There’s room for a fine-made thing (Philip Martin Article)

Published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on 5/21/2016 on Guy Clark and Skinny Dennis

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According to Wikipedia, Skinny Dennis Sanchez, a Los Angeles session musician who specialized in upright bass, was 6’11” and weighed 136 pounds.

People who knew him have told me he was probably three or four inches shorter than that, but in his cowboy boots he was pretty tall. He had Marfan syndrome, and he dropped dead of heart failure in 1975 while playing upright bass onstage behind his friend John Penn. He was 28 years old, and the only reason anyone knows about him today is that he’s mentioned in the song “L.A. Freeway,” which was a minor hit for Jerry Jeff Walker in 1972:

Here’s to you old skinny Dennis

Only one I think I will miss

I can hear that old bass singing

Sweet and low like a gift

you’re bringing

These days if you Google “skinny dennis,” the first result you get is a bar by that name located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that features “cold beer, hot peanuts, live music.” On its website is a picture of its namesake and a little bio that reads like it might have been cut and pasted from the Wikipedia site. It seems that Dennis Sanchez, whoever he was, has become a hip icon, a little more obscure (therefore a little more desirable) than the ubiquitous Che Guevara stencil. I’m surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a band out there that’s calling themselves Skinny Dennis, which would be a way of borrowing some outlaw cachet while feigning tribute. (So maybe I’ll call dibs on it. How about it, Dave Hoffpauir, you want to play drums in Skinny Dennis?)

Anyway, “L.A. Freeway,” as you probably know by now, was written by Guy Clark, who died last week, becoming the latest music legend claimed by the reaping blade of 2016. Clark was one of those songwriters’ songwriters, generally unknown to the wider world but deeply venerated by a few. I consider myself a songwriter and I work the same folkish country medium and use the same tools as Clark did, so I am familiar with his work. I admire most all of it, and a couple of songs–the lovelorn “Dublin Blues” and the eulogy for his father “Randall Knife”–strike me as near-perfect works of art.

I didn’t know Guy Clark, and frankly I’m a little weirded out by a lot of the gushing stuff I’ve seen online and in print the past few days. I’m surprised that his death has elicited so much attention though I understand that, like everybody else, I’m in my own little echo chamber. A lot of my Facebook friends are Clark fans, and some of them had a personal connection to the man. I’d only seen him play a couple of times in half-empty clubs.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for not knowing who Guy Clark was, for never hearing about him until his death seemed to take over social media last week. In many ways, he wasn’t that big a deal–he never really made it as a performer (though I tend to prefer his versions of his songs to most of the cover versions I’ve heard), at least not in the way that provides for future generations. Up until a few years ago when his failing health made it impossible to continue, he supplemented his income by building guitars in the basement of his modest Nashville house. Guy Clark was famous in a way, but he lived the way most of us live; he had to think about how he spent his money.

While I can rhapsodize about what a great songwriter he was and about how he was a master of understatement and the employment of just the right specific detail (see “L.A. Freeway”), most of the people who are inclined to receive Clark’s music favorably probably have already found him.

What I always liked about Clark was how in interviews he’d bristle when his interrogator would invariably bring up his “craftsmanship.” Mostly he was polite about it, but sometimes he was blunt. Clark considered himself an artist, and his standards for songwriting went far beyond the verse-chorus-release Nashville commercial model. Building a guitar was craft–it was something you could measure, mill and fit–but making a song was (for Clark at least) more like writing poetry or painting. Without a modicum of grace, of something ineffable, a song was a failure. Without inspiration, it was a dead thing, no matter how close its tolerances. A robot could build a guitar–for all practical purposes, robots build some guitars–but something human has to animate a work of art.

You can’t say it, or at least you can’t say it very often, but probably everyone who writes for a living understands the distance between the utilitarian prose necessarily cranked out for contractual purposes and the unreachable music in your head. Just because you don’t chase down Shakespeare doesn’t mean you can’t aspire.

Yet you know how it is; the world goes in for loud trash.

It always has, though sometimes it seems like we’re prouder of our base appetites than we used to be. People love the vulgar and the flash, the sweet and the sordid, the name-branded and celebrity-certified. Maybe it’s not hard to see why, for most of us, work is a necessary evil, something with which we want to be done. At the end of the day, the last thing some of us want is to be confronted by truth and beauty, or anything more complicated than a ball game or faked-up reality drama.

Popular taste has always been pretty bad, and most people know it. But most people don’t care all that much, they’d have you believe it’s the singer, not the song; that it’s all in the attitude and that you fake it ’til you make it. That’s why billions and billions are sold, why the best-seller lists are populated by insipid tell-alls and genre exercises, why commercial vacuity is the coin of the realm in Hollywood.

Why Donald Trump is perceived as a bold choice. Why Guy Clark is a minor figure in our culture.

But I believe there is still room in the world for a fine-made thing, that busting meter doesn’t mean anything until you learn to write in meter, that the hardest thing to do in front of others is be honest with yourself. I believe you’ve got to learn the craft to have a chance to make art. And that Skinny Dennis Sanchez is worth remembering.


Editorial on 05/22/2016

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