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2013/08/25

Guy Clark's Dublin Blues

By John Bloner, Jr.


Singer/songwriter Guy Clark doesn't like the term  "craft".

"I find that word a little offensive when it's applied to songwriting," he tells Doug Freeman. "I really think it's poetry and it's art."

Despite Guy's protest, the term "craft" represents his work well. From its Old English origins, "craft" characterizes physical strength, courage, skill, talent, virtue, excellence, a trade, a calling, and a product of art.  Guy is a craftsman. He selects his words and notes like a master carpenter chooses his tools and woods. He sings his songs in a weathered voice like some latter-day Noah.
Guy Clark in his youth, working at a boat yard

I got boards to bend, I got planks to nail
I got charts to make, I got seas to sail.
I'm gonna build me a boat
With these two hands
It'll be a fair curve
From a noble plan.
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

"Guy Clark doesn't just write songs," Kurt Wolff and Steve Leggett announce in an article on the artist. He crafts them with the kind of hands-on care and respect that a master carpenter would have faced with a stack of rare hardwood." In a recent NPR article, Melissa Block says, "Songwriters who revere Clark will tell you he crafts songs with the same precision and attention to detail he uses when he builds guitars."

There's that word again--craft.  The man from Monahans, Texas embodies it. His songs are carefully laid out, measured, cut and finished. Check out these lines from "The Carpenter":

Let us now praise a carpenter and the things that he made
And the way that he lived by the tools of his trade.

"The Carpenter" was released in 1983 on Guy's "Better Days" album, a recording that also delivered two of his most loved tunes, "Homegrown Tomatoes" and "Randall Knife". Guy builds these songs from a solid foundation of details of people, places and memories. Although the phrase, "think global, act local", was originally tied to city planning, it applies to songwriting of the highest order. He's not just singing in his rough-hewn voice about life in West Texas, his father's knife, or a set of favorite guitar strings, he is sharing stories that resonate with his listeners. They may see something of themselves in the songs, even if they've never played an instrument or set foot in the South.

On his 1995 record, Dublin Blues, Guy delivers the title track's first lines as a man--an expatriate in body and soul--looks back at his home and reflects on lost love.

I wish I was in Austin
In the Chili Parlor Bar
Drinkin' Mad Dog Margaritas
And not carin' where you are.

Chili Parlor Bar in Austin, Texas
The song sways with the grace of an older man who may have lost a step but can still move some hearts. There's a burnished quality to Guy's voice. Some call it whiskey-and-cigarettes. Some might call it the voice of wisdom. All I know is that five seconds into Dublin Blues, I was hooked forevermore on Guy Clark.

On the record, Nanci Griffith lends her ethereal voice to the track like fog grazing an Irish hillside on a mid-April morning. In concert at the 2005 American Honors and Awards, Guy is joined instead by Emmylou Harris. Listen to the ease in which this song moves from testimony to prayer to a country dance.


"In a town of writers, he really is our poet laureate" -- Emmylou Harris 

Dublin Blues has broken my heart every time I've listened to it. You would think I would not have pulmonary function left in my body after giving myself over to the song's chorus time and again, yet the song is more than a tale of lost love. It sets a tone of celebration of the men and women that Clark has known and admired, as well as the giants who have come before him to exercise their craft on the world.

On the second tune, "Black Diamond Strings", he lets us in the side door to one of the ice houses on the east side of Houston, TX, where J.W. Crowell "played two nights a week in a hillbilly band" and encourages the man to "let Rodney sit in, hell, he's goin' on nine/His fingers are bleedin', but he's keepin'/good time". 

In this song, "Rodney" is none other than Rodney Crowell, Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter, whom Guy befriended in the 1970s.  To earn the Texan's approval, Crowell worked on his songwriting craft until one found favor with his mentor. The tune was "Bluebird Wine", which he played (with verve) on the documentary, "Heartworn Highways", which also featured the Mount Rushmore of outlaw country music: Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Charlie Daniels (and more).


