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.

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My Pop Life #148 : Lost Highway – Hank Williams

Lost Highway   –   Hank Williams

I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
For a life of sin I have paid the cost
When I pass by all the people say
Just another guy on the lost highway

Late ’88 I’m driving down Highway 20 towards El Paso, Texas.  Apart from ordering food and gas I haven’t spoken to anyone for over three days,  I’m almost out of money, my credit card has started bouncing and it’ll be Christmas in 4 days.  I think it’s possibly the most all alone and lost I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m kind of happy in a self-pityingly dramatic kind of way.  O Me Misererum.  One of life’s natural wallowers in misery, (wallow, not wallflower) I was pretty vacant, alone, solo, half-empty and broke.  Mile after mile after mile of desert scrub, punctuated by dull dipping oil derricks and the odd bridge.  The lost highway.  Abilene.  I knew that from a Nanci Griffith song. Lone Star State of Mind, deep in the fart of Texas.   There was a kind of masochistic pointlessness to the drive which suited me perfectly.

I’d gone into Auto Driveaway in Washington D.C. on December 16th and got a car to deliver.  You give them a deposit of $200 and get five days to drive to say, Dallas.  If you drive like a wanker, which is not allowed but who’s checking, you can spend a day somewhere along the route and still deliver on time.  I drove like a wanker through Virginia and West Virginia and crashed out in a motel in Bristol, Eastern Tennessee on day 1, got to Nashville on Day 2 (noted previously in My Pop Life #83) spent all of Day 3 in Nashville bopping around, drove to Memphis on Day 4 and mooched around Graceland and Beale St, got ripped off by the Mack man to the tune of $350 which is most of what I had on me, then delivered the car to an address in Dallas on Day 5 after driving through Arkansas.  

Oh you want more on the Mack man?  The phrase has now gone out of use thanks to the computer age, but you might have heard of the Mack Daddy, also going out of use.  We heard about him the following spring when I returned to D.C. with my new girlfriend Jenny for an awards ceremony.  A barbecue at a Hubert’s yard, one fella had delighted us in spinning his rap on The MackMan.  He’s the man who you can’t trust.  He’s a good talker.  He’s on your side.  He can help you get what you want, what you need.  He’s your buddy.  Oh yeah, he’s good, real good.  Then he fucks off with your money.  That’s who the mac man is.  He’s a pimp.  He’s a hustler.  The Mack Man can spot a fool from 40 paces, and wandering on Beale St, Memphis, birth of the fucking blues, he’d seen me.  Would you walk away from a Fool and His Money ?   So that was that, on the road again, Memphis had come and gone and been really great by the way, love that city, and when I’d delivered the car, the grateful owner did the decent thing and driven me to the Autodriveaway office in downtown Dallas – thence to choose a new car.  I chose the red open top 2-seater Mercedes from 1967. Can’t remember why. Where’s that car going?  I asked. It doesn’t work like that she said, where are you going?  I looked at her, short and frumpy and bad-tempered.  Not a very American attitude. They are usually so friendly and generous and willing.  She was a cow.   I’m not going anywhere I said.   No plans.  No destination.  She looked at me like I’d tricked her.  I was supposed to have a destination. I just genuinely didn’t have one.   I’d lost my UK girlfriend Rita earlier in 1988, and although I was seeing someone in England it didn’t feel official at all.   I’d had a relationship in Washington D.C., which lasted until I left town at the beginning of rehearsals and mongrel shagger Paul had stepped into my shoes and my girlfriend’s bed.  So now I was licking wounds and driving WEST WHEREVER.  I was as alone and lost as I’ll ever be in all likelihood.  I didn’t say all that.  But I wasn’t lying.  No destination, no expectations.  So she gave me the Mercedes.  It was going to Phoenix, Arizona. Another five-day ride.

I figured Texas would be boring but I was still stultified and unprepared for just how   b  o  r  i  n  g Highway 20 was. I drove into El Paso on the afternoon of Day 3, found a hotel and then drove into Juarez across the bridge over the Rio Grande.  It was Mexico.  First time I’d been there since 1980 (see My Pop Life #31).  

The bridge was the border, but not really.   I had some proper Mexican food and crossed back into the USA and slept.   The following day I drove out towards New Mexico and crossed the actual border about 5 miles outside El Paso on Highway 10.   Passport, everything. The little red Merc was driving well, guzzling gas, and I had to choose gas stations where they didn’t have the new-fangled credit card machines that were electronically connected to the bank and the rest of the world.  I sought out the ones with a piece of grey tracing paper that got rubbed over your card leaving a blackish imprint which you had to sign. Then I could fill up, and make sure I bought provisions too.  The electronic machines refused the Access Card – I was over my limit. Oh well. Made me feel more like an outlaw.

