Gene Clark

TrackAlbum
Tried So HardGene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers
Train Leaves Here This MorningThe Fantastic Expedition
of Dillard & Clark
Outlaw SongThe American Dreamer OST
With TomorrowWhite Light
For A Spanish GuitarWhite Light
In A Misty MorningRoadmaster
Silver RavenNo Other
Home Run KingTwo Sides To Every Story
Mary SueUnder The Silvery Moon
Gypsy RiderSo Rebellious A Lover

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

The story of Gene Clark isn’t all that different from far too many other artists who never ‘made it’ because of their own personal demons. For a short moment, during The Byrds early years, he was the acknowledged star of a front line rock ‘n’ roll band. The Golden Boy, Prince Valiant with a soothing yet powerful voice and some serious songwriting chops. Already a veteran of The New Christy Minstrels when he helped form The Byrds, he seemingly had talent to burn. “A hero, our savior. Few in the audience could take their eyes off this presence. He was the songwriter. He had the gift,” is how fellow Byrd Chris Hillman described him. But a self destructive tendency sadly destroyed any chance Clark ever had for any sort of substantial solo career, even if he did try over and over again. His list of collaborators and band mates, and there were several bands the casual fan never heard of, reads as a who’s who of the Country Rock/Folk Rock movement. Yet even though he released one brilliant album after another he somehow managed to not chart once as a ‘solo’ act. And when he would occasionally have a peak, he’d find some way to wreck it. Drug addiction does that. I’ve decided to omit the first 2½ Byrds albums, and their mediocre reunion album from the early 70s, whose only high points were Gene. In that vein I also omitted the 2 (3 if you count 3 Byrds In London) McGuinn, Hillman and Clark albums. Just as an aside its a mistake to think of MCH as simply a mini-Byrds group. They made the very conscious decision to do a much slicker production and approach the song selection differently so as to distance themselves from The Byrds, probably to their detriment. Still, with all the missteps and excesses there were some truly amazing songs along the way for Clark, how could there not be with all his talent? I could easily do a top 30 songs of Gene Clark. Here are my favorite 10, at least for today.

After Gene left The Byrds for the first time he took 18 months off before releasing a solo album of sorts, an eternity for the 1960s. Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers featured Byrds Hillman and Michael Clarke, future Byrd Clarence White, Doug Dillard, Van Dyke Parks, Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. I imagine I hear hope in this album, a man who believes he is on the brink of some great things. Tried So Hard is a favorite of mine from the album, It’s a unique break up song for me as the singer thinks about how, “I’ve been thru similarities / It’s not the first break I’ve had / And I just can’t let it bring me down low.” There is some foreshadowing in the song as well with, “Still with all the things I can do or say / It won’t change the fate I know so well is mine”. Given his life over the next 25 years it’s hard not to read something into that line. Throw in some fantastic guitar playing by White and you have a great little song. But the album didn’t do well and Clark was back to The Byrds for a short stay. But as quick as he came back he was gone.

His next stop was in Dillard & Clark. An early country rock group led by Gene and Doug Dillard, it also featured Hillman, Clarke, Bernie Leadon and Sneaky Pete. Their first album, of two, has often been considered a landmark of the genre. But it was Gene, so the album didn’t sell. Train Leaves Here This Morning, co-written with Bernie Leadon and Doug Dillard, is a bit of a lament. Which was a strong suit for Gene, that voice had a touch of lament in it no matter what he sang. “Looked around then for a reason / when there wasn’t somethin’ more to blame it on”, strikes me as a problem many folks have. The singer in this song simply didn’t know what tomorrow might bring, and very casually didn’t really care. Not even The Eagles could ruin this song for me.

After this group broke up, Clark recorded a couple songs for an odd little documentary called The American Dreamer about Dennis Hopper filming The Last Movie. Outlaw Song is a particularly powerful song as, unlike his usual work, it has a sense of pride in its bleakness. It’s a personal statement of sorts about living “inside the rational lines all men draw”. The American Dreamer is a little gem of a soundtrack album, all but forgotten.

Clark released arguably his first solo album with White Light which offered several great tunes. In many ways he brought his mood from American Dreamer to White Light, as its songs are whittled down to their most essential elements, really quite bare as songs go. The simple guitar piece that opens With Tomorrow (co-written with Jesse Ed Davis) is stark and somewhat haunting. “So with tomorrow I will borrow / another moment of joy and sorrow”. It’s a song I’ve never really completely gotten a hold of the meaning, but those lyrics still freeze me when I hear them.

Dylan supposedly has said For A Spanish Guitar was a song he, or anyone, would be proud to have written. For my money the best description of the musician’s task was in the lines, “For the right and the wrong and insane / for the answers they cannon explain / pulsate from my soul through my brain / in a spanish guitar.” It’s simply a beautiful song.

Clark went into the studio to record his second A&M album, I’m sure hoping this would be the one for him. His band included White, Clarke, Spooner Oldham, Byron Berline and Sneaky Pete. Issues kept Clark from finishing, so A&M added two songs he recorded with the original Byrds for a planned reunion that didn’t happen for a few years, and one song he did with the Flying Burrito Brothers and released it only in Holland. And then they dumped Clark. Roadmaster didn’t see a release in the United States ‘til 1994. In a Misty Morning (as well as Full Circle and One In A Hundred) make it obvious though that Clark’s talent was as strong as ever. “Way down in my soul was the hope / that better days were always there to find.”

