My Pop Life #177 : Don’t You Take It Too Bad – Guy Clark

Don’t You Take It Too Bad   –   Guy Clark

If you go searching for rhyme or for reason
Then you won’t have the time that it takes just for talkin’
about the places you’ve been babe ’bout the faces you’ve seen babe
and how soft the time flies past your window at night

When they read the names of those who passed in 2016, spare a thought for Guy Clark.   We mourn Bowie & Prince, Alan Rickman & Victoria Wood, Phife Dawg, Gary Shandling, Gene Wilder and Kenny Baker, Merle Haggard, Arnold Palmer and Robert Vaughn, Emerson & Lake, Leonard Cohen & Leon Russell,  Pierre Boulez and Sir George Martin, Fidel Castro & Muhammed Ali, all huge losses in what seems like the most life-shatteringly devastating era in all of our lives.  And in May a great country songwriter passed away, leaving behind a wonderful collection of songs and memories.  Guy Clark emerged from Texas in the early 1970s in that loosest band of cowboy-outlaw country singers who smoked weed and drank bourbon and wrote brilliant, finely-wrought songs : Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle,  Jerry Jeff Walker, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.

Guy Clark in 1971

I was passed this song in 1986 as I rehearsed a TV play in North Acton rehearsal rooms called The Black and Blue Lamp for the BBC.   It was a wicked and hilarious satire on screen coppers – from The Blue Lamp (1950) which spawned the cosy Dixon of Dock Green tv series through to The Bill and The Professionals, who beat people up onscreen.

Written by Arthur Ellis the actors in it were Karl Johnson, Sean Chapman (playing the Dirk Bogarde part), John Woodvine, Peter Lovstrom, Nick Stringer, Ian Brimble and Kenneth Cranham, who had made me a Country tape (see also My Pop Life #46 Deportee by Dolly Parton) containing this treasure and some hidden behind it.  We rehearsed in a large warehouse-like space with generous windows and the floor marked out with coloured tape to the exact dimensions of the TV studio where we would eventually film the screenplay.   I had already done a few BBC dramas and felt comfortable in there, in fact my first ever TV acting job rehearsed in that very room.  But before we rehearsed, we held a read-through, known as a table-read in the United States.  these are always slightly tense affairs, covered with bonhomie and smiles as everyone hears the word for the first time in the mouths of them that will say them.  And all departments are represented sitting around that giant table.  Make-up designers will come up afterwards wondering whether you should keep those sideburns or not.  And Wardrobe have taken a liking to your shirt and shoes, I always thought ‘because you’d chosen something that fitted and looked nice because it was the read-through !!’

North Acton BBC rehearsal rooms – mid 80s

Actor Nick Stringer was an Equity man, a Union man, to the degree that he ostentatiously opened the envelope containing his script in front of the producers and the BBC hierarchy at the read-through, just on the exact minute when he was supposed to start work, and when he would start to be paid.  The rest of us had quite naturally read it at home the night before.  Why draw attention to yourself in that aggressive way?    Anyway, the screenplay by  Arthur Ellis was funny and dark and clever, and involved the killer of PC Dixon and his arresting officer (Sean and Karl from 1950) being transported forward in time to a late 1980s TV Cop Show (Ken, John and me) to some culture shock and some pretty vicious interrogation methods, with a nice twist.  Not three years earlier I had filmed a whole series of The Bill as PC Muswell, the first openly racist copper on a British TV cop show (alongside first black copper PC Lyttleton played by Ronnie Cush) so I appreciated the joke.

Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt

The song Don’t You Take It Too Bad  is deceptively simple moving through F G and C, but not in a 12-bar blues shape.  It is a huge warm hug of a song, a plea to take your time and appreciate the passing of time and space rather than sit and wonder what is going wrong at every opportunity.  I need to hear it every now and again, for it calms me.   The introduction has already slowed you down with the lazy piano licks, slide guitar and weary harmonica leading us to that great arm around the shoulder of the first line.

