Last week I was lucky enough to go to a Lyle Lovett concert. It was amazing.
It also felt a bit empty because Lyle used to tour with Guy Clark, who was my favourite singer-songwriter of all time. The last time I saw Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark was sitting next to him. Now Guy Clark is gone – he died last year. And as Lyle said at his concert, this world is a different place without Guy Clark in it. Being a prairie girl, Guy Clark spoke straight to my heart. He was a damaged soul but he found a way to turn that pain into poetry, and that poetry into song. His words, his music and his gravelly voice – rich with whiskey and cigarette smoke – shot poetry straight into my veins.
The first song of his I ever heard was “Comes from the Heart” played by a friend around a campfire in Quebec on an early autumn night, the type of night when it is still warm enough for a midnight swim. The words mingled with the smoke – “there is one thing that my momma told me – it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work, there is one thing that my daddy told me – you gotta know when to hold on and just when to let go.” And the chorus – so cliché it’s probably written as an inspiration on the cover of a blank journal book, but in Guy’s voice, it became beautiful and meaningful – “you’ve to sing like you don’t need the money, you‘ve got to dance like nobody’s watching and you’ve got to love, love, love like you’ll never get hurt.”
I clung to those words in times when life felt challenging. I loved like I’d never get hurt, danced like nobody was watching and worked like I didn’t need the money, even though I always needed the money. Guy’s gravelly voice carried me through some sad times, and through some good times. His songs play like the soundtrack to different times in my life.
After the night by the campfire, I ran out and bought Guy’s cd and went to see him the next summer at the Vancouver Island Music Folk Festival. I was astounded to discover this big tall 60-something Texan singing a duet he usually sang with Emmy Lou Harris, with such sweet words he’d written for his wife Susanna – “I don’t love you much do I, just more than anything else in this whole world. I don’t love you much, do I? You can feel it all the way across the room. Well, I don’t love you much, do I? Like spring doesn’t make the flowers bloom” He smoked through the whole concert – putting his lit cigarette in the frets of his guitar when he needed to sing.
Guy Clark knew and spoke to the pain and the beauty of the world. He wrote Boats to Build, a song that speaks of moving through the fear of change because you know it’s time. This song carried me in my move from small town to big city. The refrain, “it’s time for a change, I’ve got boats to build, I’ve got seas to sail, I’ve got charts to mend, I’m going to build me a boat with these two hands, let the chips fall where they may” also comforted me after a devastating break-up. It played on repeat for hours on end, night after night, and tested my friendship with my room-mate, who was not a prairie girl and did not love Country music. Our friendship survived both heartbreak and difference in music tastes, and years later, she was the maid of honour at my wedding.
Guy Clark took what ached in the world and found a way to heal it somehow with words and music. The wisdom of “mistakes are only horses in disguise so we could not ride them over if we tried” encouraged me after many a mistake. I was reminded that things would work out just the way they were supposed to. He gave us lightness with “there’s only two things that money can’t buy and that’s true love and home grown tomatoes” and pointed out the bittersweet state of the world with “if I can just get off of this LA Freeway without getting caught or killed.”
Guy is gone but what a gift he left – these songs that linger. I’m glad I got to see him play, at both the folk festival and the Lyle Lovett concert. I was fortunate to experience his wisdom, his gravelly voice and his sorrow-filled eyes. I’m sad I never took that trip to Texas that a friend and I had always planned, we wanted to wear cowboy hats, boots and maybe even big belt buckles, and see him in his element – a dark, smoke filled bar full of cowboys. Thank God he wrote – imagine what a loss it would’ve been if he hadn’t. I’m no Guy Clark, but I think it’s worth writing because maybe, just maybe, my words will make a difference for someone. Tonight, I’m grateful for all that Guy gave the world and happy to know that he’s gone to his rest. As Harry Chapin, another of my favourite song writers once said, ‘he’s good tired’, meaning the kind of tired you feel after you’ve done what you’re meant to do in this life. Guy Clark is missed but he is remembered, by Lyle Lovett and by every one of us that had his poetry shot straight into our veins. We all have a gift to give to this world, a passion and a perspective that only we can bring, as Guy did so well. What beauty will you leave in your wake?