The True One
Gene Clark: The Fabulous Lost Byrd Brother
I: 2006: A number of ways a blackbird might look at Gene Clark
"Just to laugh through the columns of trees
To soar like a seagull in breeze
To stand in the rain if you please
Or to never be found"
"For a Spanish Guitar"
Gram Parsons' life and death are impossible not to mythologize. His group the International Submarine Band recorded one of the first albums to clearly mate country & western and rock & roll, Parsons even bringing Nudie Suits along for the style. He joined the Byrds for so brief a time that if you blinked you could have missed it, but it was still long enough to midwife Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the group's greatest and most influential album.
Parsons' friendship with Keith Richards led to the Stones lifting a riff he was fooling with for "Wild Horses." Even being a founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers didn't find him staying with them very long. Finally, out on his own, performing and recording, Parsons wrote some of the best songs of his life and, just as importantly, he hooked up with Emmylou Harris, leading to transcendent duets. Burning the candle at both ends as he also tried to light the middle, Parsons died tragically young. His body was stolen by his road manager and burned in the desert. Parsons' story is an almost-too-neat child's-Little-Golden-Book fable of the tragic rock & roll life.
Conversely, many fans of the genre have never heard of Gene Clark, or at best have only a dim memory of him as one of the Byrds. Many have listened to his work having no idea it's his. This is not a revisionist nitpicking assault on Parsons to decry him as a fraud or to claim in any way he ripped off Clark. This is not a charging rock-critic sermon castigating readers for their lousy taste as a way of deifying an avidly adored cult act like Richard Thompson or Dave Alvin. It isn't even a historical rescue mission celebrating Clark's work by clarifying his innovations and unarguable influence. This is a lot of words about Gene Clark that really just want to aim you at a relatively unadorned goal his songs.
II: 1964-1974: Our history of Gene Clark
"And the laughter of children employed
By the fantasies not yet destroyed
By the dogmas of those they avoid
Knowing not what they are"
"For a Spanish Guitar"
Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn (who changed his name to Roger) formed the Byrds, a group whose importance is even now hard to fully appreciate. Clark, the main songwriter in the band, was crucial in crafting the sound and style of the Byrds' first two albums in 1965, Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! both of which were exciting rich in innovation, enthusiasm, and content. They offered not just music or even just a resonant human artistic experience. There was something more, fleeting shadows hinting at the world of these albums, one close to ours, but not the same, the "other" a place filled with mystery and certainly neither dull, nor ordinary.
As much as, if not even more than politics, music was driving and shaping culture in the Sixties. Few American groups proved to be as important as the Byrds. Their songs hit less like music and more like inspiring tracts, poetic, anti-personnel shrapnel bombs exploding violently, swiftly scattering ragged metals through the air, which hit everywhere. Not only was landscape reshaped, individuals at fantastic distances were hit, often in ways that went unnoticed at first.
Not surprisingly, in the four decades since, almost all the ideas, tangents, intentions, and styles pioneered by the Byrds have influenced legions and have been so widely imitated that listening to them now finds their music transmogrified from cutting edge to hackneyed and overdone. Like standing in a triangle of mirrors, one sees endless images stretching in all directions, ever more imitations of the original until there are no sensible points of orientation and all original taste is lost.
Clark contributed the gateway to yet another generation of musical matings with "Eight Miles High" (Clark's words, they all worked on the music), but then was the first to leave the group. At the time, this was notable because of his fear of flying. Later, the story became more complex, with David Crosby having deliberately usurped his role as rhythm guitarist and relegating Clark to playing tambourine and singing backup onstage. McGuinn, Crosby, and Chris Hillman's continuing prominence and subsequent careers (Crosby, Stills and Nash; Hillman's Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band) found awareness of Clark and his contributions gradually eclipsed. The last half-decade of the Byrds it was just McGuinn and recruited players.
Despite always writing, working, and releasing albums, Clark disappeared off the critical radar. He worked with many of the very best and most influential L.A. musicians, often early in their careers, and hung out with the Burrito Brothers early on. Listening to his albums, often repackaged and retitled, you can always hear sounds and ideas that became commonplace in West Coast music a year or two later. Clark still refused to tour, so these albums usually disappeared. In 1971, he released a solo album that was supposed to be titled White Light, only A&M somehow left the title off. (Dino Valenti's sole solo LP was titled Dino Valente.)
It was that album I listened to, over and over, during one particularly dark time in my life when I was stuck inside of Boston with the Vermont blues again. Clark's writing was inspired, but so much of it also seemed to come from somewhere else, with no traceable lineage.
III: If a career fades in the woods, does it make a sound?
"Remembering the days before
And asking please be kind
It isn't how it was set up to be
But I've set you free this time"
"Set You Free This Time"
It took years before I refocused on the Byrds, seeing them as individuals. Only then did I realize that all the good original songs by the band through "Eight Miles High" (released first as a single and then on their third album) were by Clark. Not only the strongest writer in the group, Clark was clearly one of the best writers of that time, impressing Bob Dylan and earning his praise. His talent got the Byrds recognized as an original creative force despite their first three singles all being covers, including their only two No. 1 hits, "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Dylan and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" a traditional adapted by Pete Seeger.
