A Thoughtful and Sincere Meditation on a Great Poet.
It’s sad that much can be learnt about Terry Clarke by way of the obituaries that followed his passing, in April 2020, at the age of 72. One such appears in the Guardian written by his wife Kate and it is a touching though clear-eyed tribute to a man she obviously loved and admired. If you are interested it gives a good account of where he came from both as a man and a musician whose roots lay in country, rockabilly, blues, folk and Irish laments. He released 14 albums in total and apparently was briefly associated with popsters Pickettywitch. AUK’s own pages recently carried this tribute by interviewee Michael Weston King in a discussion about awards and honours,
‘If we are just talking about americana music, or alt-country, roots music etc, there are many artists who have given their whole careers to the genre, not just dipped in and out…., the recently departed Terry Clarke….’
The current posthumous album, ‘Walk Like a King’, probably sits at the edge of the americana genre; however Clarke certainly has roots therein. He lived in Austin for some time in the ‘90s and collaborated with members of Joe Ely’s band including guitarist Jesse Taylor. Johnny Cash provided appreciative sleeve notes to the 1993 album, ‘Rhythm Oil’, which is considered one of his best: “Here is the real thing – bare-bones blues gut-bucket rural rock.” Clarke was one of the first from outside Austin to play at the then newly constituted South by South West festival.
‘Walk like a King’, is inspired by Dylan Thomas and the four years he spent in America before succumbing to his indulgences. The album is something of a family affair with Clarke joined by his wife Kate, son Joseph as well as long time collaborator Wes McGhee. The scene is set in the sleeve notes,
‘The Dylan Thomas who sailed into New York in 1949, left behind a bombed-out, impoverished, austerity ridden Great Britain …… He sailed into a neon-drenched world where be-bop was spoken where the dreams of Elvis Presley, The Drifters, Johnny Cash, West Side Story, Dion Dimucci and Jack Kerouac were about to be born’.
Clarke’s fascination with Thomas dates back at least to the early ’90s and he follows his journey to and in New York, and his various encounters therein. The poet’s apparently simple credo is laid out in the opener, ‘Springtime in New York’, “Drink, Think, Walk, Talk, Write.”
The album’s 16 tracks, clocking in at just over the hour culminate with Thomas’ death in St Vincent’s Hospital described in the final track, ‘W12 Street’, – which also name-checks another inveterate, though gifted, drinker, Malcolm Lowry, who outlasted Thomas by four years: “In the halls of St. Vincent’s / Doctors all hang their heads / We couldn’t help him, couldn’t save him / Dylan Thomas is dead.”
Clarke’s various influences are on display; ‘The Blue Doors’ with its bluesy shuffle, ‘Miss Winters and Miss Monroe’, an intro of chiming guitars. ‘The End of the Line’ offers a ballad, ‘Lament for Dylan’, some Spanish style guitar, the clip-clop of imaginary hoof-beats brackets, ‘Long Gone Lonesome Laugharne’, – all evidence of the range of musical influences listed above. Nonetheless, there is at times a similarity in what is on offer. Clarke’s vocals are clear and his is a distinctive voice that will stay in your mind; it was though, something of a struggle to think of any helpful comparisons. It does seem that the singing on earlier recordings, for example, 1991’s ‘Shelley River‘, carried more power and range (though everybody’s voice was probably in better shape 2 decades ago). Having made some enquiries there seems to have been no physical reason for this; it may be more to do with the recording or mixing?
Musically there are pleasing interludes but nothing that really stands out, ‘sufficient to its task’, might be the operative phrase with no really ear-catching melodies. Clarke seems to be best known as a lyricist and it is unfortunate that the CD release does not come with any words on the inlay. This prevents a more detailed appraisal of the clearly heartfelt songs produced over many years. It’s surprising how often this is the case. Stand-out tracks are, ‘1953’, – a summary of the year’s highlights neatly contrasting the Coronation with the artistic explosion across the water – and ‘Laugharne 68’, which scores for its sheer brio and the concluding drunken guitar. ‘W12th Street’ closes proceedings on both the poet’s life and the album with a demonstration of how life goes on.
It’s a cliché to avoid but this album is a grower and Clarke’s voice did become more appealing with each listen. He was clearly an artist well-liked and respected by his peers and considered a fine songwriter – of which there is evidence here. It would have been nice to be able to give that side of his art closer attention. The musical accompaniment seems to be more about backing than anything more notable and perhaps – it’s not often something to be said – fewer minutes might have been beneficial.
What does get top marks though is the vision to write a coherent selection of songs about a particular subject – in fact, a particular man who wrote great poetry and some of the most memorable lines in modern literature whilst inspiring a sizeable shift in the way language could be used and heard. A pity that he thought drinking 18 whiskies in a row was something of note!
Here’s a final quote from Terry Clarke giving further vivid life to his vision of Thomas and his work: “I imagine Dylan Thomas sitting in the Cadillac’s back seat…. while upfront, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are scanning the road like hawks on jazz in Kerouac’s, ‘On the Road’.”
Pinning this album down with a definitive comment has been particularly difficult and even a final run-through gave the feeling that it might have been undersold in some way. Best advice – have a listen and see what you make of it.