‘You can’t separate them’: the unlikely love story of Guy Clark, Susanna Clark and Townes Van Zandt | Documentary films

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When director Tamara Saviano decided to make a film about American songwriter Guy Clark, she knew she couldn’t tell her story without covering the lives of two other creative souls – his wife, the songwriter. and painter Susanna Clark, and her best friend, American star Townes Van Zandt. “They influenced him so much, and he influenced them too,” Saviano told The Guardian. “You cannot separate them.”

At the same time, their intertwined lives suffered deep fractures and brutal injuries. The story Saviano tells in the new documentary Without Getting Killed or Caught, named after the lyrics of one of Clark’s best-known songs, LA Freeway, traces a wide arc of personal trauma and creative triumph. It involves violent suicide, multiple addictions and ruinous depression. But, despite all of this, the central characters forged a three-way love that, while unconventional, enriched them all. To reveal the intimacies of the story, Saviano pulled off a real stunt – the audio and written diaries left by Susanna Clark after her death from cancer in 2012. Throughout the film, the diaries are read by award-winning Sissy Spacek. of an Oscar. “They are a gold mine,” Saviano said of the bands.

That the director was able to get them from Guy Clark shows the confidence he had in her. Saviano, a music journalist, got to know the songwriter, who died of lymphoma in 2016, more than ten years ago, when she wrote his memoir, which shares the name of his film. Surprisingly, Clark never listened to or read his wife’s diaries when he bequeathed them to Saviano. “The guy said, ‘All that’s in there is Susanna’s truth and you’re welcome,’” the director said. “He wasn’t afraid of it. I thought it was really brave of him.

Then again, Clark’s open-mindedness dovetailed with the genre of songs he wrote. Like John Prine, Clark used plain language in his songs to achieve literary feats. Likewise, the music he composed infused basic American genres, like folk, blues, and country, with fresh tunes, which he delivered in a voice that communicated both dry humor. and a ready empathy. Throughout the film, Guy’s friends, including American stars Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and Vince Gill, speak in awe of the craft in his songs, as well as his indifference to business concerns. They also speak openly about the complications of his key relationships.

Guy’s connection with Susanna began in tragedy. When they met, he was dating his sister, Bunny, who had become pregnant. Shortly after, she committed suicide. “There was no single reason that anyone could identify,” said Saviano. “There was a newspaper article that said she was suffering from depression but nobody really knows.”

Guy wrote the poignant song for Bunny, She Ain’t Going Nowhere. The loss of her sister has hit Susanna hard. In the diary, she writes: “I was desperate to hold on to my sister and Guy was the closest thing. Because of our grief for Bunny, we fell in love.

Back then, in the late ’60s, Guy had a day job as Artistic Director for PBS Television, but he wanted to devote himself fully to songwriting. He was inspired by his friend Townes Van Zandt who had already started a prolific career. After Susanna met Townes, they forged a bond as deep as she had with her husband. “Guy and I were married, but Townes and I were soul mates,” she wrote in her diary.

Susanna and Townes’ relationship was not just emotional but, at times, sexual. Oddly, this last aspect is not covered in the film. “To me it didn’t matter,” Saviano said of the omission. “It was really about love and friendship between them. Guy knew it was sexual and it was just accepted. We have to keep in mind that they were all young adults at the time. free love from the 60s. And it’s not like Guy was the perfect husband, far from it. They were all individual artists and they wanted to do what they wanted to do. They weren’t very attached to conventions in no part of their life.

Photos from the movie Heartworn Highways: Guy and Susanna Clark, Townes Van Zandt. Photograph: handout

As Steve Earle says in the film, “The relationship between Susanna and Townes, no one talked about it because it was a little too intimate to be in the same room sometimes. And no one raised questions that no one wanted answered.

Saviano thinks Townes gave Susanna something Guy couldn’t. “He had that spiritual and vulnerable side and Guy didn’t share it,” she said. “Guy was a much more stoic and pragmatic person. I think he liked that Townes took some of the pressure off him so he didn’t have to be the lovely husband all the time.

Beyond their friendship, the trio’s bond centered around the art of songwriting. To celebrate, Guy, Susanna and Townes formed an informal lounge of fellow composers. Susanna used to tape some of their conversations, several of which are in the movie. Some capture them drunk, a key part of their nights together. Although Susanna most often expressed her creativity as a painter – evidenced by her works that adorn the album covers of Guy, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and others – she also wrote songs. His had more commercial appeal than Guy’s or Townes’, which caused some jealousy. Two tracks she co-wrote have become No. 1 country hits: I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose for singer Dottsy, and Come from the Heart sung by Kathy Mattea. While some of Guy’s songs performed well thanks to covers from artists like Jerry Jeff Walker, Ricky Scaggs, and Vince Gill, his own albums in the mid-70s bombed. Worse yet, he fought fiercely with his record company for their insistence on more comprehensive arrangements and production. Even the use of drums in his recordings irritated him, believing that they distracted attention from the heart of the song. Van Zandt went further, doing everything possible to alienate even the leaders in Nashville who tried to help him.

Guy Clark has released five albums on major labels and hated them all, although they contain classic tracks he wrote, like Desperados Waiting for a Train or The Randall Knife. In the early 1980s, he left the company for five years. At the end of the decade, he returned to record for the kind of independent labels that allowed him to play largely with an acoustic guitar, as he preferred. His work ended up anticipating the Americana movement, for which he was subsequently awarded numerous awards in this field. “Guy has legendary status there,” Saviano said.

Guy Clark in 2013.
Guy Clark in 2013. Photography: RP

At the same time, her marriage to Susanna went through terrible times, leading to a breakup for several years. “She’s had enough of my bullshit,” Guy says in the movie, while in Susanna’s diaries she expresses her need to sort things out on her own. Over time, however, the depth of their connection brought them closer together and Townes remained a close part of their life. But by then Townes had started a fatal downward spiral, with addictions to both alcohol and heroin. “Today, Townes would have been diagnosed with bipolar,” Saviano surmised. “When he was young they gave him shock therapy and he lost all of his memory. So who knows what it did to their brain.

When Townes died at age 52 in 1997, Susanna went to bed and never left him. She also became addicted to the opioid Percocet. The director believes that “Townes’ death made the lingering grief she felt over the death of her sister even worse. But “because she had been in bed for 15 years, the people of Nashville called her crazy,” Saviano said. “I wanted them to know that Susanna wasn’t crazy. She was in mourning and never recovered.

The director said that one of the reasons she made the film was to restore Susanna’s reputation as well as to boost Guy and Townes’ work. Susanna died before she could comment on Saviano’s use of his diaries in the film. But, the director said she felt “pretty confident that her seal of approval is there. Quite frankly, I think Susanna guided this whole process from the hereafter.”

As proof, she points to strange connections between Susanna, Guy, and the diary’s narrator, Sissy Spacek, which she only discovered while making the film. In the 1970s, Spacek had learned to play the guitar from Guy’s first wife, Susan Spaw, and the actor recorded a song written by Susanna on his one and only album, in 1983. The director believes Guy and Susanna would have appreciated the fact that her film did not water down their complicated story. “Guy was not afraid of the truth,” she said. “None of them were. He said, “Yes, that’s life. This is what it was.


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