Requiem for a sax player

Will Clay died an unsung minor hero of Dallas rock and roll

This is not the complete story of Will Clay. There are too many gaps here for it to be the whole truth and nothing but. That is because so many of Will Clay's old friends and bandmates have long since left Dallas, disappeared without leaving forwarding addresses. And it is because Clay himself came and went without leaving behind many traces--a few recorded songs here and there, but nothing too substantial for the files of the record-keepers. And it is because Will Clay himself is not around to tell his own story, a tale that sounds as though it's worth telling, even with all the empty spaces left intact.

On December 21, 43-year-old Will Clay succumbed to the heroin habit he tried so valiantly to kick throughout much of this decade. He had been clean for years, had his life in order: a new studio in St. Paul, Minnesota; a new business texturing walls; a new band made up of other clean-and-sober ex-addicts. He had a kind, sweet girlfriend of two years, herself an ex-cocaine addict clean for six years. He had a father and sister in Seattle and a brother in North Carolina who adored him.

But 10 days before 1998 became 1999, all of that disappeared for Will Clay.
His girlfriend, Lucinda Hodgson, says she is not exactly positive that he died of a heroin overdose. But she does know he had been using for two weeks and that "anytime an addict uses, you're putting your life in danger." She simply doesn't know why he began using again. He had, after all, everything going for him. "He died on a winning streak," she says.

If you don't know his name, it's only because Will Clay made his mark in bands that existed either long ago or in the most hidden corners of the local music community--meaning, Bar of Soap. The first band he recorded with, the Toys, came and went before 1980 ever rolled around. The other bands on his resume--among them the Telefones, Red Tapes, and, most recently, the Potatoes--were cult heroes at best, meaning they were adored by loyal handfuls.

But Will Clay was once a significant part of the Dallas music scene, perhaps because he played around town back when you could actually call it a scene with a straight face. Back then, everyone knew everyone, played with everyone, got along with everyone. Musicians fought for the same cause: It wasn't about getting signed, but about getting heard. That Will Clay played with so many bands that remain revered among those who remember that far back speaks well of his talent. That he's remembered well by those people speaks well of him.

"He was so encouraging, and when you got him one-on-one, he was a pretty straight shooter," recalls Lithium X-Mas' Mark Ridlen. "He was fatherly toward us, but in a group of people he was the jokester. And he had a real old soul. I thought he was in his mid-30s when he was in his 20s. He just seemed more world weary. And I will never forget his big, round eyes."

Will was born March 28, 1955, in Evanston, Illinois, where his father, Jack, was attending graduate school at Northwestern University. When he was 11, his family moved to Dallas after Jack had been hired by Southern Methodist University to start up and head a professional-actors' training program, and he remained at SMU for 20 years as a professor and director. Jack also founded Stage #1, which became one of this city's more respected companies.

Jack always wanted his children to be artists and instilled in them the desire to be creative, expressive...most of all, themselves. He taught Will and his sister Cynthia how to play piano when they were children, and all these years later, Jack says, Cynthia still plays and does so "beautifully, much more beautifully than me." But Will wasn't much interested in the instrument. He preferred the saxophone instead, which he picked up during junior high; Will would attend the Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts to pursue his ambition to make a go of it as a professional musician.

During the mid-1970s, he met and began playing with guitarist-singer David Hufford, bassist David Faulkner, and drummer David Lee, and by 1976, they formed the Toys, among the first of the punk bands that began to take root in a Dallas music scene then as underground as oil. Punk reached Dallas slowly, almost like a rumor--the Sex Pistols were still two years away from playing the Longhorn Ballroom. Dallas punks didn't even have their own venues to call home; they were ghettoized to playing "Punk Rock Wednesdays" at such clubs as Gertie's and Fannie Ann's. During the rest of the week, those venues played host to the Southern-rock regulars.

There exists little trace of the Toys: The band didn't even release a single, appearing only on the FM102 (which would eventually become Q102) compilation Texas Refined Crude, released in September 1977. The record also featured such local forgettables as Lynx (featuring Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, no less) and Doug Simirl, whose claim to fame was that he once played in the Marksmen with Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs. The Toys provided the song "Why Don't You Hate Me Like Everybody Else," which the FM102 staff described in the album's liner notes as a "tongue-in-cheek punk rock tune of questionable social significance" that "caught everyone's attention." The band actually didn't much care for the punk label: "We feel the same frustration and closeness to rebellion as punk bands do," Faulkner said in 1977, "but I think we're more like an urban rock band."

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