A Byrd's Tale
by Ray Robertson
He was naturally learned: he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. --Dryden
Gene Clark was not an intellectual, and I mean that in the best possible way. Meaning, he didn't believe that having NPR on in the background while he drank his morning coffee made him any less bewildered about the shaky state of the world than the guy trying to tune in last night's baseball scores on his car radio while on route to eight hours of minimum wage servitude. Meaning he didn't let it drop to reporters that, oh yes, he'd read Rimbaud (in translation, of course), late nineteenth-century French Symbolist poetry, just one of the endlessly arcane literary influences plainly detectable in his musical oeuvre if one just dug deeply enough. Gene Clark, if he could be bothered to read at all, stuck to comic books and the Bible. And whether with the Byrds, Dillard & Clark, or on his own, no one wrote grieving minor-key masterpiece melodies married to Rorschach test tell-tale lyrics that even come close.
He was born Harold Eugene Clark in 1944 in Tipton, Missouri, the third of thirteen children, not quite a farm boy--his father graduated from fighting Hitler to working for the Swope Park, Missouri golf course--but certainly a country boy. The Clark family chopped the firewood that heated their home (a converted trolley barn) and milked the cows. Typically, the song most redolent of Gene's semi-rural childhood, "Something's Wrong," isn't a sentimental looking back, but an anguished update on life bereft of the simple somatic joys of youth. Speaking of his primary source of inspiration, Philip Larkin, another poet Gene Clark probably never heard of, said, "deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."1 Gene wouldn't have read the Observer interview where Larkin was quoted saying this, but he would have known exactly what the prickly British poet was talking about.
He learned to play guitar from his father, and before he turned teenager, he could pull off respectable recreations of Hank Williams, Elvis, and the Everly Brothers, a pretty fair representation of what the best of his mature music has to offer: country soul, rock and roll desperation, superior melodicism. He joined the usual rock band--Joe Meyers and the Sharks--before forming the usual folk group, the sort of Kingston Trio knock-off that all ambitious greasers in the early 1960's eventually gravitated toward (Dylan only being different in having the superior taste to choose Woody Guthrie as his musical model and not the Limelighters). Spotted performing in Kansas City by a member of the New Christy Minstrels, he joined the ten member troupe and lent his voice to the group's very successful emasculation of popular folk songs, learning, if nothing else, to hate traveling to eighteen cities in nineteen days and how giving the people what they want is how you gain a steady paycheck and lose whatever integrity you ever had. Being a suit-and-tied singing puppet did take him to Winnipeg in February 1964 however. He would have heard the Beatles and had his life changed sooner or later anyway, but that was where he heard them first.
A couple of weeks later while on tour in Virginia, he fed coin after coin into a coffee shop jukebox trying to figure out how "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" could sound so fresh and so alive and so joyful. He quit the Minstrels the next day and decided to move to Los Angeles and do what the Beatles did. He got lucky, as most unusually ambitious people tend to do. Jim McGuinn, another dropout from the wholesome folk factory, had noticed what Gene noticed--how the Beatles were playing ‘50's American rock and roll and R&B with an energy and elation that hadn't been heard since Elvis started doing what the Colonel told him to and Little Richard found the Lord, but through the harmony-bending folky filter of British skiffle--McGuinn was playing a Beatles tune on his twelve-strong acoustic on a slow night at the Troubadour when Gene asked him if he could sit down and play with him. Later, when David Crosby, hanging out at the same club (never underestimate the value of determined idleness) added his soaring high harmony tenor to the rich lead vocal blend of the other two, they knew they had something. Something rock, something folk, something new.
