Saturday 21 May 2016


I got drunk with Guy Clark once. He taught me how to play poker dice. It was almost 25 years ago, and I probably remember more about it now than I did the next day.

It was 25 August 1991, a Bank Holiday Sunday, and I was playing softball in Hyde Park with my ex-colleagues from ABC and some other friends. An American guy wandered past and stopped to watch, then asked if he could play. He joined my team, and we started talking. Tom Wohlke was the promoter at a music theatre in Westchester, just outside New York City. He was in town managing four singers who were playing that night in London: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Peter Rowan and John Stewart. This made him immediately, to me at least, the coolest guy in London, since all his charges were favourites of mine. I knew Van Zandt's songs and I'd followed Rowan since his days in Earth Opera. I'd discovered Clark listening to Jerry Jeff Walker, live and on record, and Clark's album Old No. 1 was played to death on my turntable. John Stewart, had been an obsession of mine ever since I picked up California Bloodlines in the bargain rack at the store on High Street in Middletown in 1969; one of his songs provided the title of this blog.

Tom comped me tickets, and after the show I went backstage. Tom introduced me around, but Stewart and Rowan were each in a hurry to head out, so I never even got the chance to play fan boy (and at that time I was working for baseball, not freelancing, so I couldn't even pretend there was a piece of journalism at the end of the rainbow). Van Zandt was quiet, there was a bottle going round, but Guy Clark was welcoming. 'Come on back to the hotel with us, we'll play some poker dice'.

'Sure' I said, and piled into a cab with them and Tom. We went to the Phoenix Hotel in Notting Hill, and somehow some more bottles appeared and Guy went up to his room, and after a while came back down with the dice. These were poker dice—with 9 through Ace on the dice—we weren't playing dice poker, which you play with the real 1 through 6 dice. At least I think that's what he said. You play poker dice like yahtzee: three rolls, keep whichever dice you want, roll the rest. There are no suits, so no flushes, and of course you have to wait til the others roll til you discover who won.

And while you're waiting, you drink some more. And some more. This was a lot of fun.

I honestly don't remember what I was drinking, and what else might have gone on. I do know that sometime around 2 or 3 ayem Stewart and Rowan each returned to the hotel; Rowan went straight up the stairs; John Stewart watched a few rolls, and then went up to his room too; I never did get the chance to discuss his music with him. Tom and Townes and Guy and I went on playing, drinking, and talking for most of the night. At some point Townes adjourned himself, then Tom gave up, and finally, after a few hands of liar's poker with the dice, Guy gave me his address and said to come visit Nashville.

I went out in the street as the sun was rising and found a cab home. I woke up in bright sunlight, sitting on the steps of my house. I hadn't been able to face going up the four flights to my flat. Now I went up the 69 steps (I still recall the number) and collapsed on my bed. My pockets seemed heavy and noisy, and as I took off my jacket I emptied them. They were full of coins. So were my trouser pockets. And a few notes stuffed here and there as well. I passed out, and when I woke up I counted it and there was 60-something quid there. Monday was a holiday too, but the tour had moved on, so I didn't have a chance to lose back some of the cash.

I kept in touch with Tom Wohlke for a while. I wrote Guy, checking on the rules of Poker Dice, and offering him a chance to win his cash back sometime. I never had a reply and I still haven't been to Nashville. I saw John Stewart at the Borderline many years later, on his last tour, not long before he died. When he sang 'Mother Country' I cried, and when I saw my friend John Harvey afterwards he said he'd cried too.

You should listen to Guy Clark's 'LA Freeway', a great song about him and his wife Susanna's moving from California to Nashville. Jerry Jeff had a hit with that. Or 'Texas 1947', which, even though I'm 10 years younger, and a streamline never appeared through my Connecticut town, is as good a song about growing up in those heady postwar times as I've ever heard. Or 'That Old Time Feeling' which comes and goes in the rain. Or 'The Randall Knife', a talking song, with a haunting nostalgic tune behind it, about his father's life and death. If you want an album, start with Old No. 1, or his live one, Keepers, which has most of his best songs. He and Townes and Steve Earle released a live record, Together at the Bluebird Cafe, in 2001 that's fun. And there was a tribute album, This One's For Him, with various people covering his sons, which came out in 2011. To be honest, I've never listened to it. His last record, My Favorite Picture Of You, came out in 2012, after his second wife Susanna died. It won a Grammy. Clark had been ill for a long time, including ten years with cancer, but kept writing and playing. He died Tuesday. He was 75.

 I think more than anything you should listen to 'Desperados Waiting For A Train', about his grandmother's boyfriend Jack, an oil driller, who raised him the way good grandads do. Here's a link to the original album version. Go to You Tube and listen to how it changes as he gets older. In the last verse, he visits Jack for the last time:

And then the day before he died I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen
And sang another verse to that old song
Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin.
We're desperados waiting for a train...

RIP Guy Clark. I still owe you another game. 


Anonymous said...

Very nice piece, Mike. I saw the foursome tour in London, too. Clark stopped a heckler in his tracks with a force that would have turned a stone man to cinder.

Tim Adkin said...

Funny that you should juxtapose Stewart and Clark as I link them together also. Back in the 80s I lived in the West Midlands in what was somewhat quaintly called a village outside Dudley. Some local musos then had the inspired idea of promoting gigs in local village halls featuring visiting American musicians starting with John Stewart who (so he said) was on the run from the LA Olympics. The night he played Kingswinford Community Centre was the night of the infamous Budd/Decker Slaney showdown.

Over the next couple of years or so various luminaries appeared at local halls before enthusiastic audiences: Townes Van Zandt, Steve Young (a quite superb performer),Jesse Winchester, Guy Clark and Stewart on at least on more occasion. Clark seemed a bit bemused by his surroundings (it was just before Christmas and he was surrounded by fairy lights still around the stage for the OAP party earlier that day)and was not quite the avuncular performer I expected. However I've lived and loved to his records and will continue to do so. With Clark's death all of those said performers have now gone and I feel like a part of me has gone with them.

Have read and enjoyed your blog for many years now but never previously felt inspired to comment - keep up the good work

Michael Carlson said...

Thanks for that comment Tim. Took me a year to come across it. Oddly enough, I was in the Coliseum that day at the LA Olympics, working for ABC. Would've liked to see Steve Young sometime...