The wicked year of 2016 has taken another great one from us.
A couple of years back, John Spong wrote He Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, a terrific piece on Guy Clark as he looks back on what was an amazing life: full of art, strong friendships, lots of chemically enhanced fucking up, and dark, sad times when first Susanna’s and then Guy’s bodies gave out.
I’ve added three Clark songs that I personally adore to the end of this post. I can’t claim any special knowledge or insight into Clark. I’m just a fan, who was lucky to see him play once, with Townes Van Zandt at the Bottom Line around 1990. I listen to Texas Cooking, Old No. 1, and Boats to Build all the time, and I’m sad that he’s gone.
But the Susanna Clark living upstairs when Sampson came to write scarcely resembled that woman. In the early 2000’s, reeling from the twin defeats of a debilitating back condition and the early death of her and Guy’s best friend, Van Zandt, she’d taken to bed. Though she eventually quit drinking, she upped her intake of pain pills to a point beyond lucidity, seldom leaving the bedroom or changing out of her white cotton nightgown. Then came lung cancer and her refusal to stop smoking. Through much of that time, until his own health turned south, Guy was her sole caregiver. When he went to the basement to work, she’d call on his cellphone and ask him to cook for her or sit and keep her company as she moved in and out of reason. On his walk to the stairs, he’d pass by that Polaroid. It was taken, he told visitors, one afternoon when he and Van Zandt were day-drunk and acting like assholes. She’d had enough and was ready to get as far from the two of them as she could. She stands center frame, arms crossed, glaring at the camera like she might make the photographer’s head combust.
Sampson’s line could only refer to that photo. Guy started into his writing ritual, spreading out sheets of draftsman’s graph paper and grabbing one of the music chart pencils he orders special from California. Methodically, he wrote in all caps, giving each letter its own box on the page.My favorite picture of you Is the one where it hasn’t rained yet As I recall there came a winter squall And we got soakin’ wet A thousand words in the blink of an eye The camera loves you and so do I Click
“The whole song just kind of poured out,” Guy explained one afternoon a few months ago, sitting in the same workshop, holding the same photo. “I didn’t have to think too much other than to get it all down. Then I went upstairs, sat on the edge of the bed, and played it for her. She said she liked it, I guess. Whenever I wrote about her, she was always . . . I don’t know if ‘touched’ is the right word. She was always flattered. Usually she said, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ ”
That was particularly true in this instance. Susanna’s slide out of life lasted just another year and a half. In June 2012 her heart gave out, and it’s hard now to listen to “My Favorite Picture of You” and not think of it the way Guy describes “The Randall Knife,” as a cathartic piece of writing. Only he wrote “Randall Knife” a couple of weeks after his dad’s death. With Susanna, he tried to say goodbye while she could still hear him.
“I never was much for moaning and crying with this kind of experience,” he said. “This is the only way I know how to deal with it. To get it out.”