Well don’t you take it too bad, if you’re feelin’ unlovin’
If you’re feelin’ unfeelin’   if you’re feelin’ alone
don’t you take it too bad cause it ain’t you to blame babe
Well it’s some kind of game made
out of all of this living that we’ve got left to do

This is immense songwriting, simple and plain, touching and strangely effortless, yet with a lived-in tone that must come from pain.  The writer, the troubled opaque genius Townes Van Zandt, also from Texas, was the hidden prize behind this song for me.   Guy Clark does a filled-out version of the song with extra instruments, Van Zandt’s original is simplicity itself, modelled on early Dylan and Hank Williams.

 The song appeared on Clark’s self-titled 3rd LP Guy Clark in 1978, and from that date on, he would include a Townes Van Zandt song on almost every album until he died earlier this year.

Townes had met Guy Clark in Houston in 1964 where Guy ran a guitar shop, drank, smoked weed and wrote songs,  and they would be close friends for the rest of their lives.   At Townes Van Zandt’s funeral in 1997 I think it is Guy Clark among the many musician mourners playing his songs as a final lament who remarks “I booked this gig 33 years ago” and the whole church chuckles at the darkness of the remark.   Anyone who met Townes knew that he wasn’t quite right.  Shall I count the ways ?  His sad noble face is marked with pain and doubt throughout the beautiful documentary Be Here and Love Me.

Townes Van Zandt and friends, 1970s

After a regular sporting teenage college life his first vice was glue.  After bouts of depression a doctor recommended insulin treatment (and perhaps electro-convulsive therapy which my mum was given in 1965) and which his parents agreed to, and later regretted.  After these treatments Townes lost most of his visual memory.  His Damascene conversion to music (as opposed to the army) was seeing Elvis perform on the Ed Sullivan show, but the army rejected him because of manic depression and ‘a poor adjustment to life’.  This was the pattern of his life.  Drink, heroin, depression, songwriting.  He spent most of the 70s and 80s living in a shack south of Nashville with no electricity or telephone.  His songs however were extraordinary.

Steve Earle famously said he was the finest songwriter alive “and he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and say that”.  Dylan himself sought out Townes and they played together in his trailer but none of this made any difference to the man.  In the moving and evocative documentary of his life and work made in 2005 by Margaret Brown, all three of his ex-wives speak of him with tenderness, while the children have varying degrees of scepticism about his addictive hobo personality as a cop-out choice rather than artistic bravery, whilst apparently knowing the words to all his songs.

All of this resonates deeply for me thanks to my mum’s schizophrenia and her uncanny ability to cut to the raw truth of a situation or person – if she could play a musical instrument I think she’d have been a profound songwriter.  But then again, like the honest account of Townes Van Zandt that caused that chuckle to ripple through his funeral, it can be extremely discomforting as well.  And the idea of living a pure heroic life dedicated to your art is naturally selfish and few attempt it without collateral emotional damage to their nearest and dearest.  I get it and maybe that is why the songs move me so much, both when Townes sings them, or when others cover them as Guy Clark and many others have done.  Perhaps his best-known song is Pancho & Lefty which was a hit in 1983 for Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard (who also passed on this year).   The sudden rush of income from this made no difference to Townes who performs a memorable acoustic version of it himself  in the 1975 outlaw documentary Heartworn Highways.  

Fifteen months before his death Townes Van Zandt played a benefit concert in the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville for the Interfaith Dental Clinic organised by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna.  They had fixed his tooth after he lost his gold tooth gambling in the backwoods.  It’s a long, funny story, and Townes tells the story between songs on the resulting concert album.  Together at the Bluebird Cafe, was finally released in 2001, four years after his death.  It features Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark, each playing a separate set but their lives and music are forever intertwined.  It is, like all of their music, a true find.

The end of the song has the elegiac 3rd verse as follows :

And we just can’t have that girl cause it’s a sad lonesome cold world
And a man needs a woman just to stand by his side
And whisper sweet words in his ears about daydreams
And roses and playthings
And the sweetness of springtime and the sound of the rain

Guy Clark sounds tired but comforted, and appropriately he has both a male and a female harmony alongside him to sweeten things with a sad harmonica, a fiddle and that bluesy piano.  Three verses, three instrumental breaks, no chorus.  I can’t think of another song with an arrangement like that, simple but original, like an old-time folk song about getting through life.   Gentle.  Considerate.  Empathetic.  A comfort every time I hear it.

