Requiem for a sax player

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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."

But the Toys were punk enough to aggravate Will's father, who imagined that his son would become a pianist, an actor--anything other than a rock-and-roll musician.

"I was far more conservative in those years than I am now," says Jack, who mentions that his son often contributed scores to the plays he directed. "Living on the West Coast shakes out the conservative burrs. But William was quickly making a mark for himself in Dallas. While a lot of people knew who I was, a hell of a lot more people knew who William was in Dallas. And there was no way of stopping it. I recently told him I should have stopped him from playing in a punk-rock band, and he said, 'But I wouldn't have allowed it.'"

Sometime in the fall of 1979, Will left the Toys and ended up joining the Telefones, which then consisted of brothers Steve, Chris, and Jerry Dirkx, who were hardly punk at all, more like power-pop. But how he ended up in the band remains the subject of some dispute. Steve, the band's bassist, recalls that the Telefones were playing at DJ's on Lower Greenville Avenue with a band called Snakes (On Everything), which featured Clay on sax and keyboards. Looking to flesh out the Telefones' sound, Steve says, the brothers asked Clay to join up.

But Chris says Clay had begged the brothers to join the band, showing up one night at Gertie's on Lemmon Avenue with his sax, chatting up the boys between sets, and showering them with the plaudits of a true believer. Either way, Clay joined the 'Fones in the fall of 1979 and would remain in the band until 1981.

"We had just started playing, and the music then was real pop, but when Willie joined, it really got things going," says Chris, the Telefones' drummer (and currently a member of the Enablers). "He was real inspiration, a real driving force in terms of music and art. He was the first one to turn me on to the Residents and Split Enz and Talking Heads. He changed the direction of the 'Fones from a power-punk thing to a little more creative kind of thing, adding reggae and ska into the groove."

In December 1979, the Telefones recorded its first single, "The Ballad of Jerry Godzilla/She's in Love with the Rolling Stones," a radio kiss-off that even now sounds less like some dusty artifact than a bona fide lost gem. ("Jerry Godzilla" also appears on Tales from the Edge, Volumes 5 & 6.) A year later, the band won a battle-of-the-bands contest and used the money to go to Oklahoma City to record its first full-length record, Vibration Change, which received its fare share of kudos from the likes of Trouser Press and other national publications. Clay and the Dirkx boys then toured extensively, becoming hotshots on the regional circuit. (On January 6, the Telefones will briefly reunite at Club Dada to pay their final respects to Clay.)

Will and Chris became especially close friends during those days. For Chris, who was used to being in a band with only his brothers, Will sort of became the odd-man-out ally; whenever Jerry and Steve would have the sort of fight only brothers can have, Chris and Will would stand off to the side, laughing like bemused outsiders. Will would also teach Chris how to dress, buying their clothes at vintage thrift shops, and introduce Chris to oddball avant music coming over as imports.

"My favorite story to tell about Will is about the time we played a gig at Raul's in Austin," Chris begins, chuckling softly. "We're driving back at three in the morning, and I'm driving my old Buick Skylark and he's passed out on the passenger side. We bought a lot of beer before we left town, and he has all these empty beer cans scattered around him, like he's made a nest out of them. We got pulled over in Belton, and the cop gets my ID and gives me a ticket. Then he goes over to the other side of the car and knocks on the window, and Will's still passed out! The cops finally opens the door, and Will and the empty beer cans spill out, but Will promptly dusts himself off and says, 'Good evening, officer. How can I help you?' He was able to adapt to situations."

In 1980, Clay married Ace LaRue, whom one old friend describes as a "mover-and-shaker on the scene," and the Telefones played the wedding. For a while, Clay and LaRue lived in an old turn-of-the-century house on State and Boll, one they bought and renovated...sort of. Chris recalls that not much work ever got done on the house because Clay, LaRue, and their pals were always drinking and "hanging out." Parts of the house didn't even have floors or walls, and the kitchen opened up directly into the back yard--no window, no door, no nothing except the wide-open spaces.

But Will by then had become something of a fatherly figure to the younger kids on the scene who were trying to get gigs, who were desperate to make their own seven-inch singles. Mark Ridlen, then a high school kid from Irving fronting his own avant-pop project, Quad Pi, recalls meeting Will at a gig in Halloween 1978. He remembers every detail, down to what Will was wearing that night: an R.O.T.C. uniform and face paint that made it appear as though he were a corpse. "Rotting Razi," Ridlen describes it now.

The Will Clay that Ridlen describes sounds very much like the guy so many old Dallas punks remember: sarcastic and sincere all at once, stand-offish and affectionate to friends and strangers. "He was real encouraging and genuine, and he was also acerbic, like a lot of people back then," Ridlen says. "But he was also real self-deprecating, which I thought was amusing. [We] used to call him 'Won't Clay,' because he was so down about everything. But his theatricality came through, because he was raised around that."