On the Dublin Blues record, Crowell and Clark got together to write "Stuff That Works", a musical ode to "Stuff that's real, stuff you feel/The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall".  It's also a list poem, describing Guy's favorite pair of boots, an ol' blue shirt, a good friend, and most of all, Guy's wife, Susanna.

I got a woman I love
She's crazy and paints like God

In addition to co-writing songs with her husband and songs of her own, Susanna Clark painted many of the iconic covers to some of country music's (or any music's) greatest records.
  • Willie Nelson's "Stardust"
  • Emmylou Harris' "Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town" 
  • Nanci Griffith's "Dust Bowl Symphony" 
  • Her husband's first record, "Old No. 1"
  • Keith Sykes "Don't Count Us Out"
The last two albums were graced with an image of an ol' blue shirt (a staple of Guy's wardrobe).  See below.



Stuff That Works: Guy and Susanna Clark in front of her painting that graced two album covers

Guy has been singing on record to Susanna since his first album, which featured the tune "L.A. Freeway". He wrote the chorus' first line, "Man, if I can just get off this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught", on a burger bag, using his wife's eyeliner pencil. The song sways to tenderness when he tells his young wife:

Oh, Susanna, don't you cry, babe
Love's a gift that's surely handmade

The line speaks to their financial struggles as a newly-married couple. On his latest record, "My Favorite Picture of You", Guy lovingly describes a photo of Susanna, who died in 2012, when she was pissed off at him and their friend, Townes Van Zandt.

My favorite picture of you is bent and faded and it's pinned to my wall
Oh and you were so angry, it's hard to believe we were lovers at all
There's a fire in your eyes, you've got your heart on your sleeve
A curse on your lips, but all I can see is ... beautiful.

The tune is one of the most tender in Clark's catalog, evoking Roy Orbison's classic tune, "Blue Bayou" in its melody.


Guy and Susanna co-wrote a couple of songs on Dublin Blues.  "The Cape" is one of them. In her article, "Metaphor, Guy Clark and The Cape", Elizabeth Hunter writes, "The Cape is one of my favorite songs. In 171 words, Clark gives us the story of a character at three stages of life."

Guy sings first of a boy with "a flour sack cape tied all around his neck" whose sport is jumping off the family garage roof. In the second verse, the boy has grown to a man who's "full of piss and vinegar, he's bustin' at the seams". In the final verse, the listener encounters an old man who is now metaphorically still "jumpin' off the garage."  He's never lost the playfulness of the little boy. The flour sack may be in the rag bin by now, but somehow he's still wearing it proud.


Verlon Thompson's been playing and writing with Guy for about thirty years. His acoustic guitar is all over Dublin Blues and he earned a co-writer credit for the tune, "Hangin' Your Life On The Wall".  This song could be a cousin to Springsteen's "Glory Days", but where the Boss' character may be pitied for clinging too hard on past success, Guy peoples his tale with men who can laugh at themselves, recognizing that they cannot charm, move or throw a fastball like they could as younger fellas, and get on with their slower-paced lives.  

A decade ago, Guy and Verlon got together on a Wednesday night for a rendition of this song at Alice's Champagne Palace in Homer, Alaska.  You can almost taste the tacos and margaritas, as Guy thumps some Johnny Cash chords before launching into his and Verlon's song.

Won't you come on in?



Guy wraps up Dublin Blues with a heart-breaker, "The Randall Knife".  He speaks the song's lines over a spare background of acoustic guitar and bass, telling of the tenuous relationship between a father and son, with the knife-blade as its metaphor. The Randall knife earned its notoriety in World War II.  One serviceman wrote to the company, "It was a terrible thing at close range. [Your knife] would cut a man's head nearly off with a quick swing."

Guy once said, "The first thing you get in West Texas is a pocket knife."  The Randall knife is not for a child's sport, however.  In the song's second verse, Guy relates:

If you've ever held a Randall Knife
Then you know my father well
If a better blade was ever made
It was probably forged in hell

The intimacy of the lyric and the Guy's delivery of it evokes the darkest hour of the night, when the fire's gone down, everyone else is in bed, and your old man opens up to you about something he's kept hidden for a long time.

