Perfect Sound Forever

GENE CLARK


Part II by Ray Robertson


A&M were, however, willing to finance the sessions for another album--a captivating hybrid of Dillard & Clark twang with White Light-style wood smoke mysticism--but not only ended up shutting things down before all of the songs were recorded, but refused to release what was completed, a crime against civilization that in a better world would be punishable by death from long-term exposure to Pablo Cruise records. Tunes like the existentially anthemic "Full Circle" and the intoxicatingly hazy "I Remember the Railroad" are, remarkably, matched in their brilliance by the covers, such as the elegiac reconstruction of Flatt and Scrugg's "Rough and Rocky" and his own, Byrds era "She Don't Care About Time," which gets slowed down and made even more stunningly yearning. Great players always want to play with great songwriters, and Sneaky Pete Klienow's innovative steel-guitar and Byron Berline's forlorn fiddle and Clarence White's always tasteful guitar only further enrich several remarkable compositions. Several remarkable compositions eventually released only in the Netherlands (where Gene was revered, Dylan his only peer), leading to the perfect absurdity--so unfortunately typical of so much of Gene's career--of North American fans having to buy expensive imported copies of what became the Roadmaster album, an album recorded in North America by a North American recording artist.

After contributing the only two good original songs to the Byrds' limp 1973 reunion album ("Remarkably, the best stuff was Gene Clark's," contends Byrds road crew member Al Hersh. "For a guy that couldn't string a sentence together, he could write some incredible lyrics"6), David Geffen temporarily rescued Gene from label-less limbo by signing him to his own Asylum Records--named as such because Geffen maintained he wanted to provide a sanctuary for ambitious recording artists from cold commercial storms. Utter bullshit, of course--Geffen soon revealed his true turncoat colours by asking the justifiably proud producer of Gene's next L.P., Thomas Jefferson Kaye, what the hell Asylum was supposed to do with an album with only eight long songs on it and no obvious single? But this is what the majority of businessmen do--lie in order to make themselves feel better for wasting their lives, and then artists are advised to cease being surprised and disillusioned by such money-dictated mendacity, and, instead, steal as much cash from the ignorant sonofabitches as possible before the till gets slammed shut. To their credit, Gene and Tommy Kaye managed to steal a lot--the reported budget for their album was $100,000, a tremendous amount of money in 1973 for a musician with Gene's poor commercial track record. And not a penny of it was wasted on what was to be Gene's most elaborately produced (but never slick) album.

Grounded in solitude, but not ground down by isolation; enjoying a smoke or a shared bottle or two with friends and not having to apologize the next morning for what went down the blurry night before; attentive to nature's quiet lessons without turning into a back-to-the-earth ninny; a family man, finally--finally being a part of family of one's own choosing--but never forgetting that we're all, all of us, all alone together: the stars aligned, his ying shook hands with his yang, maybe he just got lucky. Anyway, Gene was ready to make his masterwork. He called it No Other, and he was right.

"Life's Greatest Fool" starts things off, and might (and maybe even was intended to) mislead: a jaunty country-rocking opener with a very catchy chorus, it's not until the words fall away from the melody that it's apparent that this is no ordinary twang tune. Life's winners and losers, and whether freedom or fate decides who is who, and what's the best seat in the stadium for watching the whole silly competition take place: Gene and his usual collection of stirring sidemen (Jesse Ed Davis's stinging electric guitar work and the wailing, choral-like contribution of the assembled background singers being particularly impressive) manage to keep your feet tapping while setting your soul sailing, a rare rock and roll double play. By the time the next cut, "Silver Raven," is even a minute old, the veil is lifted, you know why you were danced from there to here. No Other will thank you by crooning you and calm you or confound you and eventually send you singing back to yourself only to discover that you were right there all along. "Strength of Strings" is the best song ever written about the transformative, dwarfing power of music, "Some Misunderstanding" isn't about a relationship gone wrong and just might be about how feeling truly alive means necessarily flirting with dying, and "Lady of the North" is the only song on the entire album that directly addresses romantic love--in this case, a love that's too real, too intense, too exquisite to continue for very long. Not incidentally, Gene never sang better (not only instrumentally, but vocally, No Other is his densest LP). Or more ambitiously. In places, his reaching, soaring voice is the most distinctive--and compelling--instrument. It was the same voice, but it was a long, long way from what he'd been doing with it in the New Christy Minstrels.




