Guy Clark Biographer Tamara Saviano
“He shared things with me he didn’t share with other people”
By Doug Freeman,
9:00AM, Thu. Mar. 30, 2017
Without Getting Killed or Caught, Tamara Saviano’s biography of Guy Clark, who died last May, cemented the Texan’s legacy while exploring the intimate triangle of the subject, his wife Susanna, and Townes Van Zandt. April 7, the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association honors Saviano and tributes Clark with an all-star hootennany at the Paramount.
Austin Chronicle: What are you working on now that the book is done and the tour’s wrapping up?
Tamara Saviano: I’m doing a documentary on Guy, and I’m in the thick of it and hope to finish it this year. But I’ve started at least researching my next book. A&M was so happy with the Guy book and I loved working with them, so they asked me what I wanted to do next. I’m going to do a book that’s kind of part history and part memoir about working in Americana.
There’s been so many things written about the early years and the Seventies, but in the mid-Eighties when Lyle [Lovett] and Nanci [Griffith] and those people were coming up, Steve Earle coined this phrase “The Great Credibility Scare,” so I’m going to start it with that. It will have a little bit of backstory but not go deep, because no one’s written about that in an interconnected way.
Those couple of chapters I wrote in the Guy book about the beginning of Americana, that was the most fun I had because it was easy. I was there. So I wanted to explore that further, but I need to finish the Guy film first.
AC: What’s the documentary looking like?
TS: It’s still becoming what it’s going to be, but the three main themes in the book were Guy’s influence as a songwriter, his recording career, and his relationship with Susanna and Townes. The Susanna, Townes, and Guy thing is so compelling to me, and fascinating and heartbreaking, so the film will be focusing on that relationship and how it inspired Guy.
I’m not quite sure what it’s going to look like in the end, but one thing I can tell you, which we just decided and I’m really excited about, is that the film will be narrated by Susanna. I have Susanna’s diaries that Guy gave me and all these interviews with Susanna. And I have Susanna’s niece, who’s a news anchor in Shreveport, ready to be the voice of Susanna for some pieces. I’m going to have her come in and say Susanna’s words – have Susanna narrate it.
I feel like when we made that decision, everything just made sense. So even though it’s about Guy mainly, Susanna telling the story just makes it so much more personal.
AC: Her story gets overshadowed and your book certainly helped correct that.
TS: Guy and Townes were friends for years before Susanna came into the picture. Now I didn’t know Townes and I never met Townes, so when I talk about him this is just stuff that I think from what I’ve learned, but it seems to me that Townes was probably bipolar or something else, and was never treated and was treating himself. So Townes, bless his heart, was a mess. And I think Susanna had a big part in holding Townes together. In her diaries, she loved him, and she held him together.
Guy, and again this is all just me, but Guy is the stoic rock. He couldn’t give Susanna that more vulnerable side of himself, so she got that from Townes. And Guy was the rock for both of them, sometimes to a fault. Guy could be tough.
As you may remember, Susanna’s sister Bunny, who was Guy’s girlfriend, killed herself, and that’s how Guy and Susanna got together. They ended up in L.A. for that short period of time and Townes came to record. Then Townes’ girlfriend was killed a year after Bunny. From talking with Guy and Rodney [Crowell], I feel pretty confident in saying Susanna never recovered from her sister’s death.
Townes was already grieving his dad, so then Leslie Jo [Richards] getting murdered, that’s when he and Susanna just clicked. They were grieving, and I think they were grieving all through their lives. That just affected them in a much deeper way, where Guy, and I have Guy saying this on video, Guy was just like, “Well, shit happens, and it’s terrible, but you’ve got to get on with your life.” He doesn’t say it in a way that’s very tender.
So there’s that happening, but at the same time, Guy is drawing from Susanna and Townes’ vulnerability for his songs. To me, that relationship was just their own little world and it affected everything they did. I want to explore that more in the film.
AC: You can’t talk about Guy without talking about Townes. How much did that bother him?
TS: Most of that happened after Townes died. Townes died in ’97, and Guy was really on a roll around then. He had Boats to Build in ’92, Dublin Blues in ’95, and Keepers, his first live album, came out right after Townes died. [The] Americana [music chart] came in ’95 and he had his first Number 1 album, so his money started getting better. Guy was on a roll, and Townes was falling apart.
So then Townes dies, and now all of the sudden Townes becomes this mythical, larger-than-life character, and Guy’s still working. Guy’s at the top of his game, but now he’s got to hear from everybody about how Townes Van Zandt is the greatest songwriter that ever lived. So I think it didn’t have to do with Townes, but what happened after Townes died.
Guy’s like, here I am doing this great work, and everybody’s talking about Townes. And I’ve seen that with Guy, too. He’s obviously had a cult following for a long time, but when Guy died, every corner of the world is doing Guy Clark tributes. He would have loved that, but he didn’t feel that before he died.
AC: Do you think he felt he got the respect or recognition he deserved?
TS: The last couple of years of his life, the Academy of Country Music gave him the Poet’s Award, which they gave to Hank Williams at the same time. Guy was on cloud nine that night because he was getting an award called the Poet’s Award. And then he won the Grammy right after that, and he was really happy about that.
When he won the Grammy, he didn’t go to L.A., so I went to his house and said, “I wish we were there,” and he goes, “Yeah, I’m finally getting recognition and I’m falling apart, I’m dying.” I said, “Well you’re here to see it.”