Just try to listen to "The Randall Knife" without crying. When Vince Gill first tried to play it, he said, "I started weeping, bawling all over my guitar. I thought 'God, this is my relationship with my father. I know what song I'm gonna sing at his funeral one day'."


Many of Guy Clark's songs are woven into my DNA. Even when I'm not listening to them, I think of them while cutting the lawn, driving around town, and whenever I see a tool shed with its hammers, saws and chisels all in their proper place. The image below evokes a favorite verse by another songwriter, Kate Long, from her tune, "Who Will Watch The Home Place?", as performed by Laurie Lewis.

In my grandfather's shed there are hundreds of tools
I know them by feel and by name
And like parts of my body they've patched this old place
When I move them they won't be the same.


To learn more about this great American songwriter and singer, visit his Website here, dig into his catalog of material from "Old No. 1" to "My Favorite Picture of You", or lend an ear to the superlative tribute album, "This One's For Him" which features his friends performing some of his greatest songs, including four from the Dublin Blues record. The Website, Allmusic.com, gives a comprehensive look at Guy's career, records and extensive credits as a songwriter whose music has been covered by many well-known artists.

Thank you for your craft, art and poetry, Guy Clark.



2013/08/18

Punch Drunk Love

by Dave Gourdoux

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in "Punch Drunk Love"
Punch Drunk Love is a 2002 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the brilliant talent behind Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and his masterpiece, 2007's There Will be Blood.  Because Boogie Nights was such an audacious debut, because of Magnolia's star studded cast and ambitious reach, and because of the undeniable greatness of There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love is often overlooked.  That's a shame, because it's truly a great film, and explores some of the same themes as the others.

Punch Drunk Love also features one of the most remarkable performances you'll ever see by one of the unlikeliest actors:  Adam Sandler.  Sandler has since turned in solid, semi-dramatic performances in James Brooks' Spanglish and Judd Apatow's Funny People, but those pale in comparison to his work here.  Sandler's performance is all the more astonishing when you consider that prior to Punch Drunk Love, his output was almost completely juvenile comedies like Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and Little Nicky.  It's a tribute to Anderson's perception and instincts that he saw something in Sandler that nobody else saw; Anderson wrote the script to Punch Drunk Love with Sandler specifically in mind.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, the owner of a small business that sells bathroom novelty items.  He is a mess of neuroses and fear and loneliness.   He has seven sisters who are relentlessly hard on him, constantly embarrassing him and reminding him how messed up he is.  He is painfully aware of how badly he doesn't fit in.   He is given to fits of destructive rage and uncontrolled sobbing.

At the supermarket - note what they've been "pudding" into the carts
I'll try not to reveal too much about the story.  Suffice to say it is wonderfully quirky, featuring abandoned harmoniums, schemes to accumulate airline miles by purchasing mass quantities of pudding, phone sex scams, and four thugs sent from a furniture store in Utah.  Oh, and it has Emily Watson as Lena Leonard, a co-worker of one of Egan's sisters, who has seen a photo of Egan and decides she wants to meet him.

Sandler and Watson play off of each other perfectly, both odd and quirky, both apprehensive and intrigued with each other.  Both are desperately lonely, and their falling in love makes perfect sense because it doesn't make any sense.  The film is ultimately about both the absurdity and the transformational power of love. 

Anderson's script and direction brilliantly maintain tension and unpredictability through the entire film. It never goes where one  might expect it to go.  Just as Egan is finding the love of his life, the rest of the world is crashing down around him, as the manager of the phone sex line (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is determined to extort money from him, and sends out his thugs to collect.  In his first encounter with the thugs, Egan is badly beaten, and panic stricken, runs through the streets in a fit of pure fear and dread. 

The great Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "Punch Drunk Love"
Just as he is falling in love, as possibilities are opening up for Egan, the rest of his life is spinning out of control.  In the film's pivotal moment, after returning from a trip to Hawaii, Barry and Lena are pulling into the garage when their car is struck by a car driven by the thugs.   When Barry sees blood trickling down from Lena's forehead, he gets out of the car and confronts the thugs.  There is no trace of fear or anxiety in Barry as he disposes of the four.   Then, while Lena is being treated in the emergency room, he leaves and goes directly to Utah and confronts the Phllip Seymour Hoffman character.  "I have a love in my life.  It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine," he tells Hoffman.   This is what the film, with all of its quirky and oddball moments, is about.

