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 #149 : Little By Little – Dusty Springfield

Little By Little   –   Dusty Springfield

little by little by little by little

In 1985 I had established to my own satisfaction that I was an actor – I’d worked with Steven Berkoff in ‘West’ at the Donmar for five months in 1983, filmed it for Channel 4, done a whole series of ‘The Bill’ as P.C. Muswell, worked at the Royal Court, The Tricycle Theatre, Joint Stock and done some BBC Shakespeare.  But I was still harbouring musical fantasies, and still playing saxophone with a band I’d joined in 1980 called Birds Of Tin.  Most of the band lived on the Pullens Estate in Kennington, between Walworth Road and Kennington Park Road, SE17.  My links with this part of South London were manyfold – I also played football on Sunday mornings with a groups of geezers known as the Hoxton Pirates who also mainly lived there – although (with one or two exceptions) not the same people !  The link was Lewes probably, unwinding out to friends and relations of rabbit.  But I’ll save the Pirates for another post.

Birds Of Tin 1985

Early days – 1979/1980 – we had many many discussions about the name of the band, and initially, after rejecting The Deeply Ashamed (Pete Thomas suggestion) and Go Go Dieppe (I’ll claim that one) we settled on Parma Violets.  {I think that name has now been taken by another group.}   At some point I’d had a sax audition for Ranken’s Romeos aka The Operation, an outfit which contained Simon Korner AND his brother Joe but which was led by Andrew Ranken who’d been in the year above us in school and who was going out with Deborah Korner, Simon and Joe’s elder sister.  He would shortly join The Pogues as their drummer, but was lead singer in The Operation and Patrick Freyne was on drums.  I was nervous and a little underprepared.  In retrospect Andrew perhaps didn’t fancy my fashion-victim appearance and vibe I suspect, for he suggested without warm-up or pre-amble doing a song in the key of B.  It was a musical ambush.  I had never played a song in the key of B in my life – it’s not common, like E or A or G or D.   I know that’s no excuse by the way.

Emma Peters & I in Joe Korner’s flat, Glebe Estate, Peckham 1979

As I explained in My Pop Life #80 the saxophone is pitched 3 semitones above concert pitch (ie the piano) so sax players have to adjust 3 semitones down when the key gets called.  Thus my audition was in Ab.  A fucking flat.  I made an abysmal mess of an attempt and put the horn back into it’s velveteen lined case, tail firmly tucked between my legs.  The Operation carried on and now play as The Mysterious Wheels and a version of this band played at my wedding to Jenny (see My Pop Life #126) where I was on saxophone alongside Jem Finer from The Pogues and an extra fella called Chris because Andrew still didn’t think I had the chops (!)    Fair enough I probably didn’t.

Joe Korner on the keyboards, Tom Anthony on drums

But later that year – 1980 – after that miserable audition failure –  another band was formed : the aforementioned Parma Violets, to play mainly original material emanating from Joe Korner and old Rough Justice buddy Conrad Ryle.   For some reason Simon didn’t join Parma Violets.  But Patrick did, and Emma Peters on violin and vocals, and Joe’s mate Sam Watson, who was a friend of Leonie’s brother, on bass.  Leonie Rushforth was Simon’s girlfriend whom he’d met in Cambridge.   We used to rehearse at midnight in Mount Pleasant Studios off Gray’s Inn Road in a studio owned by Animal Magnet, a Cambridge band that Simon was also playing in.

Incestuous and vain, and many other last names.

This line-up : Joe, Conrad, Patrick, Emma, Sam and I – produced a demo tape in a studio in Guildford where’s Sam’s mate was doing a Music Degree and our five songs were part of his final year project.  Free to those who can afford it.  It was all of our first time in a studio and was really quite thrilling.  I double-tracked the saxophone on one song making a simple chord with myself.  The singular joy of harmony.  But in the end we weren’t that happy with the finished result.  Then Patrick left, then Conrad left and I took a sabbatical and went to Mexico in order to contract one of the major viral infections, Hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #31 or My Pop Life #24).  I came back and lay down for a few months.

Emma Peters on violin

We played two covers I recall – possibly more.  One was 300 lbs of Heavenly Joy by Howling Wolf, and the other was this song Little By Little by Dusty Springfield.   Emma loved this song.  People danced to it when we played it live.  It’s mid-period Dusty, 1966, so after those classic early singles I Only Wanna Be With You, Middle Of Nowhere and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself but before the pinnacle of Dusty In Memphis and Son Of A Preacher Man (1968).

Dusty was a cool cat.   She was deported with her band The Echoes from apartheid South Africa in 1964 for playing an integrated concert in Cape Town – despite a clause in her contract – one of the first artists to refuse to play for segregated audiences.  She introduced the British public to Tamla Motown in 1965 when she fronted the Motown Revue on Rediffusion Television, with live performances from Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Martha Reeves, a show produced by Vicki Wickham from Ready Steady Go and now our dear friend in New York (see My Pop Life #135).  Dusty found a beautiful Italian ‘schmaltzy song’ as she called it, at a singing festival in San Remo in ’65 (she reached the semi final) and her friends Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier Bell wrote English words and she recorded it.  It went to Number One in June 1966 as You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.  That autumn she had her own TV show called simply Dusty.

