Honestly, I'm so distressed by the number of obituary posts I've have to put up this year, I couldn't make myself do another one, not even for Guy Clark. But I do/did love Guy Clark. In the end, I just had write something.
When I drove out to the depths of Long Island that winter night in 2006, I had no idea who Guy Clark was. I was there to see John Hiatt; the other guys in the Songwriter's Circle were unknown quantities to me. (Well, I knew who Lyle Lovett was, but only because of his oddball acting role in The Player.) A massive snowstorm had all but shut down the Long Island Expressway. I'm still not sure why I persevered and drove out there.
But man, am I glad I did.
Hiatt was fabulous, of course, as always. Lyle Lovett was a downright revelation (more on that another time.) Joe Ely was a find indeed. But mostly, as I left, I was simply astonished that I'd never known Guy Clark's music -- and I needed to hear more of it.
And of all the songs he sang that night, this one transfixed me most.
Yeah, it seems simple. But it's deceptively so, like most of Guy Clark's songs. For in fact these are songs that traffic in the profound; these are songs about Life with a capital L. (It's no surprise that so many of his country/folk/Texas peers felt moved to contribute to the tribute album This One's for Him.)
Like the best magicians, he's all about misdirection. Oh, yes, he oh-so-casually gives us the river mud, waylaying us with specific details: green-backed herons, water moccasins, the way water dapples between reeds. He focuses us on the here and now, the way mud squishes up between your toes. (Can't you just feel that?)
And in the chorus, he hauls up a host of simplistic mud-based cliches -- "mud pie, mud in your eye." Oh, sure, it's all just about getting a little dirty. "Take a little rain, take a little dirt / Make a little mud, get it on your shirt."
But in the third verse, he deftly cuts a chink into metaphor territory: "Now when I die please bury me down by the this old muddy creek / Let the crawfish have their way / It's mud to mud and that's okay." Technically, the liturgical language isn't "mud to mud" but "ashes to ashes" -- but it's close enough. And for good measure--just in case theology isn't your thing--he throws all of us good Darwinians a bone: "We all just crawled out of the mud."
The key to this song isn't the lines Guy sings, it's the lines he song-speaks. At the end of verse one, "Life and death just dancin' around in the mud." Verse two: "You got to get it between your toes, the mud." And at the end of the song: "We're all just sloggin' through the mud."
Because here's the Gospel According to Guy Clark: Life is about engaging with people, engaging with sorrow, engaging with failure, engaging with reality. Taking a hit, taking a loss. It ain't pretty, but it's real. And if you're not wading into it, you're not fully alive.
Amen, Guy. And godspeed.