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Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark

By Tamara Saviano

Texas A&M University Press, 416 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Fred Smith, March 2017

Find it on Amazon
Guy Clark. The name conjures any matter of images: songwriter, hellcat, luthier, soul mate, story-teller, music icon.

Clark's life and work cry out for an appreciation, if not an organization. Clark died in 2016, and his life was messy business, but never wavering from his singular focus to tell stories through music and lyrics. No one doubts his talents as a songwriter, spanning the length and breadth of country music and Americana for nearly 40 years. But, as Clark would have been the first to admit, the career path was neither straight, nor narrow.

Tamara Saviano has written a book, which captures some of Clark's lightning in her prose bottle. "Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark" is foremost an appreciation of the songwriter and a glancing insight into the man. Saviano came to Clark first as a music industry writer, and the book is part publicist's fever dream and part a look at Clark's origins, and their impact on his work.

Saviano admirably goes back to Clark's roots in Texas. Clark was the product of a comfortable, if ever-changing, middle class life (Clark's father, who died young was a lawyer with a practice in Rockport, Texas, on the South Texas coast). Clark's childhood was dominated by strong women, but also influenced by a fellow named Jack Prigg, a larger than life figure who kept company with Clark's grandmother.

Clark adopted some of Prigg's world-view, and swagger, resulting in a hunger to get away from Texas to play music and write songs. He never divorced himself from his Texas roots, often returning, but Clark spent his most productive songwriting years in Nashville, with periodic detours to Los Angeles.

Saviano nicely documents Clark's upbringing, relying not only on Clark's own recollections but those of his surviving siblings. Clark's time in Nashville grows progressively less granular in its retelling. This may be due to Clark's lifestyle (lots of booze and weed), or it may be due to his desire to sand down some of the sharp edges of his relationships in the music business. The book was completed before Clark's death, but released after it. A postmortem recounting of some of Clark's adventures might have revealed more.

One thing that Saviano makes crystal-clear is the unbreakable bond between Clark and his running mate Townes Van Zandt, Clark's songwriting equal. Van Zandt liked to indulge and carried the weight of documented mental challenges. He was a constant in the life of Clark and his wife Susanne (who herself bore the scars of her own sister's suicide). The three, in Saviano's telling, were a perpetual motion machine of writing, carrying on and, at times, destructive rumination. It's telling that the back cover Saviano's book shows a photo-shoot candid where Townes is front and center and Guy and Susanne are off to the side, looking on with bemusement.

Perhaps Saviano sensed that getting into the who-struck-John details of Guy Clark's carryings-on would detract from an appreciation of his songwriting craft. There's no doubt, in Saviano's telling and by the sheer output and longevity of his work, that Clark was a serious literary figure, whose chose medium was country and Americana songs. But, by all accounts, including Savano's, his strongest writing came in the early days of his career. Later, as Saviano delicately puts it, Clark was more keen on co-writing, serving as a mentor, pack leader or object lesson to many who came to his home to work out songs and to hear his stories.

The perspective of the tale ought not diminish Clark's accomplishments: he wrote some of the finest Americana songs of a generation, like "Dublin Blues," "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train," "L.A. Freeway" (from which the title of the book is drawn) and "Randall Knife." Clark fought to have his voice heard over the homogenizing influence of 1970s country music and contributed to the establishment and perpetuation of the Americana music genre. He inspired countless contemporary songwriters in acts and sometime (mis)deeds. Clark's was an American story, well and fully lived.