"Mr. Tambourine Man"--a rough Dylan demo that the Byrds' co-manager Jim Dickson convinced them to take a shot at covering--is the song that gave them their first hit and, in combining brains with a beat plus McGuinn's celestially chiming twelve-string electric Rickenbacker, helped give birth to the thing called "folk-rock," but it's Gene's originals that remain the most impressive items on the first two albums. Impressive because there's something compellingly different about them even now, 45 years later. This, in spite of the fact that all but a few are harmonically saturated in the sweetly sad minor-chord sounds of melancholy and self-doubt, Top-40 gloom tunes. Not that anyone who ever acquired a genuinely unique way of doing anything ever achieved it by consciously setting out to be unique. As David Crosby noted, Gene "didn't know the rules about music so he ignored them blithely and that made for very good writing. He used chord formations and ways of doing things that other people just hadn't done because they were used to doing it by the common rules. He had no idea what they were so he just did what felt good."2
But even as the Byrds soared in popularity and Gene Clark the songwriter took flight right alongside (songs like "Set You Free This Time" and "She Don't Care About Time" showing the lyric-liberating influence of Dylan, resulting in words almost as interesting as his melodies), Gene Clark the man was experiencing more earthbound troubles. Because he had more songs on the first album than anyone else and was therefore making exponentially more royalty money than the others, McGuinn and Crosby, the other two songwriters, began to blockade his new compositions in favour of their own (generally inferior) material, an understandably frustrating situation for someone for whom it wasn't unusual to write a half dozen new songs a week. Additionally, after already eroding his confidence as a rhythm guitar player to the point that Gene relinquished the instrument for a tambourine, Crosby was the archetypal entitled child of the Los Angeles well-off- his father an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, and every time naughty young David was expelled from private school, his parents simply writing a check and enrolling him in another. Crosby began to openly mock Gene on stage and off for not being, you know, groovy enough. That Gene, a six foot two country boy who looked less like a rock and roll star than a collegiate linebacker, didn't simply punch the butterball brat in the face is testament to Gene's well-mannered upbringing. As with the New Christy Minstrels, he was also weary of living on airplanes and in hotels, with the added aggravation of having to elude screaming pubescent girls and teen-beat reporters wanting to know what his favourite colour was.
So he had his reasons for flying the Byrds' nest. But as is often the case, external annoyances weren't nearly as menacing as the mayhem swelling inside. Gene hated to fly--more than once had gotten off a plane literal moments before it was supposed to take off, sweat-soaked and ashen and loudly adamant that it was going to crash. But his infamous fear of flying was only a symptom of either what some of his brothers and sisters indentified in hindsight as a family-shared bi-polar condition, or, at the very least, a propensity for depression and attendant anxiety attacks (which frequently manifested themselves as crippling stage fright). Self-medicating his unacknowledged condition with alcohol and drugs (remembers band publicist Derek Taylor: "as for Gene, he would do anything. He'd have a glass in one hand and a pill in another"3), the moodiness and excessive introspection were only exacerbated. There were also rumours of a go-go dancer and a disastrously bad acid trip. People who can't drink milk are called lactose intolerant; people who shouldn't dabble in consciousness-mining psychedelics are called Gene Clark.
Still, his first solo album, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, was recorded in 1967 and released the same week his ex-bandmates' new album, Younger than Yesterday, appeared, guaranteeing diminished media attention for the new guy and a divided listenership. The baffling release date (both the Byrds and Gene were on the same record label) wasn't the only curveball the industry threw at him, nor would it be the last. The Gosdin Brothers added fine harmonies to Gene's new batch of songs, but that was the extent of it- they never even set foot in the studio while the album was being recorded, and clearly didn't deserve equal billing (they and Gene shared the same manager who thought he could boost two sagging careers with one album title). Gene wanted to call his first album--his declaration of independence from the Byrds--Harold Eugene Clark. Columbia Records told him no, that his real name simply wasn't catchy enough.