This is when things begin to get ugly. His album another artistic success and commercial catastrophe, Gene didn't improve relations with his record label any by threatening to kick David Geffen's ass at Dan Tanna's one night for undervaluing and under promoting No Other, the trickle of support Asylum had been supplying to the album immediately turned off at the tap. Gene was drinking more than ever, and had added cocaine to his arsenal of self-obliteration, an ill-advised pharmaceutical decision for someone already perpetually anxious and agitated. But just as ruinous as what he was putting up his nose was what he was putting himself through because of No Other's lack of commercial success.

Gene grew up in a music business that operated by two very simple rules. One, a big-money, major label was the only place for a legitimate artist. Two, the way that one stayed signed to a big-money, major label was to have a hit record. This is what happened to The Byrds, after all, and was why Gene became increasingly confused, angry and bitter, when with stunning album after stunning album, his diminishing commercial worth failed to keep pace with his mounting critical reputation. Today, he'd be making records for an artist-friendly independent company, or perhaps even his own label, and using the internet and other social media to connect with the kind of open-minded, non-mainstream audience that every authentic artist needs in order to survive. Instead, he played the game--at the time, the only game in town--knowing, at least at some level, that the race was rigged and that he'd never rate anything more than an honourable mention. This situation made him confused about his place in the music industry, angry at whichever label he was with at the time for not doing enough to promote his work, and bitter with the public for not listening closely enough to what he was doing and for not supporting his vision. All of which made him a fairly miserable human being.

Miserable enough, in fact--and desperate enough to do what he could to change--to actively tour for the first time since he went solo nearly ten years before. This created its own set of problems--domestic problems, for example. Gene's wife, Carlie:

Pretty soon he started to change. When he started going on tour, he would come back and it was like his eyebrows were just sticking up and his eyes were rolling around in his head. It was just insane and I got to absolutely dread it when he was coming home . . . The real manic stuff was always when he had been drinking. He was the kindest, gentlest, most loving soul in the world as long as he wasn't drinking.7
The Silverados, the three-piece band Gene assembled with himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, Duke Bardwell on bass and banjo, and Roger White on electric guitar, was predicated by economy more than any new minimalist aesthetic, but the result was high-lonesome wonderful, as can be heard on the posthumous Silverado 1975 release--at least on the nights when Gene wasn't too drunk or stoned. Bardwell: "I think if someone is looking for a reason for him to get as fucked up much as he did, then panic disorder's as good as any . . . I don't think he was comfortable with performing, but it was like a part of it that he really had to do. What else was he going to do? Sell cars?"8

Adding to his growing sense of professional failure was the decidedly cut-rate nature of his touring. He was label-less again (and with a growing reputation within the industry as a money-losing loose cannon) and without any tour support. And while several of his far less talented former colleagues travelled by Lear jet to their sold-out concerts at hockey rinks and baseball stadiums, the Silverados took turns driving a used Dodge van to their modest club dates, unloaded and loaded out their own equipment, and were frequently confronted with small audiences disappointed not to hear a Byrds greatest hits show. But on a good night in front of a good audience--as thankfully captured on Silverado 1975--it was worth it, goose bumps and a humming head several decades on, as close to immortality as any of us is ever going to get.

And he kept writing--even at the otherwise miserable end, he was still writing new songs--and what he was coming up with was frequently first rate material. So productive was he, in fact, that several of the best songs from this period, like "Daylight Line" and "What Is Meant Will Be" and "Wheel of Time" were never recorded and released, testament as much to Gene's resilience and his deep need to keep making music as to his sizeable talent. Brother Rick Clark: "Gene was one of those people who couldn't sit down and discuss what he felt inside with most people. His pain came out through his art, his writing. And even though it was heartbreaking and emotional, he created some of his most beautiful songs and work through expressing those feelings."9

If emotional pain and suffering were a large part of what was necessary to cook up good art, then Gene had all of the main ingredients to whip up one hell of a new album. Compounding his career troubles, Gene's wife had finally had enough, packed up the couple's two young boys and sued him for divorce. Abandoned by his family and without a record contract once again, he took the Silverados into the studio and got to work on spec, paying for the sessions himself. Soon however, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, back in the producer's chair, dismissed Roger and Duke and brought in various session musicians. On a purely musical level it wasn't a damning decision--old friend Doug Dillard's rollicking banjo powers "Home Run King" just fine, and Jerry McGee and Skunk Baxter were highly in-demand guitar players for a reason--but it did hint at what plagues both what became Two Sides of Every Story and every project Gene subsequently involved himself in, feel and instinct being nudged aside in favour of professionalism and calculated commercial ambition. It's easy to be a self-righteous snob about this, but then, it is helpful to remember that he was thirty-three years old and the radio had begun to sound like a foreign language and mortgage payments don't particularly care about feel and instinct.