It turns out that Anderson is a hopeless romantic.  The transformational power of love emerges as the main theme in his films.  In Magnolia, the hapless cop played by John C. Reilly emerges as a hero due to his capacity for love; other characters who deny or turn their backs on love meet different fates.   In There Will Be Blood, the Daniel Day Lewis character is incapable of love; not only does he end as he began, desperately alone, but in the film's ending, he bludgeons the false prophet Eli to death with a bowling pin.  Throughout this scene, Lewis is hunched over like an ape; when he raises the bowling pin to smash Eli, he is shot at the same angle as Stanley Kubrick's apes are shot in 2001:  A Space Oddysey.  Without the capacity to love, Lewis isn't quite human, he's still a link behind on the evolutionary latter.  In Punch Drunk Love, it's love that lifts Barry out of his neurosis and solitude, and transforms him into a fully functional individual.

The reference to Kubrick isn't isolated.   It seems that there is a profound Kubrick influence on all of Anderson's work.  In Punch Drunk Love, there are several long shots of an empty set that slowly pull in while the action is occurring outside of the frame.  Watch 2001: A Space Oddysey or The Shining and you'll see similar shots of the interior of the spacecraft or the Overlook Hotel.  Like Kubrick, Anderson's films are all gorgeous to look at; unlike Kubrick (with the exception of James Mason in Lolita), Anderson is able to consistently get great performances from his leads.

Among the filmmakers that have emerged in the past twenty or so years, only Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher (and to a lesser extent, Charlie Kaufman) and Anderson seem interested in picking up where serious film artists like Truffuat, Kubrick, Coppola and Scorsese left off, in using the language of film to make personal statements and a define a cohesive thematic arch that is deepened and expanded with each subsequent film.  Like Tarantino, Anderson's films are almost manic in their love of film. 

Martin Scorsese once said that the job of the artist is to make the audience care about his obsessions. Anderson accomplishes this but never at the expense of the plot.  He is, above all else, a uniquely gifted story teller.

For more information visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0272338

2013/08/11

The Quote That Changed My Life: The Fault in Our Stars

By Jess Fitzi


John Green, a New York Times Best Selling Author, changed my life with his books. The man is nothing short of a genius with a pen and paper. The Fault in Our Stars, Green’s most recent and by far most popular novel, is truly a work of magic. The book takes on the touching and heartbreaking subject of cancer, in a way that is surprisingly unique, in comparison to previously told stories concentrating on the disease. There is a certain type of bond that the reader develops with the character from whose perspective The Fault in Our Stars is written in, as it is not simply told in the eyes of someone suffering from cancer, or a person who is dealing with a loved one having the illness; it conquers both aspects, which takes the bond so much further, as you are constantly hit with the realization that not only is this character fighting for her own life, she is fighting for the life of someone she loves. Hazel Lancaster, who suffers from a rare form of thyroid cancer, tries her best to help Augustus Waters, who she describes as ‘The great love of her life’, stay strong through his osteosarcoma, while also trying to survive and stay healthy herself. The two teenagers go through hell and back together, with their positive and humorous attitudes helping them with their long and painful struggle to live for each other.

Hazel & Augustus drawn by a fan
In every book, there is one character that you generally get the most attached to, a chapter that really pulls you in, or a plot point that you are unable to get out of your head, even after you have finished reading, etc. There are these certain aspects in every book, that make the story so real and intense.  It truly makes you feel as if there is nothing else in the world except these characters and the conflicts they are facing. In the case of The Fault in Our Stars, there was one line that took the already incredible and inspirational lives of Hazel and Augustus to a whole new level. While helping seek revenge on their friend Isaac’s ex-girlfriend, the two are involved in an egging of said ex-girlfriend’s car. After the scandalous act, Isaac, who lost his eyesight due to a surgery that saved him from his diagnosed eye cancer, requests that Hazel take a photo of him and Augustus, claiming that if one day science permits him to see, he would want to view that very moment. As the chapter came to a close, Hazel snapped the photo and the very last sentence reads, “I never took another picture of him", in reference to Augustus.
           
