Well, Mr. Dylan won the Nobel prize for literature and lord knows he deserved it; if Dylan’s work ain’t poetry i dont know what is. The art of songwriting shouldn't be diminished by the fact that the words are to be put to music. If anything, words become more potent with the addition of rhythm and melody. Songwriting takes poetry off the library shelves and into campfire gatherings, smoke-filled bars, and sold out stadiums. It becomes something to make love to; sometimes even serving to drown out the sounds of love making.
For me, just like poetry, the best songwriting is one that turns the listener into the writer and the singer. The most memorable songs are the ones you imagine yourself singing. They touch some common ground which exists across all human hearts regardless of background, race, or sex. My favorite songwriters are the ones that have dug deep enough to find this common ground; the ones who have constructed mine-shafts reaching all the way down into their souls. Trouble is, with so much digging the terrain often turns into a wasteland. Good songwriting is a dangerous business.
One of Dylan’s favorite songwriters, and in my humble opinion no less deserving of the Nobel than Mr. Dylan, is the recently deceased country troubadour Guy Clark. Guy remained relatively unknown outside the country music scene and even some country music fans are more familiar with other artist’s covers of his songs that his own music. But just like no one sings Dylan like Dylan, no one sings Clark like Clark. Singer. Songwriter. Poet. Legend.
Guy Clark was singing some of the greatest songs ever written while Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson were grabbing all the headlines and filling out arenas. He belonged to the different rung of the so called ‘outlaw’ country musicians who were less cavalier swagger and bravado and more ‘real’; longing, despair, and shitloads of heartache, a bit like ‘desperados waiting for a train’. Their music had more in common with the raw honesty of the Mississippi bluesmen than the popular sound of Nashville. Among the other outstanding members of this ilk were Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and Steve Young.
Clark’s greatest hit was 1975’s L.A. Freeway which got covered by a host of other country musicians. It spoke of a yearning to leave the concrete of the city for some ‘dirtroad backstreet’. But in ‘Old Time Feeling’ he spoke eloquently of a more abstract yearning:
“And that old time feeling limps through the night on a crutch
like an old soldier wonderin' if he's paid too much
and that old time feeling rocks and spits and cries
like an old lover rememberin' the girl with the clear blue eyes
and that old time feeling goes sneakin' down the hall
like an old gray cat in winter, keepin' close to the wall”
In 1995 he displayed a bittersweet optimism in ‘The Cape’:
“Eight years old with a flour sack cape tied all around his neck
he climbed up on the garage, he's figurin' what the heck,
screwed his courage up so tight that the whole thing come unwound
he got a runnin' start and bless his heart, he's headed for the ground
Well, he's one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith
spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape”
Clark was also an accomplished luthier and frequently played his own guitars. For those unfamiliar with his music and background a great place to start is the 1976 documentary Heartworn Highways. Incidentally, this clip from the film makes for the most powerful cinema i have ever seen: https://youtu.be/K84dAXpgmHA
I could go on and on about Guy Clark and how half the people singing country today wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for him. Truth is, you best discover him for yourself.
In 2013, a year after losing his wife Susanna to cancer, Clark wrote her a song- My Favorite Picture of You. The song makes me cry every time i hear it and contains this lyric:
“My favorite picture of you
is the one where
your wings are showing”
For someone who doesn’t play any musical instrument my relationship with music has been fairly stable and long lived. Starting with the LP records that my father played on an old turntable, to the cassette tapes that most of my school pocket money was spent on, to CD’s that one thought would last forever, and now to mp3/flac files on my computer. There was a brief period (three days actually) when i ran away from high school to pursue a life in music. However, like most dreams, it ran into common sense, parents and older brothers. I am fond of various types of music and can listen to a record continuously for months (and sometimes never listen to it again). It still is amazing to discover, enjoy, and share new sounds and voices from all over the world; a pleasure made easier by the all pervasive power of the internet. Harnessing this same power to get to the two or three people who are even vaguely interested in what i share is the reason behind this waste of bandwidth.