Texas is big, y'all.
Maybe not as big as it self-advertises -- it doesn't take a career to drive across it. You can make it from El Paso to Texarkana in 12 hours if you don't get sidetracked in Van Horn like me and Ben Hogan. (I got a flat tire. It was somewhat worse for Ben.)
But Texas is bigger than France. Bigger than all but 38 countries in the world. Big enough to have its own mythology, including its musicians such as Steve Earle and Guy Clark.
Texas mythology, like most mythologies, borrows from the Greeks. So let's start there.
Likely you have heard of Icarus. You know his story of impassioned youth so caught up in the joy of life that he neglected to be careful. Flew too near the sun, crashed and burned. Fell into the ocean, breaking his daddy's heart.
And you heard of his daddy too: Daedalus. An engineer type, he built the impenetrable Labyrinth, a huge maze that trapped the Minotaur for King Minos of Crete. Minos thought highly of Daedalus, considered him one of the most valuable players on his team. But Minos mightn't have been so good at dealing with personnel. Worried that Daedalus might become a free agent, he slapped the royal Cretan equivalent of the franchise tag on him and locked him and his son in a tower to prevent him from going elsewhere and building other Labyrinthine wonders for other kings.
(Maybe the way you heard the story is that Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the Labyrinth. Doesn't matter, it happened a long time ago and nobody really knows if there's a historical basis for any of these characters. There's probably some for Minos, who was said to be the first king of Crete, but he was also said to have been the son of Zeus and the mortal Phoenician Europa and to have become a judge in the underworld after he died. Let's give our legends a little room to breathe.)
You may sort of know what happened next. Daedalus bristled at being treated like a slave by cruel Minos, so he started to plot a way out of the tower. (Or the Labyrinth.)
He started looking at birds, making sketches, testing materials. He fashioned wings out of feathers, string and wax. He learned to use them, making tentative shakedown flights. Finally he was satisfied. He showed them to Icarus, while warning the boy not to get carried away. Fly too low, the sea foam would soak the feathers. Fly too high, the sun will melt the wax.
(For our purposes let's accept Daedalus' theory that the higher you go, the closer to the sun you fly, the warmer it gets. We know it doesn't work that way but for an ancient Cretan engineer, it was a reasonable assumption.)
Anyway, they took off, headed for Sicily. They flew past Samos, Delos and Lebynthos and were making good time when Icarus forgot himself and decided to show off. He looped up and climbed higher and higher in joyous rapture. Then the sun melted his wing wax, and he plunged into the ocean and drowned. That's the part of the story everyone remembers.
And the morale is: A man's got to know his limitations. Or, alternately, don't get above your raising.
But now the rest of the story is that, heart-wrecked as he was, Daedalus carried on. He made it to Sicily, and when he got there he built with mathematical precision a temple to Apollo in memory of his fallen son. And on the wall of that temple he hung up his wings.
There's significance in Daedalus building the temple to Apollo instead of one of the other gods. Apollo was the god of the sun, and so you might expect Daedalus to hold some sort of grudge against him. But Apollo was also the god of rationality, of logic, prudence, discipline and purity. Apollo was the god of excellence.
He was Daedalus' god.
Because Daedalus was a scientist and a craftsman as much as he was an artist. Daedalus took his time, analyzed things, experimented. He measured twice for every cut. He was a careful man who understood it only looked easy to those who hadn't tried it.
His son, Icarus, was different.
Icarus was an unbridled youth, self-confident and raging. He was the opposite of Apollonian -- he was more like Zeus' other son, Dionysus, who was the god of partying. Dion was the god of wine and dance, of emotion. Dion was all about grabbing the gusto, living in the moment.
The ancient Greeks didn't necessarily see Apollo and Dionysus as opposites or rivals. They saw them as two different approaches to life. All of us have a little Apollo in us, all of us have a little Dionysus. One's not better than the other.
And too much of either isn't ideal. Too much Apollo and you're staid and rigid and unmoved by intuition or the small voice inside calling you to be more than you think you might be. Too much Dion and you're decadent.
We talk a lot about the Apollonian and the Dionysian in my trade; it's a way of thinking about artists. Some artists are Apollonian, some are Dionysian, most mix it up but run to one side or the other. Icarus is rock 'n' roll, all about the unregenerate pose, all about living fast and dying young, all about the life.
Icarus is a member of the 27 club. He's Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse.
Daedalus is more like Leonard Cohen, taking years to finish a song.
TEXAS AND STEVE EARLE
So back to Texas, which is about five times bigger than Greece.