This sentence, these seven words, changed the way I will read forever. I read this line at two o’clock in the morning, and it turned me into an over-tired, emotional puddle of sobbing. While this quote does not seem like it would have so much weight resting on it, the world of Hazel and Augustus became more real to me at the moment I read those words than any book has ever made me feel. Up until this point in The Fault in Our Stars, it was not made certain that Augustus would not survive his illness, though it was heavily hinted at. The reality of both the novel and the heartbreak that cancer causes sunk in the second those words traveled from my eyes to my brain, and now rest very heavily on my heart. There is no describing how I felt in that exact moment, how there was nothing else happening around me, besides the life of this girl, who did not realize that this picture would be the last one she ever took of the love of her life. While Hazel had obviously already worked out that it was not at all likely she would live happily-ever-after with Augustus for much longer, the idea of death becomes so much more real when it is absolutely true that it is quickly on its way. This book and specifically the quote, has given me the motivation and inspiration I needed, both to view and live my life differently, as well as start working on my own personal novel, that deals with the struggle of cancer. Reading something like this, something with so much emotion, can really make you see people, as well as the world in general, differently. It makes you appreciate just how incredibly beautiful life really is and that the time we spend here truly is a gift that should not be taken for granted.
           
John Green
This single quote is what makes The Fault in Our Stars the most incredible and beautiful book I have ever read. While I already had the experience of letting such a wonderful book be a part of my life, I had the incredible opportunity of meeting John Green, the man who unintentionally changed my life, as well as a great number of other readers’. While standing in line to meet him, all I could think about is what I had to say to him about this quote. I planned to let him know just how much his book, specifically that sentence, means to me, but when he greeted me, I was unable to get the words out. Now, you may be thinking that I was just having a panicked moment because I was meeting my favorite author, which may well be true. However, I believe whole-heartedly that it was so much more than that. It was such an honor for me, as a writer, to be in the presence of someone who is able to write something so inspirational that it actually took my breath away. I was able to have a short conversation with John, but I was unable to think of anything other than the fact that I was standing in front of a man, who, with seven simple words, changed my life, as well as my perspective as a reader and a writer.

As a slight history of the making of The Fault in Our Stars; at a convention in 2009, John Green had the pleasure of meeting Esther Earl. Esther was, at the time, a fifteen-year-old girl, who suffered from the same illness as Hazel, John's main character from TFiOS. This was no coincidence. At the convention, John had a book signing that Esther attended. While John does not usually hug fans, due to time constraints and comfort levels, etc. Esther asked him for a hug, which he agreed to, making Esther kind of a big deal in the community of his fans. After her meeting with John, Esther was obviously ecstatic, as she was a diehard fan of both John's books and his video blog, which he creates with his brother, Hank. Esther made a video discussing her excitement on her own vlog, which got John's attention and he took an interest in Esther and befriended her. After he learned more about her disease, John asked for her permission to write a novel with her in mind. Thus TFiOS was born. Sadly, Esther passed in 2010, at just sixteen-years-old and did not have the honor of surviving long enough to read John's book, but we all keep her in our thoughts and hearts while reading it ourselves.

this star won't go out
Esther Grace Earl
The name Esther is Persian for "star" and taking Esther's positive and inspiring attitude and life into account, her family started a foundation called "This Star Won't Go Out," implying that even though Esther is no longer with us, she is a star that will never go out and she will never be forgotten. The purpose of TSWGO is to help and support families struggling with children who have cancer. John and Hank do endless promotion for TSWGO and merchandise with the initialism is sold on their online store, DFTBA Records. Esther has inspired so many people that she will never get to meet but luckily for John, he was able to be touched by Esther's incredible personality before the world lost her. Ultimately, giving him the motivation him to write TFiOS which has changed and encouraged so many people.

