricky Scaggs, and Brad Paisley. There he influenced, among others, songwriters like Lyle Lovett and Rodney Crowell, who adopted his bent for character driven stories told with strong voices.

“Dublin Blues”

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

[Chorus]
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 to 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

 

I’ve always loved the way Clark could capture voices so well. It’s something I strive for in my own writing. It’s the quality of the voices I hear in Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, in Raymond Carver and Tim O’Brien.

“LA Freeway”

Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.
Throw out them LA papers
And that moldy box of vanilla wafers.
Adios to all this concrete.
Gonna get me some dirt road back street

If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain’t bought bought bought

Here’s to you old skinny Dennis
Only one I think I will miss
I can hear that old bass singing
Sweet and low like a gift you’re bringing
Play it for me just one more time now
Got to give it all we can now
I believe everything your saying
Just keep on, keep on playing

If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain’t bought bought bought

And you put the pink card in the mailbox
Leave the key in the old front door lock
They will find it likely as not
I’m sure there’s something we have forgot
Oh Susanna, don’t you cry, babe
Love’s a gift that’s surely handmade
We’ve got something to believe in
Don’t you think it’s time we’re leaving

If I can just get off of this LA freeway
Without getting killed or caught
I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke
For some land that I ain’t bought bought bought.

Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.

 

 

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