The first two albums included seven Dylan and two Seeger covers. Regardless, Clark's songs were strong and numerous enough for redemption. Many stood out, especially "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," "You Won't Have to Cry" (co-written by McGuinn), and "I Knew I'd Want You," on the first album, and "Set You Free This Time" and "The Day Walk (Never Before)" on the second. "She Don't Care About Time," the B-side of "All I Really Want to Do" was a very hip cult hit.
After "Eight Miles High," Clark left before they recorded the rest of Fifth Dimension, their third album. Over the next decades, he recorded an album with the Gosdin Brothers, followed some years later by The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark, the classic first album released after he formed a band with banjo legend Doug Dillard. Their second release didn't hold up, and by the time I heard either of those albums, the band had broken up. Clark was never too far from the Byrds even after he quit: He rejoined the group, quit again, filled in for Crosby on a few gigs, rejoined for a tour, quit after a few days, and on and on.
Clark was the major if not sole creative contributor to the truly lame 1973 Byrds reunion album on Asylum, which failed in almost every way in relaunching the band creatively and commercially. David Geffen, however, was so impressed with Clark's work that he signed him to Asylum with a substantial recording budget.
"Changes come so quickly
Easily it can seem bizarre
They say there's a price to pay for going out too far"
"The True One"
Working with producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Clark crafted an opulent, complex masterpiece featuring some of his finest writing. When Geffen realized that they had spent the entire budget but only recorded eight tracks, he gave up on the album. Clark never really recovered from this fiasco, and it didn't help that, for years afterward, when he ran into Geffen anywhere, he'd attack him.
Still, throughout the rest of his career, he continued to play L.A. clubs, cut solo albums, and tour and record with Hillman and McGuinn in one combination or another. Unfortunately, the too common critical tag that plagued Clark was "It's hard to avoid the fact that Clark's contributions to the Byrds remain the best things he's ever done" (Billy Altman). Still, there was some redemption when a few years before his death in 1991 Clark collaborated with Carla Olson (ex-Austinite of the Textones), producing one last great album, So Rebellious a Lover.
IV: Pioneering, exploring, influencing
"I lost 10 points just for bein'
In the right place at exactly the wrong time
I looked right at the facts there
But I may as well have been completely blind"
"Train Leaves Here This Mornin"
Without taking anything away from his work and impact, one can still dispute the too frequently overstated credit of Gram Parsons single-handedly changing the course of American music. Parsons was a restless and brilliant talent, but it was a time of talents unleashed.
If there's any question as to the importance and influence of Gene Clark one only needs to listen to his music. Even though McGuinn's signature 12-string guitar was crucial to the Byrds' music, when it came to their overall sound, harmonies, songs, and style, Clark's contribution was more substantial. The Byrds: There Is a Season, the upcoming Byrds' box set, personally overseen by McGuinn and Hillman, finds Clark writing or co-authoring a dozen of the 25 songs on the first disc.
It would be near impossible to overemphasize the local, national, and international influence of the Byrds. L.A. and the whole West Coast was a hotbed of musical creativity. Folks attended one another's shows, jammed together, and listened to one another's acetates. Consequently, both because of his talent and his history, Clark was a major presence, innovator, and influence in this scene. Listen to Parsons' record with the International Submarine Band and then Gene Clark's first post-Byrds release, which, after industry gyrations, came to be titled Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers, but was later re-released in a slightly different form as Echoes. The ISB offers a straight-ahead marriage of country and rock. Echoes, although not really a country album, demonstrates a more sophisticated integration of many different musical styles and ideas into a comfortable whole. Myriad ideas, traditions, and styles run together, not in color-specific patterns, but merged into something very different though still the same.
What was emerging was a richer, more diverse, harder-to-define American music, a mongrel with genetic breeds so mixed that it was often impossible to differentiate.
V: 2006: American dreamers and American dreams
I hadn't thought of Clark in a while when a friend went off on how great his work is. Memories stirred. I put on the Byrds and then Dillard and Clark, bought CDs of White Light and No Other, and began to track down others.
Clark could write a love song with the best of them, but much of what he wrote fits neatly into no familiar categories. His music is endlessly rewarding. There are so many different avenues by which to access it and to travel along while listening. Sometimes you river raft the flow, drifting along just feeling, all thoughts gone. At other points, you admire the craft of the lyrics and the dexterity of their meanings. Songs invite you into an emotionally dense and richly resonant world, the lyrics sometimes losing meaning and becoming aural emphasis within the music. There are songs I love that I have no idea what they're about.
There is a world of many worlds in the songs of Gene Clark, which you may well not know. It's more than worth the effort to visit.
"Funny how the circle turns around
You think you're lost and then you're found again
Though you always look for what you know
Each time around is something new again"
"Full Circle Song"