Friday, February 28, 2014


"Magdalene" / Guy Clark

Right here, at the crossroads of country and folk, stands an underrated giant, Texas's own Guy Clark.  Okay, so he won the Grammy this year for best folk album (My Favorite Picture of You) -- he's still not the household name he deserves to be.

Now, I don't normally think of Guy Clark as an outlaw country artist, if only because I prefer some of his more domestic songs such as "Stuff That Works" and "Worry B Gone". But as the author of, among other songs, the great "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train," he certainly helped to invent outlaw country with his Austin cronies Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Waylon Jennings in the 1970s -- and on his 2006 album Workbench Songs he's still writing (or co-writing, in this case with Ray Stephenson) about an outlaw.

Or a sorta outlaw...

Our hero is no calculating criminal, just a man who's somehow run afoul of the powers that be. "I ain't lookin' for trouble," he insists in the opening line, but trouble's found him: "I can't stay here tonight / I got to leave here on the double / If I want to see the morning light." The wary chromatics of those short simple lines are like urgent muttering in the shadow of a back porch. 

Further proof that he's not on a wild crime spree: "Don't need no pistol for the tickets /  I've got just enough to get us down the line / I don't know what happens next / Your guess is just as good as mine." He's confused, desperate, but he's rather pay for the bus tickets than hold up the ticket clerk.

Whatever crime he's committed, he's a man teetering on the brink, and the only thing he has to cling to is the one woman who makes sense to him. Magdalene is a common enough name in Tex-Mex circles, but I bet Guy was also thinking about the Bible's Mary Magdalene, a woman of cloudy reputation but pure heart.

"Move with me, Magdalene," he pleads. Even without the law (or whoever) on his tail, he's been ready to shake this town's dust off his shoes: "I'm tired of the same old scene / There's a Greyhound leaving at midnight / If you came with me, it'd be like a dream." Note that last-run bus, anything but glamor travel - but Magdalene isn't used to riding first-class anyway, is she? And if she's the kind of gal to risk everything on a mad leap of faith, all the better. Edging closer, his voice dropping into a huskier register of persuasion, he repeats his plea: "Come on, Magdalene / Move with me, Magdalene."

As verse two commences, she still hasn't turned him down, and his hopes are rising. He flips through an arsenal of arguments -- tempting visions of the future ("I've heard Mexico is easy"), brushing off the past ("I wouldn't stay here if I could"), reverse psychology ("Don't come along just to please me"), pragmatic strategy ("Let's go while the getting's good"). Whatever it takes to make her come, he'll try it out.

Last but not least, in the second chorus he adds these two lines: "Let's go down to San Miguel / Let's go be somebody else tonight." Ah, the ultimate temptation -- to junk this rotten life and try on a new one. Who wouldn't fall for that?

We never hear Magdalene's side of the conversation, it's true. But oh, I do hope she's already slipped indoors to pack her bags.

46 DOWN, 6 TO GO

1 comment:

NickS said...

I remember writing, a while back, that the reason I liked your blog that it doesn't have a narrow focus. I don't read a lot of online music writing, but at first glance there are a lot of blogs which are either devoted to new releases or written by people who are obsessive (Nick Hornby-esque) devotees of a specific genre, and that yours is neither.

The example that I gave to illustrate that was to say that there aren't many blogs on which it would be natural to write, in 2010, about having a growing appreciation for Guy Clark (and I was talking about my own ambitions as much as your blog).

In retrospect it's an interesting example to have used. Because in the meantime I've gone from thinking of Guy Clark as an excellent minor character in American music, to thinking that he is unquestionably an major figure and a giant of a songwriter. In addition, I think 2008 or 2010 is a perfect time to have been writing about him because he's been in fine form as a songwriter. Looking back at his album history you might say that Dublin Blues and Cold Dog Soup in 1995 and '99 were the start of a strong sequence of albums, but I'd also say that Somedays the Song Writes You is a notable album in his catalog and represents the strength of his later work -- combining craft with patience, and his ability to let his songs carry strong emotions, but carry them lightly. To not reach for too much symbolism.

"Magdalene" didn't stand out for me on Workbench Songs, but I think that live performance is better than the album version, and obviously, his other songs are so good that it's not negative judgement to say that it didn't stand out.

So, yes, well worth a write-up and, for me at least, it is notable how much my esteem for Guy Clark has grown over the last four year or so.