My Pop Life #176 : Luck Be A Lady – Ian Charleson

Luck Be A Lady  –  Ian Charleson

They call you Lady Luck. but there is room for doubt. at times you have a very un-ladylike way of running out.

You’re on this date with me. the pickings have been lush. and yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush

You might forget your manners. you might refuse to stay.   And so the best that I can do is pray….

There are two extremely well-known versions of this song by two extremely famous people, but I choose them not.   Now read on dot dot dot.   This hard-to-find version was the one I sang at auditions in 1982 and 1983, an aspiring thespian with a paper-thin resumé and a hopeful willing heart.  I knew nothing, and very few people were explaining things.  Normal life in other words.   A keen, inexperienced, hungry young soul.  By which I mean that I really don’t feel as if I’ve been here before AT ALL, and thus all my wisdom – such as it is – has been hard-won this time around.   And I had very little aged 24, 25, 26.  Choose me !  I’d probably just about got my Equity Card via Moving Parts Theatre Company and done a cracking John Godber-directed production of A Clockwork Orange at Man In The Moon theatre in the King’s Road which secured me an agent.  Earlier that year my girlfriend Mumtaz and I had been to The National Theatre one night to see Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser musical based on Damon Runyon‘s slang-crackling low-life characters, wise guys & lippy girls, gamblers, hustlers, tough guys and dames.  It was a brilliant production, directed by Richard Eyre and a real eye-opener.  Starring Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit, Julia McKenzie as Adelaide, Ian Charleson as Sky Masterson, David Healy as Nicely Nicely and Julie Covington as Sister Sarah, and my old friend Jim Carter.  It is without exaggeration one of my best nights out in the theatre ever, and it had a profound effect on me, cementing my desire to be an actor, inspiring me to think song-and-dance, and causing me to realise, finally, that film actors and stage actors can crossover into each other’s arenas and triumph.  It was simply quite exhilarating.

So much so that – gasp – we bought the soundtrack LP in the foyer with these classic tunes on it : Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat, Adelaide’s Lament, Take Back Your Mink, If I Were A Bell, Sue Me and Luck Be  A Lady, the latter sung by Ian Charleson.

What a song.  The show was also my introduction (along with my Billie Holiday LP), to The Great American Songbook, a loose collection of jazz-pop songs usually written for stage musicals and films between 1920 and the early 50s, by the all-time great songwriters Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, George & Ira Gershwin and others. Songs like Summertime, The Way You Look Tonight (My Pop Life #162 ), Cheek To Cheek, Fly Me To The Moon, Bye Bye Blackbird, I Get A Kick Out Of You, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Pennies From Heaven, Someone to Watch Over Me and on and on, all covered by all the major singers of the time, and many more since then.

Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway in 1950, and was a massive hit.  A film adaptation followed in 1955 with Marlon Brando singing Luck Be A Lady poorly and wearing a shit-eating grin to compensate opposite Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah.  Below : the movie trailer fronted by Ed Sullivan reading an autocue with glimpses of the lead characters, including Vivian Blaine from the original Broadway production who UNUSUALLY got to play the same character in the movie (mainly because Marilyn Monroe wasn’t available).

Frank Sinatra played Nathan Detroit in the film but later he made Luck Be A Lady his own signature tune along with Come Fly With Me and Under My Skin.  His version is below too.  It’s brilliant, magnificent even, but it’s not the version that I used to sing at auditions.

My generation was one of the last who had to present a Shakespeare speech and sing a song to get a job.  Not at the same time.  But nearly.  Certainly to get a place at a drama school or work at one of the regional Repertory Theatres.   I think I used to do Richard the 2nd, but I can’t really remember.  I had secured an offer for the Drama Studio in Ealing early in 1982, but I couldn’t get a grant and couldn’t afford the fees.  I’d already had a grant from East Sussex to study for a Batchelor of Law at the LSE, so why should I get a post-grad one year change-of-career hand-out?  My generation were gilded by that grant system, and the accompanying soundtrack of punk, funk, reggae and disco.  But there I was – out the other side, changing horses, wasting my education.  What a rebel!    I was out there on my own, learning Shakespeare speeches and singing Luck Be A Lady along to Ian Charleson in our attic flat in Finsbury Park.  Buying the sheet music, making sure it was in the right key so I could give it to the pianist in the audition.  I guess musical auditions still operate like this – I haven’t done one for over 30 years.  But I’m sure the pianist usually knows the score.