If Gene hadn't entirely shed his Beatles influences by the time of his inaugural solo record ("Elevator Operator" is not only transparently Beatles; it's transparently bad Beatles) and the though string-swamped "Echoes" is baroque rock without the rock, there was enough good material on Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers to announce a major, many-sided talent. "Tried So Hard" and "Keep on Pushin'" are right there at the advent of country-rock, "Is Yours is Mine" is poppy hippy without being hippy dippy, and "So You Say You Lost Your Baby" picks up lyrically where Gene left off with "Eight Miles High," his last Byrds songwriting credit, casually throwing out images and associations worthy of anything Dylan was coming up with at the time. But when Crosby's noxious personality finally got him booted out of the Byrds and it was apparent that Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers wasn't going to sell, Gene's management (also the Byrds management) convinced him to re-join the band, at least temporarily, just in time for an impending concert tour. Gene lasted three shows before breaking down in Minnesota and taking the train back to L.A. alone while the rest of the band flew on to New York . Byrds roadie Jimmy Seiter remembers the next time he saw Gene, having been sent by management to pick him up at the train station after his long trip home:When I got there and met him at the train, he just walked past me at a fast pace, and he didn't say a word, got in a yellow cab and split to the office. Now, Gene was always afraid of small closed spaces. He never took elevators. We had this old fashioned elevator in the office building and Gene never took it. But for some reason, he did that day. When I arrived at the office the police are there and the Fire Department--someone is stuck in the lift. Gene is stuck in the lift for two- and-a-half hours. When they finally opened it he ran out, soaking with sweat, and split. I didn't see him for six or eight months after that. The inside of the elevator was totally scratched up where he'd tried to get out. You should have heard him screaming. Unbelievable. He was going crazy in that elevator. He screamed at the top of his lungs for almost an hour.4Despite the commercial failure of his debut album, Gene managed to secure a contract with the recently-formed A&M label, likely because of his Byrds pedigree. Regardless of how he got it, he set to work on a trunk full of new songs that weren't sounding in the studio like he heard them in his head when he stumbled upon an old friend. Doug Dillard was exactly the right person for Gene Clark to run into at this precise moment in his life. A recent former member of the legendary bluegrass Dillards, Doug's Beechwood Canyon home was a nightly magnet for every progressive picker in town, and Gene soon joined in on the fun, the number one requirement if whatever you're doing is going to have any lasting value. Doug Dillard was a brilliant banjo player and a flesh and blood reminder of Gene's country music roots, but, best of all, he was a skinny hillbilly Buddah, an always grinning good ol' boy from Gene's own Missouri who never worried about much of anything except keeping his instrument in tune and his pot stash full. Older than him by a full seven years, there was a lot Gene could learn from Doug.
Unfortunately, Doug Dillard was also exactly the wrong person for Gene Clark to run into at this precise moment in his life. Jim Dickson:When Gene got with Douglas Dillard, things changed. Douglas was amazing. He came into town on a vodka drunk, then discovered grass, and kept drinking and doing grass. Then he discovered acid and you would find Douglas drinking, smoking dope, and doing LSD at the same time. How he survived it, I have no idea. But he's fine now. Sweetheart of a guy, but he had an influence on Gene. While it didn't hurt Douglas because he didn't care, Gene was way too high-strung and too complex to deal with that.5There's no recorded history of Friedrich Nietzsche espousing a love of banjos and fiddles alongside his touting of the Will to Power, but when he wrote that "one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star," he might have been talking about Gene and Doug, because the music that these two wild boys from the Show Me State put together that became 1968's The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark more than justified whatever hangovers and burgeoning bad habits either one acquired. Gram Parsons died younger and with a lot more flair so he gets better press, but regardless of who inched the country and rock worlds closer together first, it's who did it best that matters most, and as a songwriter in a musical genre he helped create, Gene Clark has no equal.
The original vinyl version of the pair's first effort runs less than thirty minutes, but every original tune is a Gene Clark gem. "She Darked the Sun" is bluegrass slowed down and made to grow up; "Don't Come Rollin'" is 1867 back porch picking meets 1967 Summer of Love wishful thinking; "With Care From Someone" is packed full of quintessential linguistic Clarkisms wed to some beguiling descending chord changes and marvelous three-part harmonizing; and when the whole thing wraps up nine songs later with the aforementioned "Something's Wrong," you'd like to cry but are too busy singing along. Even the album's sole cover--Lester Flatt's "Git In Line Brother"-- is transformed from a fundamentalist's cautionary tale into a joyous ode to jay-smoking bliss by the clever changing of one simple preposition in the song's title ("In" to "On") and the delightful subversion of the traditional banjo picking and acoustic guitar strumming with a honky tonk harpsichord run. Get it on, indeed.