The reality was dull and lonely of course.  The lonely road.  Actually the road in New Mexico is pretty special, one of the great drives I’ve been on.  Red baked earth, blue sky, adobe dwellings and building, grey tarmac.  Country music on the radio mainly.  Washington D.C. And the theatre company who’d stabbed me in the back dwindled further and further into the distance.   Ahead of me was nothing.  It was a strange glorious empty sad feeling.  The white lines, the rolling tyres, the sun treading across the sky, the minutes ticking past, the gas tank slowly emptying, the feelings of sorrow and freedom, the man alone driving into the future, the rolling stone, all alone and lost, as night falls once more, a few more miles, a few more and there’s a cheap motel, there’s a place to crash, a parking lot, a giant empty sky. But, being a romantic, I stubbed my eyes upon the wheeling spokeshave of the stars.

Alun Lewis wrote that last line – one of my Dad’s favourites. Nicked it for the first play I ever wrote “Drive Away The Darkness” which itself is a quote from a Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise‘. Irony as one imagines his wandering fingers brought a fair bit of Darkness into young girl’s lives over the years.

Tombstone, Arizona

On Day 5 I rolled into Phoenix after a brief look round Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard, resting place of the Clanton brothers, murdered by Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, Warren and Morgan and Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.  The so-called gunfight lasted around 20 seconds and established the Earp family as ascendant in this part of the West. They became the law, literally, which is to say that Wyatt Earp became sheriff.   Much of the history of the U.S.A. has this violent gangster-ised quality (as does the history of man in general I hasten to add) where the winners write the history and the “good guys” always win.  I had always wanted to write the true history of Tombstone, a kind of anti-history where the Clantons are the heroes who get murdered.  But that’s the kind of warped twerp I am – always running against the wind, swimming against the tide.  

Well, now the tide had dumped me in Phoenix, where the Reverend Diane had said I would have my turning point when I spoke with her in D.C.   And you know, when people predict things, sometimes they do come true.   Maybe particularly if you want them to.   I delivered the car and back at the office was told that I couldn’t take the next car to Los Angeles.  Why ?  Because it was Christmas Eve today, LA was only a one-day delivery, and the office was closed on Christmas Day. They couldn’t give me the car for an extra day !!   No no.  No. So where was I going ?   The same old question.  What you got?  I asked.  They had Portland, Oregon.  That was like driving into winter, but it was further West.  And way further North.  I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that car.  And this Brown Oldsmobile is going to Dallas, Texas.  Where I’d been five days earlier.  Turning point ?  Rising from the ashes ?  The definition of futility ?  Time to stop all of these rolling stone fantasies and go back home ?  Not quite.

Hank Williams was a major influence on country music in America despite dying at the young age of 29. Born with spina bifida, he used pain killers and alcohol all his life especially after an accident led to further pain. From Montgomery, Alabama, Hank (christened Hiram) learned guitar chords and turnarounds from black blues singer Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, a fact he acknowledged years later. He recorded his first hit Move It On Over in 1947 after slogging around the circuit for years, spending the war shipbuilding in Mobile, Alabama and singing for the sailors in the evenings.  The spinal injury and another fall had excused him from service but he was already an alcoholic. Roy Acuff, country music pioneer told him “You have a million-dollar talent son, but a ten cent brain.”  Move It On Over was a huge hit, and Hank Williams spent the next six years playing live and recording his 31 singles before dying on a car journey between gigs in 1952. 

Lost Highway was written by Leon Payne, a blind country singer, and its combination of doomed romantic drifter schtick and self-mythologising misogyny was perfect for Williams.  It was also perfect for my self-pitying road trip, a man searching for his soul, for himself, a man who had never been single in his adult life but was trying it on for size and frankly, hating it.  Little did I know (or did I?) that the most important relationship of my entire life was literally days away.  

Hank Williams Sr sings to Hank Williams Jr

Lost Highway was a minor hit for Williams but remains a major song.   Dylan and Joan Baez sing it in Don’t Look Back the famous Pennebaker documentary from 1965.  It remains the anthem for the single man.  

Lost Highway is also a fantastic book by that greatest of music writers Peter Guralnick, author of Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love the two-part Elvis Presley biography, as well as books about soul music, blues, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. Lost Highway is a personal review of the history of American music, featuring Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef.   It’s absolutely brilliant.  

I started driving back to Dallas on Christmas Day 1988.