The song has a dramatic opening, in common with many American Songbook pieces – Stardust for example (see My Pop Life #100) – a whole section in a different key which sets the song up.  This one really appealed to me.  You’re walking into a gambling salon in your finest threads talking to your dice.  I had no idea what those dice did – not blackjack which I had played with my Grandad, but ‘craps’ which still baffles me to this day.  On my Las Vegas trips I have always concentrated on roulette, and occasionally the other type of blackjack (the card game) but not dice.  But that didn’t put me off the song, where Sky is singing to Lady Luck, and imagining that she is an actual dame.  A hackneyed yet brilliant conceit :

A lady doesn’t wander all over the room and blow on some other guy’s dice 

*

Frank Loesser..

..had a classical upbringing in New York, but he broke away from his parents’ ambitions to wrote for Tin Pan Alley  – and he struggled for years before getting published. Probably his best known song is the peerless Baby, It’s Cold Outside which he used to sing with his wife Lynn Garland at supper club parties to end the evening, then irritated her by selling the song to MGM.  It won him a best song Oscar and was subsequently covered by every famous duet partnership you can think of, most brilliantly I think by Ray Charles & Betty Carter in 1960.   Loesser also wrote, among 700 others, Praise The Lord & Pass The Ammunition during the 2nd World War,  Let’s Get Lost, Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling and the lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People and Heart & Soul.

Weirdly, the musical Guys and Dolls cropped up again that year of 1982 on Elvis Costello‘s brilliant Imperial Bedroom sessions (see My Pop Life #124) in the exquisite song Heathen Town (which inexplicably ended up on a later B-side rather than on the album), where, instead of singing

and the devil won’t drag you under by the sharp lapels of your chequered coat – sit down sit down sit down sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat

which is from the Guys and Dolls musical, Elvis sings

cos the devil will drag you under by the sharp tailfin of your chequered cab – and I can’t sit down I’m going overboard in this heathen town

which is both a brilliant twist on the original lyric (Runyon’s sinners in the Sally Army praising the Lord) and a confession that New York City (the heathen town) is swallowing him alive and he’s loving it.    They used to call it Sin City now it’s gone way past that…  Honestly someone could do a phD thesis on Elvis Costello’s lyrical and musical quotations so rich and varied they are.   Don’t look at me !  I’m doing broad church brushstrokes, not digging down into one particular speciality.  Butterfly mind moves on.  Anyway, maybe Costello went to the NT show too, not so mysterious…

I never was in Guys and Dolls or any other big musical.  No no, please don’t pity me, it’s a whole other type of person who usually does that kind of thing.  I’m a camera actor.  Usually.  Bob Hoskins bless him was a collector’s item and showed me that it could be done.  It’s more usual in the USA for actors to sing and dance on camera and onstage (the triple threat) and even write and direct too.  They encourage it in fact.  In the UK we are encouraged to specialise, not to dilute the craft by trying to do it all.  The narrow approach.  The suspicious approach of anyone who steps outside of their box.

Bob Hoskins & Ian Charleson onstage in Guys & Dolls

Ian Charleson was a Scottish actor who trod the boards playing Shakespeare including Hamlet twice, before famously portraying Eric Liddell in Chariots Of Fire and Charlie Andrews in Gandhi in 1981 and 82.  Despite both films winning Oscars, he didn’t move to Lala Land but rather his next move was appearing onstage in the National Theatre’s production of Guys & Dolls as Sky Masterson and he got glowing reviews.  In 1986 he was diagnosed with AIDS and he died in 1990 aged 40.   I have heard better performances of this great Frank Loesser song than his, but not many.   Sinatra’s is better – it’s jazz.  But Brando’s isn’t, it’s just terrible, lacking drama, energy or feeling, so un-Brando.   Alex Harvey could’ve sung it.  Fee Waybill.  David Bowie.  Rufus Wainwright.  Or me, maybe.

Ian Charleson NY OST :

https://archive.org/details/luckBeALadyianCharlesonOntc

for contrast, Brando’s strange weak delicate take on it :