Not that Two Sides of Every Story, which was eventually picked up by RSO after every other record label passed on it, doesn't contain some wonderful songs. "Home Run King" makes for a sprightly sing-a-long opener, and the doleful quartet of original songs on side two that explore the breakdown of his marriage are all quintessential, melodically beguiling brooding Gene. But the remake of Dillard & Clark's "Kansas City Southern" which is meant to sound "contemporary" circa 1977 sounds instead like a bored bar band circa anytime, and the cover of "Marylou" dresses up an already weak song in an unfortunate, faux-50's arrangement (N.B.: If you're going to sell out, be sure to sell). Even the four core ballads on side two are string-sweetened to the point of borderline syrupy, and the album's most effective cover, James Talley's "Give My Love to Marie," is nearly smothered in violins. Gene's voice--particularly when wedded to a song as sadly powerful as Talley's--doesn't need a string section to make its point.

The next time Gene recorded was as a third of McGuinn, Clark and Hillman, a not-so-super group assembled because Capitol Records had a hunch that three-ex Byrds could replicate a portion of the success of one of their many imitators, the Eagles. All three members were professionally stalled, and the upfront money from the label was too tempting to pass up, and if by the time they entered Miami's Criteria Studios to record their first album, Gene and McGuinn were so estranged they were using roadies to communicate, and Hillman was still sulking because Gene's name was going to come before his on the album cover, it was at least a relief for everyone involved to be making music again. As for the music itself, Capitol Records had a substantial investment to make back, so they did the only sensible corporate thing--put the band in the studio with a pair of producer brothers who would give the album the hip and happening disco sound that had recently rescued the Bee Gees from commercial irrelevancy. It's unnecessary to individually examine Gene's four contributions to the album for the same reason that eleven turds in a toilet bowl are, whether considered separately or cumulatively, just a bowlful of shit.

If the songs Gene recorded during this time are, to anyone who loves Gene Clark's music, quite literally unlistenable, what he was up to personally is noteworthy, if for all the gone-wrong reasons. Road manager Al Hersch recalls how during this period:

Gene was into [heroin] big time. Terri [Gene's new drug-dealing girlfriend] had this little metal strong box. I never got to look at it firsthand, but there was a famous incident one night. They got into a horrendous fight, they were always fighting, and my recollection of it was the two of them running down the street stark naked with this strong box in this incredibly wealthy neighborhood in Miami and Gene tackling her right in the street.10
"Near the end Gene was barely able to finish a sentence, he was such a mess," Hillman remembers.11

The 80's were mostly a decade of demos, debauchery, and increasing disillusion. The majority of the songs Gene recorded during this time (as can be heard on a seven CD bootleg and on 1984's Firebyrd, recorded for the small Takoma label), are lyrically thin and musically mediocre, and made worse by being marred by archetypal 80's production values, all three being sad signs of Gene aspiring toward contemporary relevancy but only managing to sound like what he most feared, a has-been willing to do anything to have a hit. There were periodic attempts to get clean, some more successful than others, and an unfortunate, debasing decision to front something called "Twentieth Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds." If clubs were unwilling to pay Gene Clark-solo artist properly, they were happy to book what was essentially a Byrds tribute band for the growing Baby Boomer nostalgia crowd. For someone who'd been attempting to escape the shadow of his former group's enormous wing span for nearly two decades, it must have been artistically humiliating, if not financially rewarding.

