BIOGRAPHY / MUSIC
Texas A&M University Press
Hardcover, 978-1-62349-454-4, 406 pages, $29.95
In the pantheon of Texas musicians, in particular the singer-songwriters, perhaps none is more revered—truly—than Guy Clark. His death last May from assorted illnesses exacerbated by the hard life of his career choice could be considered a bookend to the progressive, maverick era in Austin and Nashville that he helped ignite in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Those days, that spirit, are now all but impossible to locate without an eye-roll or vague mumble.
Thus the welcome arrival of a fascinating and detailed recounting of that time by music industry insider and Clark friend Tamara Saviano. Sadly, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark also is a reminder of a recurrent theme in too many musicians’ lives. To properly tell Clark’s story, each chapter inescapably bears witness to the growing toll of physical and emotional depredations wreaked by smoking, alcohol, and drugs. All were contributing factors in the demise and deaths of Guy (2016), his much-admired wife, the artist and songwriter Susanna Talley Clark (2012), whose wit and insight include awareness of the macho white male-dominant cliques in which they traveled, and their best friend through thick and thin, legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt (1997).
As with most biographies, this follows a standard chronology, so much so that it often resembles a heavily annotated timeline without narrative binding. It can feel rushed into print, probably in an understandable effort to closely follow Clark’s passing. But what the account may lack in literary finesse is more than redeemed through its impressive compilation of pretty much everything you might want to know about Clark, his career, and his wide circle of friends and admirers. The journey ranges from the rough and ribald days of his West Texas grandparents to his birth in Monahans, boyhood on the Texas coast and finally to his quirky last wish that his ashes be turned into a sculpture by artist friend Terry Allen.
Saviano’s authority is revealed through extended use of insider recaps, interviews, and memories. Decades of performances, awards, travels, personal crises, cross-country relocations, record company battles, and works are captured, considered, and all but footnoted. Even small details are illuminative. I finally learned who “Skinny Dennis” was in “L.A. Freeway,” and how and why Van Zandt, a staunch lyrical purist, disapproved of the use of a refrain in “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” These were truly brilliant and dedicated artists.
The author’s editorial tenure with Country Music magazine and her award-winning career as music producer and publicist, including work for Clark, provided her access that might have been difficult or denied to other writers. Saviano “loved” Clark, and had been collecting interviews and notes about him for years, at one point planning them for use in a different book. As might be expected, her voice is almost poignant with adoration. She makes scant critical assessment, but doesn’t need to. The facts speak plainly and critically enough for themselves.
One that didn’t was Guy’s oddly boastful account that he was excused from the draft in 1964 because an unknown Army doctor decided the strapping, handsome twenty-year-old was too “smart” for induction. Guy claimed that the Army doc overruled an okay-to-serve authorization from the Clark family physician, explaining, of Guy, “I don’t think he ought to be doing this.” This simply could not have happened in that way.
It may seem a minor point, except that Clark’s legacy is closely tied to the Vietnam Era and the counterculture it produced, especially in music. Had he been inducted, nothing that is in this book, not to say the book itself, likely would exist.
The issue is not whether Guy opposed the war, which he did, or even that he escaped service per se. The pertinence to those who did serve, and might themselves have been “smart,” is the truth of how it happened. I’d like to think Guy would have set the record straight if pressed.
There may be other quibbles or points of contention in a book so dependent on personal input from dozens of disparate sources, Austin to Nashville, LA to Santa Fe and beyond. Mostly that won’t matter to fans of Clark who admire his fierce dedication to artistic integrity and resistance to commercialism, at frequent costs to career and personal life.
By the time Clark passed, lifetime achievement awards and other accolades had blossomed, sometimes to his chagrin, and the full extent of his influence could better be traced. Willie, Dylan, Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle are but a few who respected and worked with him. Saviano also can be applauded for reaching into Clark’s earlier years for overdue props to Houston as incubator of Texas musical icons.
Saviano has patiently compiled a must-have addition to the library of any actual or amateur musicologist, and a compelling story of love, friendship, tragedy and cultural magic for the rest of us. Between the lines, it also suggests that we consider the toll, as well as the fruits, of the production of a commodity that to its true artisans, in its truest form, is worth more than life itself.
During the past two decades Tamara Saviano has established herself as a tireless advocate of American music and its artists. As the creative force behind Tamara Saviano Media, she is a Grammy and Americana award winning producer, a music business consultant, artist manager, publicist and author. Saviano has been curious about the lives of songwriters since she first discovered Guy Clark at the age of fourteen. As a writer and producer, she is deeply inspired by good storytelling. She is also a business woman and entrepreneur, directing a full service creative agency serving folk and Americana artists.