Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Stuff That Works" / Guy Clark

Well, here's an easy one.  You say "Texas" to me, and I think of Guy Clark. He burst like a rocket into my musical consciousness a few years ago, one night out on Long Island, as part of a singer-songwriters circle along with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and John Hiatt (how'd that Indiana boy get hooked up with all those Texans?).  Guy sang Stuff That Works that night; it absolutely blew me away.  How could it not?

Texas cliches are all about B-I-G -- big ranches, big Stetson hats, big belt buckles, big cars with longhorns mounted on the grille.  Well, Guy Clark is the antithesis of all that bigness and bluster.  His style is droll, understated -- a plain sort of push-back-your-hat-and-scratch-your-head honesty that undercuts everybody else's smartass sophistication. It's a country way of thinking, notched up by the traditions of folk music and outlaw country, but it also must be something in Clark's mellow temperament. This track can be found on his 1995 album Dublin Blues, but really, it's a theme that runs throughout his work.  In song after song -- "The Cape," "Homegrown Tomatoes," "Analog Girl," "Watermelon Dream," "Indian Head Penny" -- he drives us back to the simple and real things of this world.  And "Stuff That Works" is the essence of the Philosophy According to Guy Clark.

I was glad to find this video -- it lays out all the lyrics for you, and with a Guy Clark song, the lyrics always matter.  The arrangement's simple as can be, with an acoustic guitar doing most of the work, along with a little fiddle for sweetener. Guy's slightly craggy voice suits it just fine, too.

Of course, it seems like it's just a catalog, a country-folk version of "My Favorite Things." But there's a lot more craft in it than that.  (Guy Clark's a sneaky old fox.) Notice those little whispers of death and sorrow in it -- how Verse One's guitar sounds in a "dark and empty room," how Verse Two's old car defies obsolescence ("I get the feeling it ain't ever gonna stop") -- that's all part of the the braid of life.  And when he finally gets to the chorus, the reason he loves these things?  Because they're "the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall."  There's the wisdom of a life hard-lived; he's knows he's going to fall from time to time.  Best to be ready.

In Verse Three, he gets around to friendship, to a friend who's "seen me at my worst" -- just a hint of the ruffian and outlaw in him, just a hint.  It's not until Verse Four that he gets around to love -- but when he does, whoo-ee. "I got a woman I love / She’s crazy and paints like God / She’s got a playground sense of justice / She won’t take odds."  Now I don't know about you, but for me, this simple little verse is worth a hundred "my baby looks so fine" or "she makes me feel so good." This is about one woman, one specific woman, not just some generic blond in tight jeans. He's telling you something real about her, about who she is inside, not just what she looks like or how she loves him.  That "playground sense of justice" -- doesn't that make you adore this woman?

I remember sitting in that audience and catching my breath when this last verse came around.  Of course, it's the whole point of the song.  A guy who lives his life this way -- who won't settle for flash or trash -- wouldn't love just any woman; she has to be someone special.  By the time we meet her, we're primed to admire her. The whole damn song has been building this pedestal to put her on -- and the way he describes her, we know she deserves it.

Now who doesn't long for a cowboy that could love you that way?  Guy Clark, you sneaky old fox . . . .


NickS said...

Thank you for this. I like guy Clark, but I haven't listened to that much of his music. Whenever you've posted a Guy Clark song it has been one that I didn't previous know and immediately appreciate.

I think I like the older Guy Clark, he seems more direct and less clever than he was in his earlier (and more famous) work. Not that, say, "Desperadoes Waiting For A Train" isn't heartfelt, but it still feels "clever" compared to a song like this.

BTW, I haven't heard the Guy Clark version of "Dublin Blues" but Townes Van Zandt did an excellent cover.

Also it strikes me that this song explores similar metaphorical territory (quite well) in an indie-rock song.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks for that link to the Spoon song -- I agree, it has the same quality. Very nice indeed.

I also agree that Guy Clark just keeps getting better and better. Today I just got his most recent album -- Somedays the Song Writes You -- can't wait to hear it. I already hve heard a couple of tracks from it, like "Hemingway's Whiskey" and "Maybe I Can Paint Over That" and they are just insanely good, in this same stripped-down-to-essentials way. BTW he also has a cover of Townes' "If I Needed You" on this album. Returning the favor!

wwolfe said...

He has a great eye for detail - the "moldy box of Vanilla Wafers" mentioned in "L.A. Freeway" (my favorite song of his) makes the singer's home perfectly clear in my mind's eye, for example.

Holly A Hughes said...

All it takes is one detail like that, right?