Very few music biographies or music memoirs tell compelling stories in a spellbinding way. Most of these books flit fitfully across our view, scattering ephemeral bits in their wake, and leaving few memories of the lives and art of the artists.
Then along comes a music biography—well, it’s part memoir and part biography—that mesmerizes us with its riveting storytelling and that captivates us by allowing us glimpses of the life of an artist whose songs shaped and gave birth to what has come to be called Americana music. The two reasons that Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark (Texas A&M University Press) capture our heart are the exquisite but down-to-the-bone writing of Tamara Saviano, Clark's good friend and former publicist who produced, with Shawn Camp, the 2012 Americana Album of the Year, This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, and the absorbing story of Guy Clark, Americana music’s poet laureate.
When Guy Clark died earlier this year, the music world felt his loss sharply and deeply. The man who wrote songs such “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “Dublin Blues,” “Randall Knife,” and L.A. Freeway” quietly spun words into gold — a musical alchemist whose influence reaches far and wide — and who was a content building one of his guitars as he was writing a song, although the writing didn’t always come easy. Clark resisted easy definition; he would never quite fit Nashville’s image of a country singer, yet he wasn’t the outlaw that moved through Jessi’s — or in his case, Susanna’s — dream. A stoic, West Texas guy, as Saviano calls him, he mostly went his own way, forming around him a coterie of younger singer songwriters who held on his every word. “I’m no outlaw or outcast,” he once said. “I don’t appeal to pop or country in particular but I don’t feel alienated by either and I’m influenced by both. The so-called ‘outlaws’ is a term invented by people who had to have something to call them … If they had coined the term ‘outlaw’ 15 years ago, then George Jones would be an outlaw. I’m sure that in ten years or so, Willie, Waylon, Townes, and me will be middle of the road and some young kinds will be doing acid-country or whatever.” Clark was always prescient, and never pulled punches.
Drawing deeply on interviews with Clark and on meticulous research, Saviano transfixes us by eloquently weaving Clark’s own words around threads of narrative to craft a colorful blanket that both covers the enduring qualities of Clark’s life and work and reveals little-known aspects of the man. The opening scene of her story is alone worth the price of admission: “Guy Clark and Susanna Talley eased into Nashville on a rainy November night in 1971. Guy had driven his rusted junker of a Volkswagen bus from Houston to Los Angeles back to Houston and now to Tennessee. It was loaded with everything they owned: a few clothes and dishes, a guitar, Susanna’s paintings, and all the tools and parts needed to fix the damn thing if it broke down in the desert. For once there was a little money in Guy’s wallet. He had just signed his first publishing deal as a songwriter. The beat-up leather also held a scrap from a burger sack with a partial lyric that read: ‘If I could just get off this L.A. Freeway without getting killed or caught’.”
Saviano goes on to describe Clark’s impact, which she illustrates in colorful story after colorful story throughout the book: “No one could predict then how Guy and Susanna would transform the lives of songwriters, singers, and artists, weaving threads in a tapestry that would grow in size and strength, an influence that would blanket all of American roots music, stretching to Texas and beyond. No one then realized that they would leave an indelible mark on generations to come.”
Rosanne Cash even now tells at her concerts this story of Clark’s influence on her, which Saviano shares in the book: “I had just written ‘Seven Year Ache’ and we were sitting at the table in our house, and I started playing it. I really wanted Guy to hear it, but I was too afraid to actually turn to Guy and say, ‘Do you want to hear my new song?’ So I started playing it, and Guy whipped his head around and said, ‘What’s that?’ I told him it was a new song I wrote called ‘Seven Year Ache’. Guy gave me his approval, and it was the first time I got real approval from Guy for a song I wrote. I was just a puddle of joy. It meant so much to me.”
Without Getting Killed or Caught delivers an intimate, affectionate, sometimes sad, often hilarious, and vibrant chronicle of one of our most memorable artists; Saviano’s richly detailed prose and her vivid storytelling — along with Clark’s own lively words — create an unforgettable portrait of a songwriter whose own words live on in our hearts. It’s not too much to say that it may just be the best music book of the year.