She is the greatest British female singer of my lifetime, and the most successful, certainly until Adele.  Her taste and her style were impeccable, and she graciously lived up to her billing as our greatest blue-eyed soul singer.  She also did backing vocals on friends’ LPs billed as Gladys Thong, notably Madeline Bell & Kiki Dee (both backing this single) and also Anne Murray and Elton John.    Little By Little was written by Bea Verdi and Buddy Kaye, who wrote several of her hits including Middle Of Nowhere.

I cannot remember if we continued to play Little By Little when the band reformed a little later as Birds Of Tin, but by then the new line-up had recorded a simply fantastic demo-tape in Joe’s flat with a drum machine called BoT.  It showcased the very best of his songwriting including one called It Never Rains :

Thursday night, General Election, Friday night, burns all the paintings

Sunday night, the separation, Tuesday’s gone in desperation…

It never rains…

I thought they were a great band and shortly after hearing that c90 cassette I rejoined.  I think it was now 1983.  Maybe I’d been doing The Bill or – more likely Moving Parts Theatre Company, who toured the land in a beat-up transit with self-written plays to politically educate the youth.  Hahaha – for another post I feel !!

Sam, Joe, Linsey, Emma

The new line-up had Tat on guitar (quiet, introspective, folk-oriented, but liked a laugh) instead of Conrad, and Tom Anthony on drums (amicable, rock-steady and played centre-half for The Hoxton Pirates on occasion) instead of Patrick.   Sam was the only one who hadn’t been at Priory – an essentially happy, friendly and easy-going fellow, he also played centre-half for Hoxton Pirates with Tom and played bass for Birds Of Tin.   Emma was a lovely clear singer and cracking violinist who went on to make LPs with The Clarke Sisters an Irish/folk outfit in the late 1990s. Then Linsey joined as a second vocalist around the same time as me, also playing percussion, lovely harmonies, and that became the classic Birds Of Tin combo.  We drifted towards the exotic sounds of Eastern Europe, did an instrumental called Smilkino Kolo which originated in Croatia I think (then called Yugoslavia of course), and another instrumental called Istanbul – could’ve been Turkish but it sounded Greek to me…

Me, Linsey on percussion, Tat on guitar

Emma did full spirited gypsy violin on these numbers and I made my sax sound like a battered didicoy trumpet.  We still played Joe’s songs, and some by Sam too – but with the same sax-and-violin attack.  There was a Madness influence if anything, maybe a sprinkle of Talking Heads and definitely hand-picked lucky dip World Music.  There was another song that I sourced from a Bollywood tape which Mumtaz and I had in our flat in Finsbury Park – can I remember the name, the film, the song – no!  but I wrote new lyrics inspired by William Blake and the new song was called Dangerous Garden.   That song really did swing.  I suspect it remains the only song I’ve ever written.

Linsey, Emma, Tat, Me

Musically we were a good band.  Good players and singers, good harmonies, tight rhythm section, good turnarounds and middle eights.  Interesting mid-80s crossover indie I suppose.  Pop music with flavour.  We never got a record deal anywhere.  We never had a manager, or any really decent contacts.  There was a kind of quiet refusal to wear any uniform or even matching vibes.  I – quite naturally – was happy to go onstage in full shalwa-kamiz of a soft blue colour, but Emma & Lins aside, the rest of the band balked at dressing up. Sam looked like Sting AND he played bass, and he used to wear pedal pushers and chinese slippers but Joe and Tat and Tom weren’t having a clothes-matching competition.  We did quite a few gigs too, a residency at The Four Aces in Dalston on Monday nights where the audience consisted of 3 rastas (“play more Russian music!“), some local SE17 events, some outdoor festivals and notably a support to The Men They Couldn’t Hang at the Corn Exchange in Brighton.

Sam Watson on the bass guitar

There were tensions in the band – it’s a band after all – and after Sam went out with Linsey for a large part of the middle period it all ended quite literally in tears and Sam subsequently listened to Elvis Costello‘s Man Out Of Time from Imperial Bedroom 20 times in a row in desolation one night.   Then a natural break came when I was offered Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman and I had to choose – acting, or music?

It’s a shame that no BoT songs survive on digital format – because I would include one here to showcase that moment in time.  But we have Dusty, and we have the treasure of these photos from IGA studios in 1985.  I always loved rehearsals and these pictures capture some of that joy – just making music together is a pleasure.   I distinctly remember walking around in that tartan suit that spring thinking “So – it’s tartan – what of it??” as people stared me down, but all photos of the garms in question have been in an attic box until now.  This set from Ian McIntyre, a whoosh into the past.  Who are those young kit cats ?