Their album a pioneering masterpiece (the Flying Burrito Brothers' equally brilliant, if very different The Gilded Palace of Sin wouldn't appear until four months later), it was time to promote it live. For the band's debut at the Troubadour, Gene and Doug thought it a good idea to head next door to Dan Tanna's, an Italian restaurant, after the afternoon sound check and begin steadily drinking martinis until show time five hours later. At some point, it was also decided that this would be an excellent time to drop acid. The show began with Gene sitting on his amplifier facing the wall and went downhill from there, Doug merrily jumping up and down on his fiddle at the conclusion of the group's second song. Chastened by club management, the remainder of their week-long residency was greeted with enthusiastic reviews--as was their just-released album--but no one had a chance to hear them outside of the L.A. area because Gene refused to tour. Not surprisingly, band members began to desert, and without tour support, the album didn't sell except to the already converted.
This time the record company wasn't the bad guy--pre-music videos and the Internet, how else but hitting the road could a band spread the word, particularly a strange new compound word like country-rock?-- A&M still believed in the boys enough to let them record a stand-alone single, Gene's gorgeously grief-struck "Why Not Your Baby?" The single fared as poorly as the album did on the charts, and when Doug Dillard invited his girlfriend, Donna Washburn, to join the band, and the original songs Gene brought to the sessions for the next album were bypassed in favour of banal bluegrass covers (one of which the warbling Washburn butchers so badly it sounds like a corn pone parody; another of which even the vocally-inept Dillard attempts to sing), Gene knew it was time to be going (although not before managing to place three instant standards on what came to be the Through the Morning, Through the Night album: the dirge-like, faintly ominous title track; the archetypal country-rocking "Kansas City Southern;" and "Polly," another Clark classic of sorrow, longing, and unconventional chord changes). He left the city and some of his more self-injurious behavior behind and moved near the ocean and got married, and when he was ready to make music again, it was to record the greatest singer-songwriter album of the 1970's.
It's as utterly clichéd as it is undeniably true: genuine artists don't choose their subjects; their subjects choose them. Whether it was the nearby sea or the centuries-old redwoods or the morning ocean breezes--or new love, a clear head, a clean start--1971's White Light is the warm sound of wood and wire and human hands careful to coax out just the right note to wed to just the right word. Primarily acoustic and sympathetically produced by Jesse Ed Davis, former Taj Mahal lead guitarist and session player superstar, White Light is a perfect Mendocino day made aurally even more perfect: gently rising golden morning ("Because of You," "The Virgin"); bright afternoon sunlight magnificence (the title track; "One in a Hundred"); full, goodnight yellow moon mirrored by a midnight Northern California ocean ("While My Love Lies Asleep," "1975").
Then there's "Spanish Guitar," another plane of splendor all together- Gene Clark at both his best and his most characteristic. A delicate but assured acoustic guitar opening; lyrics more impressionistic than literal, yet always marvelously evocative (how many songs can get away with employing the word "dissonant" in the first verse?); an achingly melancholic melody with a chorus even more irresistible. "Spanish Guitar" is a four minute and fifty-seven second mini-masterpiece that isn't marred by Gene's not untypical misuse of "whom" for "who" when singing of the beggar who thinks nowhere is far, but, rather, is only more indelibly stamped by the one thing that distinguishes all great art: the creator's undeniably stained but intrepidly singular soul.
Naturally, even though those who had the ears to hear it were astounded (the always hip Dutch rock critics voted it album of the year, for example), it didn't sell any better than any of his other records, and as a capping indignity, the record company somehow forgot to print the title of the album on the cover, leading confused listeners even today to refer to it as alternately White Light and "The Gene Clark" album. If a person wasn't already inclined toward self-stupefaction with drink and drugs...
See Part II of the Gene Clark article
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