A Conversation With Tamara Saviano, Author of ‘Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark’

By Steven Brodsky
Congratulations on your new book, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark. It was years in the making. What surprised you most about the journey of getting the book written?
The biggest surprise to me is that I actually finished it. I didn’t believe I would until the day I turned it in to the publisher. If I hadn’t told so many people I was writing this book, I would have quit. It was a massive undertaking and I felt overwhelmed during the writing process.

You first heard a Guy Clark album, Old No. 1, when you were fourteen. How did that listening experience affect you?
It started my love affair with Texas songwriters and of Texas in general. I grew up in Wisconsin, in an industrial town where my family and most of my friends’ parents worked at factories. Guy made Texas sound romantic to me. “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” immediately became the theme song for my teenage angst. “She ain’t goin’ nowhere, she’s just leavin’.” Man. That’s what I wanted to do. Just leave.
Was exposure to Guy Clark’s records a factor in your choosing music journalism, production, and publicity as your profession?
Maybe. I loved music from an early age and I believe that music overall had a big hand in it. When I was a kid I wanted to write for Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Playboy.

Guy Clark supported the biography. He did not want a hagiography. You did not write one. Tell us about his support.
No one was more surprised than me that Guy agreed to my terms. I asked him to cooperate fully and introduce me to all his family, friends and colleagues and ask them to cooperate without Guy having approval on the final manuscript. When we started, I didn’t believe he’d give me anything but our first interview he told me about his girlfriend Bunny’s suicide and how he then married Bunny’s sister Susanna. He was not afraid to talk about the hard stuff and we talked about it over and over and over again.
Did Guy indicate discomfort about any of your research?
No. He was surprised at some of the things I discovered but seemed happy when I brought him new treasures that I found at his family’s home in Rockport or from research libraries.

You wrote: “Guy Clark was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve. He was taught from a young age to be stoic; to observe the West Texas credo,‘stand up and be a man.’ He learned one should put up a strong façade no matter what he is feeling inside.” Was this reflected in his responses to your interview questions?
No, and that was the most surprising thing about working on the book. Guy and I had intimate conversations. At first it threw me because that was not the Guy I knew. We started working on the book after he was diagnosed with lymphoma and I believe he was feeling mortal. He told me it was time to set the record straight.
You included some very tender diary entries of Susanna Clark, Guy’s wife. Tell us about those.
Guy handed me a box of Susanna’s journals after she died. I asked him if he had read them and he said no. I asked if he was sure he wanted me to have them and use them. He said: “Yes. I’m not out to rewrite the truth, Tamara.”

Was Guy jealous of Susanna’s love for Townes Van Zandt?
He may have been jealous at times but for the most part I believe he just accepted it as part of Susanna’s and Townes’s personalities and he loved them both. They annoyed him sometimes and he didn’t understand their collective sensitivities but he loved both of them more than he loved anyone else.

Were you always comfortable being privy to highly personal information about Guy, Susanna, and Townes?
No, I was often uncomfortable. I tried to comprehend it but never got to that place. I think about my own marriage and how tight my husband and I are…no one else is getting into our marriage, you know? Yet, Guy confessed that Townes took some of the pressure off of him to have to be the husband Susanna wanted. Guy’s stoicism was difficult for Susanna. And, of course, they all drank and took many drugs. I’m sure that shit didn’t make things any easier.

How difficult was it for you to decide what is appropriate to include in the book?
Difficult. A reviewer already called me out for not explicitly saying whether or not Townes and Susanna were involved sexually. I decided that the story is compelling enough without sensationalizing it. People can read between the lines. In the end, I just remembered that it was my book and my story to tell in the way I wanted to tell it. And I knew I was doing it with Guy’s full consent and that’s what mattered most to me.
Susannna famously served as muse for some Guy Clark songs. For those not familiar with Guy’s music, speak about one or two of those songs and how they came about.
Susanna was a muse for Guy, Townes and many others including Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. I came to the conclusion that half the writers in Nashville and Austin were in love with Susanna. Guy wrote about her often, the most recent being “My Favorite Picture of You,” the title track to his last album, which won a Grammy. Guy’s co-writer Gordy Sampson came to Guy’s house with the title and the minute Guy heard the title he turned around and pulled a Polaroid picture of Susanna from the wall and they wrote about that picture.
An early song Guy wrote about Susanna is “Coat From the Cold.” Guy stopped singing that song long ago because he said it was paternalistic and he couldn’t believe he actually wrote it. “The lady beside me is the one I have chosen to walk through my life like a coat from the cold.” Guy said: “What the fuck was I thinking? Like Susanna didn’t have any choice in the matter.”
A photo of a strikingly beautiful Susanna taken around 1957 appears in the book, courtesy of Guy. If the lyrics of “My Favorite Picture of You” are fully true to life, this photo wasn’t Guy’s favorite of Susanna. What photos (whether of Susanna or others) in the book are most significant to you?
I love the photo of Susanna in the yellow turtleneck and the debutante black and white photo the best. I think it’s because I’ve sort of romanticized the young Susanna. I try to imagine what she would have done had she not gotten involved with Guy and Townes. In some ways, I think they ruined her. Not that it wasn’t her choice, it was, but, she may have reached greater heights personally and professionally without them. Even with them, she was a successful songwriter and painter but I do believe Susanna’s love for these two men held her back. She jumped into a relationship with Guy when she was grieving her sister’s suicide. Maybe with a little time and distance before doing that, she would have made different choices. Of course, we’ll never know and that’s just me romanticizing what might have been.

Guy had the highest regard for quality of artistic expression. What instilled this in him?
His young life in Rockport, Texas was the start of it. Guy and his family read poetry around the kitchen table after dinner. He participated in poetry invitationals, read monologues, wrote essays and fell in love with the written word as a young man. As he matured he read beat poets and literature and dictionaries and thesauruses. Seriously, Guy would pick up the Dictionary of American Slang and just start reading from page one. When he went to Houston and met Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury, that inspired him to start writing songs and his quest to write, read and hear quality literature and songs stayed with him until the day he died. Guy is famous for saying to young songwriters “Do you want to be an artist or do you want to be a star?” He didn’t think there was anything wrong with wanting to be a star but it’s a different approach. Artists are not willing to compromise in the way stars have to compromise with their material and their images.
Guy was very helpful to other songwriters. Cite an example of this that appears in your book.
Lyle Lovett is probably the most famous example. Someone slipped Guy a demo tape of Lyle’s and Guy copied that tape and handed it out to everyone he knew in Nashville. And he had never met Lyle. He thought it was that good and that someone needed to pay attention and give Lyle a publishing and record deal. And that’s exactly what happened. Guy gave Tony Brown at MCA the tape and Tony signed Lyle.
What song written or co-written by Guy, was Guy most proud of?
Guy’s favorite song he ever wrote was “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” He said it just came out easily and he loves the message of it.
Of his songs covered by others, which were his favorites?
Slim Pickens’s spoken word version of “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was Guy’s favorite cover of one of his songs. He also loved Terri Hendrix’s cover of “The Dark.” Those are two that stuck with him.

Which song most meaningfully reflects the person you came to know as a result of writing Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark?
“Stuff That Works.” It fits Guy perfectly.
Posted Oct. 12, 2016

Posted in Uncategorized and tagged .