And he was, but the last five years of Guy’s life were horrible, painful and more time in the hospital than not. It was a long, long dying road. Even when he was doing My Favorite Picture of You, I don’t know how he finished that album. It was pieced together. Chris Latham, who engineered the album, made that album happen, because some days Guy just couldn’t sing at all. I never believed Guy would finish that album, that’s how bad it was.
So I think he knew in the end that he was getting this recognition, but he couldn’t enjoy it as much as he would have a little earlier. When I approached him about writing the book, I was shocked that he agreed to it, but he would joke and say, “It’s about damn time somebody wants to write a book about me.” So he did want the recognition.
AC: He was very hands-off with the book though, wasn’t he?
TS: With the book, yes. He knew what I was doing, and I would remind him all the time that we were on the record. And when he gave me Susanna’s diaries, that’s when I knew that he was just open to whatever I did.
I went over there and he gave me two big boxes filled with her journals and notebooks. I asked him, “Have you read these?” And he said, “Nope. Whatever’s in these is Susanna’s truth.”
And the woman that gave me the early interviews of Susanna, Louis O’Connor, she lives in Austin and she and Guy had been friends since their Rockport days. She was going to write a book about Guy and Townes back in the Eighties and early Nineties, and it just never came to fruition. I came down to Austin, and she was so generous and kind. These interviews with Townes she had done, interviews with Guy’s mom who was dead, plus Guy’s teachers, I had no access to these people. She was so generous.
AC: Do you know the state of Guy’s estate?
TS: No, I don’t. Travis, Guy’s son, is the executor, and I know that he’s going through all of Guy’s stuff. I’ve recommended that he put Guy’s stuff in a museum, and I would like to see it at the Center for Texas Music History. What I’d really love to see is them take apart Guy’s workroom and put it together exactly as it is, and they would do that in San Marcos if they could.
But Guy was sick for so long and Travis had so much on his plate that he’s just trying to think things through.
AC: So Guy’s relationship with Travis was good?
TS: Yeah, I mean it was like any other. He abandoned Travis when he was a kid, so I’m sure there were issues, but they’ve toured together and Travis has been on the road with him. And Travis is a really good man. He’s different than Guy. He’s a family man, and just a really good, big-hearted, wonderful man.
AC: Do you know if there are songs that haven’t been recorded, and what might happen with them?
TS: Yes, they just put out this Dualtone collection with a few extra songs that were demos on there. Every song that Guy ever wrote, he did demos for. I’m not sure how many of those there are, so I’m sure there will be other stuff coming out.
Now would he want all those songs out? I don’t think so, because he would want to curate them to decide what’s good enough. But now it doesn’t matter what Guy thinks. They’re going to come out. Now it’s part of history, and I really believe that history should be available. Like Guy didn’t want me to pretty up his life for the book, so I don’t know. It’s part of his history, so it’s part of keeping his legacy alive.
AC: Guy wanted Terry Allen to incorporate his cremains into a sculpture.
TS: I think Terry is still trying to figure out what he’s going to do. He’s had some ideas, but I don’t think he’s decided. He’s had a bunch of conversations with people, and I don’t know if it will end up in Austin or somewhere else, or what it will be. Guy wanted Terry to just throw his cremains into whatever he happened to be working on, but Terry’s going to do something that he feels honors Guy.
Terry just had the new sculpture unveiled at [Laguna Gloria], so I think now that that’s over he’s processing what he wants to do.
AC: From your perspective, what was Guy’s relationship to Texas and even Austin?
TS: He never considered himself a Tennessean, even though he lived there 40 years. He was a Texan. He always thought he would move back to Texas, and he wanted to move to Marfa.
He was a Texan and if Austin would have had the publishing business, I think he would have been here.
AC: Were you with him there in his final days in the hospital?
TS: He went home to die. My mom was dying at the same time, so I saw him the week before he died, and then I went to Phoenix to be with my mom. Guy died early on a Tuesday morning, and Rodney called me Monday afternoon and said I needed to get on the next plane. My flight was at 6:30am, and Verlon [Thompson] texted me at 3 that morning to say Guy was gone.
But the week before Guy died, I was alone with him for four hours, which was rare because in the last months of his life there was a revolving door of people around him. So it was rare that I had that time alone with him.
He was still in the nursing home, right before they moved him home, and we were sitting outside. He was in a wheelchair and we were holding hands, which was not a normal thing with Guy. But he reached out and grabbed my hand, and we sat there just holding hands. And Guy was crying, which believe me, there was never any hint of Guy crying prior to that.
My mom called me while we were sitting there to give me the bad news, and Guy said to me, “Tamara, I’m so sorry that your mom and I are dying at the same time.” And I said, “I am too, but we’re here now.”
And we just sat there, and we didn’t say that much to each other, but just held hands outside. I’m glad I had those hours with him.
When I got back to Nashville, Rodney called me and asked if he thought we could get a tour bus and go to Santa Fe. In retrospect, at the time I was just numb, but I’m glad I had tasks to do over those first few weeks because it just kept me from breaking down. I just wanted to make sure we got Guy’s cremains to Terry. So we got on a tour bus and went to Santa Fe with Guy in a box.
I can’t believe it’s coming up on a year this May.
AC: How do you feel Guy’s legacy or reputation has changed since he died?
TS: When Guy died, I was just thrilled that every corner of the world was having Guy Clark tributes. I know Guy would have loved that, and I do believe that kind of like Townes, Guy’s legacy is only going to grow. I think younger people are going to continue to discover him and carry on that torch, and I believe that 100 years from now people will still be talking about Guy Clark.
I’m also just so grateful and surprised to get to be with him and tell his story. I’m grateful that I got to spend all that time with him, so intimately. He shared things with me that he didn’t share with other people.