And to the new album by Steve Earle, who was born in Virginia but grew up around San Antonio and is one of the last of a special crop of singer-songwriters who sprung up in Texas in the early-to-mid 1970s. Earle was about the youngest of the group that includes Rodney Crowell, David Allan Coe, John Hiatt and, most importantly for our purposes, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Van Zandt was Earle's boyhood hero, he ran away from home to try to find him when he was 14 years old. When he was 19, Earle replaced Crowell as the bass player in Guy Clark's band (Earle sings some background vocals on Clark's marvelous 1975 debut album Old No. 1). By then he'd become well-acquainted with Van Zandt as well.
Van Zandt was one of those busted American figures, a self-styled desperado who rejected convention. He was damaged and tortured and often self-punishing and sad. For nearly 30 years he haunted the periphery of the outlaw country movement, a venerated, fiercely anti-commercial songwriter whose prodigious gifts were solemnized by his more famous peers -- including Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson ("Pancho & Lefty") -- and generally ignored by the industry and the public, at least until after his death on New Year's Day 1997.
(There's a story -- probably best told by T Bone Burnett as part of the animated series Drawn & Recorded -- about how when Earle once showed up at Van Zandt's place eager to show off his new .357, his annoyed idol put a couple of bullets in the chamber, spun the barrel, put it to his temple and pulled the trigger a couple of times. Apparently that was more hardcore than even the young Earle was prepared to face.)
Earle famously went through cycles of indulgence and dependence and seems to come out the other side, a worldly wise philosopher/professor/poet with a loyal audience who can record an album every other year or so and have it noticed by critics and bought by his base.
A decade ago Earle released Townes (New West), an unusual project for him in that it consisted entirely of songs written by Van Zandt. Earle had only recorded a handful of cover songs before, and his tribute to Van Zandt was tender and occasionally sublime. Earle's cover of the oft-covered "Pancho & Lefty" might be the best of the lot.
After Clark died in 2016, it seemed inevitable that Earle would record a similar tribute. Now he has, Guy (New West), which is a sturdy collection of Clark's songs done (mostly) in Earle's inimitable slurry gruff, snarling drawling. (The exception is the album opener "Dublin Blues," which Earle makes almost pretty and prompted my wife, Karen, to remind me of how Bob Dylan sang "Lay, Lady Lay" in a lower, warmer register than his usual nasal style.)
GUY AND TOWNES
Clark and Van Zandt were real people; they walked the earth -- I saw both of them with my own eyes.
Van Zandt was a remarkable songwriter, even if the last 15 years of his life weren't very productive. He didn't finish many songs in that period. And when you get around people who knew him, the conversation often gets sad. Van Zandt could be a jerk. He was drunk on stage a lot. He wasn't reliable.
He had deep problems and a love-hate relationship with attention.
If you watch Ethan Hawke's 2018 movie Blaze, about Arkansas-born singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (played by Little Rock native Ben Dickey), you get a sense of the tragic nature of Van Zandt's trajectory. In that movie he's played by musician Charlie Sexton, who knew both Van Zandt and Foley, and though Sexton's performance is empathetic and brimming with intelligence, it doesn't pull any punches about who Van Zandt was.
Van Zandt was Icarus.
He was more about the life than the work. In the film he tells an interviewer (and instructs his acolyte Foley) that to live as an artist you have to "blow everything off. " Everything normal. Family, friend, any chance of lasting happiness. It's bleak. It's Dionysian. It's wanting to die before you get old.
Clark however, was Daedalus.
He made things -- he built guitars with his own hands. When he was young he had his own guitar repair shop. He had a good marriage that lasted 40 years. He released more than 20 albums, and there's not a bad one among them. He was disciplined. Some of the songs he wrote he never recorded; Lyle Lovett recorded "Step Inside This House," the first song Clark ever wrote, but Clark never did.
And, as Lovett told an audience in El Dorado earlier this year, Clark finally asked Lovett to stop doing the song.
"We were on the elevator together at the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver, B.C.," Lovett said. "I'd just ended my show with it, and Guy said 'I wish you'd stop doin' that song. There's a reason I never recorded it.'"
Clark spent the next 20 minutes deconstructing his own song, pointing out the flaws. But Lovett remained unconvinced -- though when he plays the song now, he always frames it as an example of an artist's first work.
Clark's work is Apollonian, trued up straight, well-built. That's not to say it doesn't have inspiration, that it doesn't spark and bite, only that it is work. Sturdy work.
And Earle, on his good days, is a synthesis of those two styles. He's got the Nashville combine songwriter part and the cosmic cowboy part; he's mortal but maybe touched by the gods. Part of the Texas pantheon that stretched to encompass Bob Wills and Beyonce, Ornette Colman and Buddy Holly. All them demi-gods.
Style on 04/28/2019
Print Headline: Townes and Guy and Daedalus and Dion