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 #46 : Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) – Dolly Parton

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Deportee  (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)   –   Dolly Parton

The airplane caught fire over los gatos canyon
A fireball of lightning that shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio said they were just deportees

A song that was passed to me by fellow actor Kenneth Cranham when we were working together on the 1st of three shows we would make together in the space of two years in the late 80s.  He’d caught me listening to a cassette which came free with the NME that week containing what it called “New Country” – k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, Nanci Griffith.   Ken is a huge country fan, in fact he’s a huge music fan and we exchanged tapes for a while, although I had to work hard to find a song that he didn’t already know about (I eventually did ; Oleta Adams version of Everything Must Change – My Pop Life #20).  But mainly it was one-way traffic from the older guy to the younger fella – Elvis tapes, country, and more recently a songwriter’s selection from Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael – brilliant).

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Kenneth Cranham

The first C90 Ken gave me was called simply “Country”.  I was living in Archway Road with my girlfriend Rita Wolf at that point in late 1987.  I’d just shot “The Black & Blue Lamp” at the BBC, a satirical and savage lampoon of TV policemen which took particular aim at Dixon of Dock Green and was written by the slightly touched and rather brilliant Arthur Ellis, who was to crop up again later in my career.  Karl Johnson and Kenneth Cranham took me up to the BBC Canteen at North Acton where we bumped into Patrick Malahide, of their generation, a legend to me for his appearances in Minder as DS Chisholm.  “Hello Patrick” said Ken, “what are you doing here?”  Patrick looked morose : “Oh, just some television” he said without enthusiasm.  It was an early taste of cynicism for me, still young and fresh, in in my first decade in the business, still thrilled to be in the BBC Canteen and actually acting for a living.

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Deportee was written by Woody Guthrie in 1948 detailing the true story of a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, Fresno County California, which resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 28 of whom were Mexican migrant workers being taken back to Mexico.  The music was scored some ten years later by Martin Hoffman.  The song is a lament for the shoddy racist treatment of the foreigners, the deportees treated as outlaws and thieves by the American Press and public, named in the song as Juan, Rosalita, Jesus and Maria.

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Dolly Parton was born into a large family in Tennessee whom she describes as ‘dirt poor’, moved to Nashville the day after she graduated aged 18 and rose to become the most-decorated female country singer of all time.  She has always presented a healthy sense of self-parody (eg 2008 LP Backwoods Barbie) alongside her own songwriting talent.

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Elvis Presley wanted to sing her song “I Will Always Love You” but insisted on half of the publishing, as he (and manager Tom Parker) did with every song he covered.   Dolly refused and some years later Whitney Houston famously took the song to the top of the charts and into the film “The Bodyguard”.    Dolly Parton’s best selling pop-country single was, in fact, “9 to 5” which she wrote, followed by 1983’s duet with Kenny RogersIslands In The Stream” which was written by The Bee Gees.    The fact that she was at the peak of her popularity when she recorded “Deportee” in 1980 is a tribute to her humanity and her well-documented philanthropical side.   It appears on the soundtrack LP for the film ‘9 To 5′ which she also starred in with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and also on Dolly’s 1981 LP “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs“.

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Although the song has been covered by many artists, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Christy Moore and Bruce Springsteen, this is my favourite version – the haunting piano phrases, the emotional singing from Dolly herself, and the production, all make this a classic protest song, a classic country song,  quite simply a classic song.

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I’ll dedicate the song today to all those poor souls drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after attempting the crossing from North Africa to Italy.   Dangerous overcrowded boats run by people-traffickers take hundreds of people every single day, and thousands have drowned.    The news reports refer to them as refugees.  Migrants.  Child migrants.  Or, as I prefer to call them, people.

 

My Pop Life #6 : She Is His Only Need – Wynonna Judd

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She Is His Only Need  – Wynonna Judd

…he’d heard about something she wanted…

Late 80s, somewhere in Acton rehearsal rooms, fellow actor Kenneth Cranham gives me a C90 cassette he’d made up of his favourite country songs.  He’d caught me listening to Dwight Yoakum and Lyle Lovett on an NME “New Country” giveaway cassette and asked if I knew Nanci Griffith ? Patti Loveless? The Judds ?  This was the 3rd job I’d done with Ken in a short space of time, and we’d become a gang, and subsequently he’d turned me onto so much great music, mainly country. He is an addictive aficionado like me.  I loved The Judds on first listen.  A mother and daughter team, strong clean harmonies on beautiful songs like Drops Of Water or Why Not Me ?  But this is the daughter Wynonna going solo in 1992 – the year we got married – with a Dave Loggins song.  Her mother Naomi had been diagnosed with Hepatitus C, and retired.  It’s a special song, a typical country vignette of a two lives intertwined in two verses and a chorus – a simple story of love and family.  It touches me deeply : there’s a moment in the second verse which goes from her first pregnancy to old age in a few graceful lines – brilliant lyrics can do this :

Bonnie worked until she couldn’t tie her apron
Then stayed at home and had the first of two children
And my, how the time did fly
The babies grew up and moved away
Left ’em sitting on the front porch rocking
And Billy watching Bonnie’s hair turn gray

but really you have to hear the melody to get the emotional heft of those few lines.  The chorus is the thing though :

He’d heard about something she wanted – and it just had to be found.

This has become a catchphrase for Jenny and I, we use it as a joke, as a tactic, as a sincere explanation. It’s woven into our relationship just like this song.  Sometimes the little things are the things.  It’s a song about love.