No matter how messed up he got on drugs or alcohol during this time, though, or how he frequently compromised his enormous musical gift, he still had his supporters, some of whom were admirers of not only his considerable backlog of wonderful songs, but of him as a human being. Michael Hardwick, a talented guitar and pedal steel player who was part of the Firebyrds touring band, recalls how Gene:

barely had management . . . barely had bookings. I got paid a lot of money with Jerry Jeff [Walker, his previous employer] and I just walked away to play with Gene... I had already worn out two copies of No Other. I know I was present during certain problems, he had his problems and I was there when some unpleasant things went on and everybody has lots of stories about Gene, but I was also there and I saw a real goodness in Gene... He had a good heart. I remember we were loading out in Santa Fe , the very first show [Hardwick played with the band], and he grabbed my amplifier and he's carrying it out behind the club and he almost slipped in the snow. And I said to him, "Oh, you don't need to do that, I'll carry it," and he goes, "Ah, I don't mind." And I'm thinking, `Here's Gene Clark of the Byrds carrying my amp out, loading out after the club's closed, stomping around in the snow.' The other guys were all inside having drinks.12
Despite suffering from an ulcer so severe it would eventually result in Gene having the majority of his stomach lining removed, when he decided to record a duet album with Textones front woman Carla Olson toward the end of the 80's, he was clearly moving in the right direction, musically and otherwise. Abetted by being simply too broke to score hard drugs or indulge in weeklong binges, he was sober enough to begin putting his neglected finances and health in order, filing his taxes for the first time in years and even going so far as to start working out. And while So Rebellious a Lover can't be called classic Gene, it was the best music he'd been a part of making in a decade. Only "Gypsy Rider" rouses vintage Gene Clark goose bumps (and there are far too many covers, even when they're wonderful, as with "Fair and Tender Ladies"), but the singing is committed and passionate, the harmonies Olson lends to Gene's lead vocals are superb, and, best of all, the production is as uncluttered and unprocessed as music could be during the 80's. Released today, with a name roots producer like T-Bone Burnett attached to it, it would have been the honest segue back into public consciousness that Gene so craved. As it was, it appeared and disappeared faster than you can say I want my MTV.'

What killed him before he could make the follow-up LP Olson and he were planning is cruelly ironic to a degree that rarely exists outside of bad movies and maudlin novels. Justifiably concerned that the "Twentieth Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds" was cheapening their former band's image, McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman briefly reassembled to perform a few concerts in an attempt to bolster their lawsuit intended to keep the Byrds name off the road. At one of these shows, long-time Byrds fan Tom Petty was in attendance and was inspired enough to decide to record a song from the group's rich catalogue for his next album, a sure-fire royalty bonanza for whomever the lucky writer turned out to be. Unfortunately, it wasn't one of the three ex-Byrds performing that night at the Ventura Theatre, but Gene, whose "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" was included on Petty's massive-selling Full Moon Fever album. The Byrds helped give him his start, the Byrds would help finish him off.

With the promise of regular royalty checks that would eventually amount to well over $100,000, Gene wasted little time in getting to work spending his windfall, no one more gluttonous than a starving man. He bought a Cadillac and a motorcycle, but mostly he bought drugs, crack cocaine in particular. When it was discovered he had throat cancer, the fun turned ugly, Gene frequently disappearing with just his pipe and the sort of Hollywood hangers-on who always manage to attach themselves to someone determined to enjoy himself to death. At the end, he was down to 130 pounds and the Petty money was almost gone and quart bottles of vodka were where he spent the majority of his remaining days.

The coroner ruled his death heart failure, which really means he wore himself out. Gene had wanted to be buried in St. Andrew's cemetery, just outside Tipton , Missouri , and his family made sure that his wishes were respected. What's engraved on his headstone is simple and honest and undeniably moving, just like the man underneath it. It reads:

HAROLD EUGENE CLARK
Nov.17 1944 May 24 1991
NO OTHER




FOOTNOTES:

  1. Phillip Larkin, Required Writing, Faber and Faber, 1983, p 47
  2. John Einarson, Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of Gene Clark, Backbeat Books, 2005, p 51
  3. Johnny Rogan, Timeless Flight: The Definitive Biography of The Byrds, Square One Books, 1990, p 68
  4. Johnny Rogan, Byrds: Requiem For the Byrds, Volume 1, R/H, 2011, p 393-394
  5. Einarson, p 134
  6. Rogan, p 599
  7. Einarson, p 197
  8. Ibid, p 196
  9. Ibid, p 207
  10. Ibid, p 225
  11. Ibid, p 229
  12. Ibid, p 245-246




Ray Robertson is the Canadian author of seven novels and two books of non-fiction. This essay will appear in an upcoming collection of music essays entitled Lives of the Poets (with Guitars). His essay on Ronnie Lane, "How a Face Became a Gypsy," appeared in a previous edition of Perfect Sound Forever. He can be reached at www.rayrobertson.com

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