For more information visit John Green's official website: www.johngreenbooks.com or Esther's memorial website: www.tswgo.org

2013/08/04

Waiting For The Sundays

by Jav Rivera

It was so long ago that I can't remember when I first heard them, but I know it was the track "Here's Where The Story Ends" that initially made me fall in love with alternative British band The Sundays. It must have been around the time of the song's release in 1990, since they hadn't yet released their next album. But I do remember being captivated by Harriet Wheeler's delicately high-pitched voice. It was soft, soothing, and at the same time, unusually strong, as exemplified on the song "Hideous Towns".

Wheeler has always been the main focus for most fans, but the band couldn't be better fit. Their style had been developing with each of their albums, but they haven't released anything new since 1997…so where are they?

The Sundays: Patrick Hannan, David Gavurin, Harriet Wheeler, and Paul Brindley
The Sundays were formed by David Gavurin (guitars) and Harriet Wheeler (vocals), the band's main songwriters, in the late 1980s. To complete the band, they enlisted schoolmates Patrick Hannan (drums), and Paul Brindley (bass). Since 1990, they've released three studio albums: Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (1990), Blind (1992), and Static & Silence (1997).

Debut album: "Reading, Writing & Arithmetic"
Their debut Reading, Writing & Arithmetic could easily be describe as their most energetic album. The use of dynamics and echoic guitar riffs drive the majority of the tracks. The Sundays are known for their lead singer's angelic voice, but this album, especially, showcases David Gavurin's excellent and underrated guitar playing, as well as Patrick Hannan's drumming. And of course, Wheeler's voice is as charming and playful as always. The album feels experimental and challenging for its time. Nowadays you can hear other indie artists borrowing from Reading, Writing & Arithmetic.

Top 5 Recommended Tracks:
"Here's Where The Story Ends"
"Hideous Towns"
"Skin and Bones"
"Joy"
"I Won"

"Blind"
It's my favorite album cover of theirs, and contains one of my all time favorite Sundays track, "What Do You Think?". But I personally would place Blind as third place in their three current releases. It's not a bad album, mind you. In fact it's a collection of incredible music, but it feels restrained at times and was perhaps a bit rushed into production. Some of the tracks feel a little underdeveloped which make the album suffer, but individual tracks such as "Goodbye", "24 Hours", and "Love" are beautifully written, and exactly what one would hope for in a Sundays song. Their cover of The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" is unexpected and shockingly delightful. I was excited to first hear it when it was used for a Budweiser commercial back in the early 90s. 

Top 5 Recommended Tracks:
"What Do You Think?"
"Goodbye"
"Love"
"24 Hours"
"Wild Horses"

"Static & Silence"
Static & Silence showed off the band's musical growth and folk influences. When it was released I was in awe of how mature the band had become, leaving behind their early-90's electric guitar riffs and expanding their sound with the use of horns, orchestration, acoustic guitars, and stronger production. They also utilized more layering than previous material, creating a vaster soundscape. It's my personal favorite Sundays album, as it showcased a band with an ever-growing style. 

It also has a timeless feel. Whereas their previous albums had a distinct 80s/90s sound, Static & Silence sounds like it could have been released today. After a few weeks of its release, I had come to appreciate it with every listen. It had made me curious as to the direction of their next album, one that I'm still waiting for. Sadly, it appears that the wait may never end. After the release of Static & Silence, Wheeler and Gavurin decided to take a break to raise their children. It's now been over fifteen years since new material has been released, and since they have often strayed from the limelight, it's hard to know what they are doing these days. They don't even have an official website, Facebook page, Twitter account, etc.

Top 5 Recommended Tracks for Static & Silence:
"She"
"Your Eyes"
"Another Flavour"
"I Can't Wait"
"Folk Song"

Harriet Wheeler & David Gavurin
Whether or not Wheeler and Gavurin ever decide to come out of their hiatus, the music they've made is cherished by fans, acclaimed by critics, and applauded by other bands. They've been covered by other artists and have influenced a generation. I hope I won't have to wait much longer for more music by this enigmatic band.

For more information on The Sundays, visit Wikipedia.

TRIVIA: Bassist Paul Brindley co-founded the company MusicAlly which publishes updates on digital music and provides analyses on how technology is changing the entertainment industry.