Even those on the scene who weren't close to Clay talk about him with affection. For someone who never fronted his own band, someone history has relegated to the fine print, Will Clay seems in death much larger than in life. He appears now as a guy who could will himself into bands he wanted to join, who never stayed too long in one project because he so desperately wanted to keep moving. Colin Marsh, bass player in The Doo and later Princess Tex, describes him as an enigma, someone who was "rarely present," yet so many others, including his girlfriend and father, use phrases like "life of the party" and "cynical, offbeat sense of humor" to describe him.

"He was a nice guy--a great guy," Marsh says, "but he was always looking for something that wasn't quite there."

In early 1981, Jerry and Steve Dirkx decided that it was Clay who wasn't quite there, that his fondness for beer was affecting his ability to play. And besides, Will was more into that out avant-garde shit, and the Dirkx boys wanted no part of it. So they fired him and hired Mark Griffin (who would eventually become MC 900 Ft Jesus) to replace him. Clay landed in the prog-pop Red Tapes, alongside Paul Quigg, who would go on to form Decadent Dub Team and Vibrolux.

When exactly Clay traded in beer for "the hard stuff," as his father calls it, remains a mystery. Jack Clay says no one is quite sure, only that by the time Will co-founded the Potatoes in 1987, he was using. Will stayed with the band for three years, and only a few cassettes remain of his work in the mighty Potatoes, a band made up of men whose talent helped them transcend the novelty status they so desperately wanted.

"All of the Potatoes were really funny and liked to drink beer and give each other shit," says the Volares' James "Big Bucks" Burnett, who spoke to Clay only a month ago and recalls hearing the enthusiasm and optimism in his voice. "Will was a bit...what's the way to put it? The word that comes to mind is slouchy. He was always shrugging, being real nonchalant. Not cranky, but he kinda had this negative vibe that was still adorable. I think it's important when people die not to gloss it over. He was negative a lot of times, but it never came across as rude or abrasive."

Clay wasn't long for the Potatoes: By 1990, his habit had grown so bad, his family sent him off to Hazelden in Minnesota, where he could dry out and reclaim his life. He would also spend some time in Seattle, helping his father design and build theater sets. He returned to St. Paul in 1992 and met Lucinda at a halfway house there; four years later, their on-and-off-again friendship would evolve into a romance. Everyone who knew Lucinda and Will says the two years they spent together were the best two years of each other's lives.

"Will's a pretty dynamic guy, and it took somebody like him to melt my heart," Hodgson says. "I found my soulmate. Will was just such an amazing person. He was so kind. He brought me coffee every morning, brought me flowers, cooked dinners. He was really good to me, and I fell in love with him, which was not something I expected at all. It surprised the hell out of me. I had sort of thought I didn't know what all this love stuff was about till I met Will."

The day after Christmas 1998, about 50 of Will Clay's old friends gathered at Bar of Soap to remember their old friend. While they were doing that, Jack Clay and Lucinda Hodgson were burying Will and cleaning out the studio he had only recently moved into. They found his paintings, the sax he had begun playing only six months ago. They found his special teas and the photo of the Potatoes playing with Tiny Tim. Then they said goodbye, to each other and to Will.

"William was beginning to play again," Jack says. "He had a new sax, but then it just came to a very sad and sudden end. Our sense of loss is...well, I can't tell you. It's just profound. William has been the apple of my eye all his life and..." He pauses, not to cry, but to consider. "I don't know what the hell I am going to do. But God knows he gave it his best try."

The Telefones will reunite for a brief set January 6 at Club Dada, during the Enablers' set. Also taking the stage for the so-called "Old Farts Talent Show" will be Feet First and Whiteman. The Volares and Punch, featuring Paul Averitt (ex-Trio of One), will open the night from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Scene, heard
Nineteen ninety-eight was The Year of the Local-Band Breakup, as Bedhead, Course of Empire, rubberbullet, Caulk, and so many more Dallas bands called it quits. So it's nice to start 1999 with the announcement of a new band, even if it's one formed from the ashes of several now-defunct outfits. Pinkston--which makes its debut January 28 at Trees opening for Floor 13 and Sixteen Deluxe--features no less than singer-bassist Beth Clardy Lewis (formerly of rubberbullet), ex-Earl guitarist Josh Daugherty, onetime Brutal Juice drummer Ben Burt, and Record Player guitarist Ean Parsons. Pinkston also will perform February 13 at the Satellite Dish in Fort Worth at the record-release party for Captain Audio's bang-up new disc My ears are ringing but my heart's ok.

Send Street Beat your leftover holiday cheer to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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