Even the biggest fans of Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark—of which there are many in these parts, thanks to the fact that he’s a KPIG favorite who played many shows here over the years for Snazzy Productions—are likely to find a lot of surprises in Tamara Saviano’s Without Getting Killed or Caught. I am one of them, in fact, and I can attest that my fellow Clark fans are actually the most likely to be surprised by what comes out in the documentary, which screens on Sept. 15 at the Rio Theater, since we’re the ones who probably thought we had a good understanding of his story and his art.
But after seeing Saviano’s film, I have to admit there was a lot about Clark I didn’t know, and some of the ways I’ve always thought about his music are, it turns out, exactly the opposite of how he wanted to be seen.
For instance, you’d imagine the man who wrote “Stuff That Works,” had albums titled Boats to Build and Workbench Songs, and was known for his woodworking (especially his guitars) would have fully embraced—if not created himself—the image that rose up around him as a song “craftsman.” But incredibly, he hated it.
“Guy and I had a lot of discussions about this,” Saviano tells me. “When it came to his songwriting, he wanted to be known as a poet and an artist. He thought of himself as a craftsman when he was building guitars, but he just thought that songwriting is art and poetry, and there’s no, you know, craft to it. I disagree, and I’ve talked to many other songwriters who think the same thing—yes, it’s an art, but you do craft. Especially with Guy’s songs, because every word mattered, every line mattered. So it was odd to me that he felt that way.”
The film also tells Clark’s personal story, through the eyes of his wife Susanna Clark (narrator Sissy Spacek reads convincingly from her journals), who was a successful songwriter herself. In a way, the film is as much a documentary about Susanna, and also about their close friend and fellow Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. It provides a window into the sweet and tender side of Van Zandt, which came out most in how he related to the people he loved; this warm look at the troubled Texas musical legend is completely different in tone than the 2004 Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me.
This trio of subjects is at the center of Without Getting Killed or Caught’s most startling revelation: that there was basically a love triangle between the three of them, with Susanna deeply committed to both Guy and Van Zandt, in different ways. “I think what blew my mind the most is that they were all just so nonchalant about it,” says Saviano. “I’m 20 years younger than Guy, so I grew up in a different time. But they were in the ’60s, all the free love, and they just didn’t feel the same way about monogamy that some of us feel. Townes and Susanna had this cosmic connection, they were both much more vulnerable. Guy was very stoic, and I think Townes took some of the pressure off of Guy. Guy really wanted to focus on his songwriting and focus on his career. There’s no doubt he loved Susanna. They loved each other. But Townes could just take up some of that slack.”
With co-writer Bart Knaggs, Saviano adapted the documentary from her biography, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark, which came out in 2016, the same year Clark passed away after battling cancer for years. Her co-director Paul Whitfield, who’s worked on a number of Bruce Springsteen documentaries and concert films, is also her husband.
Saviano began working with Clark on her book in 2008, and co-produced the tribute album This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark in 2011. At that point, she had no idea she would also be making a film.
“I had no intention of doing a documentary,” she says. “I was going to write a book, and that was going to be it. But what happened was in 2014, a filmmaker approached Guy about doing a documentary, and Guy was telling me about it. And he just said, ‘Look, I don’t want to start over with someone new. You already know everything. If there’s going to be a documentary about me, I think you need to do it.’”
In other words, Without Getting Killed or Caught—which features interviews with Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Terry Allen, and many others—is a true labor of love.
“I thought, ‘Well, okay, [Guy’s] not going to let anybody else do it. I’m kind of stuck with the job, right? So I asked my husband Paul, who is a video guy and a production guy, if he would work on it with me. Of course, I had no idea how expensive and difficult it would be when we started—it’s so hard to make a film like this. But I’m really glad we did it. We’re really proud of it. And we want everybody that loved Guy to see this film.”
‘Without Getting Killed or Caught’ will be shown at 7:30pm on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15, go to snazzyproductions.com. Proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of the show are required.