Though Saviano is busy working on a film about Clark and doing a book tour--and she also put together a star-studded concert in August at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to celebrate Clark's life and music--we caught up by phone recently to chat about her new book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book?
Tamara Saviano: Well, it wasn’t even my idea. In 2008, when I was at SXSW, I went to lunch with Gary and Francine Hartman at the Chili Parlor in Austin. I’d always wanted to see the place that had inspired the lines in Guy’s song, “Dublin Blues.” Guy had told me not to drink the Mad Dog Margarita there because it tasted horrible. I was talking to Gary, who’s the director of the Center for Texas Music History, and he asked me if I’d like to write Guy’s bio. I loved the idea, but I thought, “Guy is not going to open up to me, and he’s going to tell the same old stories and not give me anything new.” I never gave up the idea of doing the book, though, so I called Guy’s manager, Keith Case—since I was a little scared to ask Guy himself—and asked if he would talk to Guy about this. Keith called me back ten minutes later and said, “Guy’s in.” I was a little surprised and didn’t really believe it, so I said, “I’ll go over and talk to Guy myself.” I told him that if we were going to do this that he’d have to bleed on the table for me and that he wouldn’t be able to read the book until it was published. When he agreed to this, I told him I’d come back in two weeks and we could start.
When did you do your first interview with him?
Sometime late in 2008. The very first question I asked him was about the turquoise ring he wears, and when he told me the story behind it, I thought, “okay; he’s really going to do this.” From that point on we became better friends than I thought was possible. I did a rash of initial interviews with him—I was there sometimes every other day—and then started doing research. We got delayed some in 2009 when Guy had some health problems, and then the next couple of years (2010-2011), I was working with Shawn Camp on the Guy Clark tribute album [This One’s for Him], so I didn’t actually put a word on the page until 2011.
Did you learn anything about Guy that changed your view of him?
I did see one incident that disappointed me in Guy, but it didn’t change my view of him. One day we were at the Red Dragon, a huge, warehouse-looking place with a great vibe. For some reason, Guy didn’t like what the sound engineer there was doing, and Guy verbally abused him; he was so mean to this young man. Verlon Thompson and I were sitting there with our mouths open. That surprised me, since Guy was usually a very sweet and gentle guy.
What would you describe as Guy’s greatest traits?
How diligent he was about his work. He took the business of writing songs seriously. If someone was going to come write with him, that writer had better have something ready and be ready to work.
What about Susanna? What do you think were her greatest traits?
The Susanna that I knew was already going downhill. The Susanna I got to know through my research, though, was a badass. She was their (Townes and Guy) muse, but she was her own woman. In my mind, I believe Susanna would have been better off if she had never returned to Guy after their separation.
What about Townes?
I never really got to know Townes, of course, since he died in 1997. I think Townes took some pressure off of Guy. Guy was this Stoic West Texas guy, and Susanna and Townes were very sensitive. What the Guy, Susanna, and Townes had in common, though, is that they put their art above everything else.
Were there other music biographies you used as a model for your book on Guy?
I read a lot of music bios looking for a model, but I don’t think I found one. My God, I don’t have any objectivity about Guy. (laughs) As a writer, I tried to get out of the way and let these folks tell their story. The books that have shaped my writing, though, include Alanna Nash’s Elvis and the Memphis Mafia; I love the way she writes, and she’s been a huge influence on me. Peter Guralnick is another influence; all of his books take you deep into the details of their subjects. I also read a lot of memoirs: Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty; that book was an amazing memoir; anything that Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell write; their memoirs were models of good writing. I’ve always been a writer; that’s how I think of myself; so, I love books about writing. Four that I think are especially good are William Zinsser’s Exatraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography; Carl Rollyson’s A Higher Form of Cannibalism?: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography; Stephen King’s On Writing; Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
What do you think readers will be surprised to learn about Guy?
They’ll be surprised by a lot, I think. He went deep into things he’d never talked about before. They may be surprised to find that he was a clean cut jock as a teenager since they know him as this pot-smoking musician. They might be surprised to learn about his time in San Francisco.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
His life as a songwriter and how it inspired other songwriters. His recording career and how he never fit the model. I really want to find people who aren’t hip to Guy and hip them to him. My friend is gone; I want to assure that his legacy lives on.