Chances are you’ve heard a Townes Van Zandt song. Perhaps without even knowing it. If you’ve watched Patriot or Ozark or Hell on Wheels or Master of None or True Detective, or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or Hell or High Water, or Calvary, you have. However, chances are you have not heard a Guy Clark song, unless you watched Country Strong (Garrett Hedlund hive, rise to meet me!) or Petr’s beloved Boyhood. Which is to say that the disparity in the fame experienced by these two men is known by anyone aware of the long shadows they cast on the folk, Americana, and country genres. The documentary Without Getting Killed or Caught tries to paint a portrait of their relationship built in the 1960s and 1970s, complicated by the love they both had for Guy’s wife Susanna Clark, and maintained (sometimes contentiously) for decades.
Without Getting Killed or Caught is an intriguing, if somewhat unfinished-feeling, exploration into the complicated relationships between the trio. I made that former comparative regarding Clark and Van Zandt’s careers to prove a point: Despite being close friends, the singer-songwriters had varying levels of commercial fame while they were alive and even more so now that they have passed away. Both were respected, both were instrumental in shaping a variation of what was the original “outlaw country” genre, and both were probably in love with the same woman, Susanna, an accomplished songwriter who described Guy as her beloved husband and Van Zandt her soulmate.
The impact the trio had is considered in Without Getting Killed or Caught, which is simultaneously illuminating (thanks to interviews with a number of the trio’s peers, including Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell) and strangely misleading (especially in its depiction of Susanna’s death). For fans of Clark in particular, the film will serve as a fitting homage and coda to the decades the singer-songwriter spent trying to make a name for himself in the industry. Meanwhile, fans of Van Zandt might be disappointed by the documentary’s lack of firsthand information about him; I know I was.
Directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together photographs, video clips, performance footage, audio recordings, and pages of song lyrics, poems, letters, and other correspondence. They also enlist Sissy Spacek as narrator, and interview a number of friends, including fellow musicians Corwell, Earle (whose late son, Justin Townes Earle, received his middle name in honor of Van Zandt), Vince Gill, and Verlon Thompson, and artists Jo Harvey Allen and Terry Allen. Without Getting Killed or Caught takes a mostly linear approach, focusing on Guy Clark’s childhood in Texas, his friendship with Townes, their collaborative approach to songwriting, and how Guy and Susanna fell in love after tragedy struck them both.
“All three of us write songs. We’re starving artists but we have each other,” Susanna said of their bond, and they did nearly everything together. Van Zandt called Susanna every morning at 8:30 a.m. Guy and Susanna worked on songs together, and Guy and Van Zandt worked on songs together. They moved to California to pursue record deals, and tragedy struck again when Van Zandt’s girlfriend was murdered. Guy got signed, although his albums didn’t sell His songs became hits when performed by other artists, although not by him. Susanna found success while Guy didn’t, and it drove a bit of a wedge between their marriage. Van Zandt slipped deeper into drug and alcohol addiction. Yet, they clung together always. Without Getting Killed or Caught tracks this through mostly Susanna’s perspective. We hear her thoughts on Guy’s success or struggles and her thoughts on Van Zandt (“Townes and I lived in a mystical world, one that Guy doesn’t understand”). As Earle says a little sheepishly, “Nobody really talked about it because it was a little too intimate to be in the same room” with Susanna and Townes.
If you want “the tea,” as they say, though, Without Getting Killed or Caught doesn’t really dive into all those alluded-to intimate details. There are a number of “Oh hey, that’s cool!” reveals, in particular for casual fans looking to learn a little more about these musicians, like the backstory behind the turquoise ring Guy was always photographed wearing and the detail that Guy wrote the lyrics to “LA Freeway” (from which the line “without getting killed or caught” is pulled) on a burger sack using Susanna’s eyeliner pencil. However, as the documentary moves into its final half-hour, there are some elements here that feel not-as-detailed as they could be. Did the Clarks try to intervene with Townes’s deepening addictions, given their close friendships? What led to Susanna’s final years spent bedridden? The documentary fails to mention some pretty significant health problems, and could benefit from more analysis about how the work of these three continues to shape the musical genres they pioneered.
“You had to be there to get it, you know?” Guy says at one point, and that feels a bit like a micro-analysis of Without Getting Killed or Caught, which tries its best to bring this trio to life but comes up slightly short.
Without Getting Killed or Caught had its World Premiere at SXSW Online 2021.
Header Image Source: SXSW