Clark joined the short-lived Byrds reunion, arguably producing some of the only listenable moments for the album. After a short stint in McGuinn’s band he joined Asylum Records and made a truly brilliant album, No Other. It’s an album that even though it barely broke 150 on the US charts is currently being covered note for note by an Indy Rock All-Star band on the “No Other Tour”. Produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye, it was a bit of a train wreck considering the amount of time and money they spent in the studio but it’s brilliant and I didn’t have to cover the overruns. Asylum chief David Geffen was extremely angry with the sales, and more so with the fact Kaye and Clark had spent $100,000 and only recorded eight songs. It was deleted from Asylum’s catalog in under two years. Silver Raven from No Other could be one of the more heart breaking songs from the country-folk scene of the time. Clark did a bit of falsetto in the song, and it works. And there is that bassline, well – you’d have to have played the four string for years to really understand how amazing it is.

Three years later, Clark and Kaye were back with Clark’s final true solo album, Two Sides To Every Story. Home Run King is really a fun song, even though lyrically it’s quite depressing. Spruced up by some Emmylou Harris harmony vocals, I’ve never been able to keep from singing along to “You’re either just the newspaper boy or you’re Babe Ruth.”

A couple of years later, Clark rejoined Hillman and McGuinn of MCH, although his unreliable nature and probably his dissatisfaction with the slick sound of the group caused him to be moved to featured performer on the second album and gone by the third.

After that, Clark bounced around for a while forming a number of bands; Firebyrds, Flyte (with Hillman), sitting in with the Long Ryders and CRY. CRY was a band featuring Clark, Pat Robinson and former Byrd John York. The recordings, made in the mid-80s and not released for fifteen years, were also supported by Nicky Hopkins and the Band’s Rick Danko. Danko had performed with Clark in 1985 with his Byrds Tribute Show along with York, Richard Manuel, Blondie Chaplin, Rick Roberts and Michael Clarke, and was friends with Clark. In the 1980s the powerhouse radio station where I lived use to host something called the Coffee Break Concert, where essentially they would coerce whoever was in town that weekend to play a show at a downtown Cleveland club on Friday afternoon. Some twenty eight years ago, I saw Clark and Danko, as they couldn’t get everyone from the band on that stage, do a small intimate little acoustic show that is still one of my favorite concert-going experiences.

There is a fun song called Mary Sue from the CRY Sessions. It’s about a guy fondly remembering his girl from his youth, happily pondering whether “I wonder if your memory remembers me / Like I remember you”. Clark sounds happy, which isn’t a bad thing. And that line is a question I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves.

CRY continued after Clark’s death with Carla Olson stepping into the C spot of the group. Olson was the lead singer of the Textones and had contributed some backup vocals to the original CRY sessions. In 1987, Clark and Olson released a duo album called So Rebellious A Lover which wound up being Clark’s best selling album, not including Byrds and MCH of course. And true to his career path, that meant he never recorded another album and died four years later. Mostly because of the huge royalty payday he received from Tom Petty’s 1989 cover of I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better which he poured into drug and alcohol abuse, even though in 1983 he had much of his stomach and intestines removed because of years of heavy drinking.

Still, in 1987, he had one more good album left to make, and he made it with Carla Olson. A couple of the songs on So Rebellious A Lover are up there with his best work. Gypsy Rider is a favorite of mine. Have you ever rode a motorcycle, I mean a serious bike? All those Born To Be Wild sort of songs never really captured the feeling of being out there on your bike to me. But “crank her over once again / put your face into the wind / find another road where you’ve never been / sing that 2-wheeled melody / the highway symphony” – that captures what it means to be out on your bike better than any other song Ive ever heard. Chris Hillman added a little mandolin to the song as there was almost always a former Byrd around to play with him.

It’s hard for me to reconcile so much great music, within so few albums released from 1966-1991, and the fact his solo career was an abysmal commercial failure. He should have been big, one of the biggest. Instead he was one of the legion of great musicians who wasted their talents in a self destructive spiral. Still, there are these ten songs and so many countless others.

Dedicated to the Life and Music of Gene Clark

The Clarkophile – song-by-song analysis and appreciation

Gene Clark biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #211

11 Comments

  1. Kasper Nijsen
    Mar 1, 2014

    Thanks, great list! ‘Soothing’ is a perfect word to describe his voice, and I’ve just learned why I come across ‘Roadmaster’ in Dutch second-hand shops all the time. There’s many songs I’d like to add but this list is excellent as it is. He was the greatest songwriter of the Byrds as far as I’m concerned, and his run of albums White Light – Roadmaster – No Other is up there with the best singer-songwriter stuff. I still have to find a copy of the documentary “The Byrd Who Flew Alone” that was released recently.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Mar 1, 2014

      Funny Kasper, I buy a fair amount of Vinyl and over here in the States, Roadmaster is one of those hard to come by albums that are costly when you can get one in good shape. I was at a Vinyl Fair the other day and several dealers gave the “Well, I come across a good copy of Roadmaster every now and then but it’s been a while” answer. Funny where you are at they are eveywhere.

    • Paul Kendall
      Mar 20, 2014

      Kasper – if you’re still looking for a copy of the documentary, you can get it here.

  2. Al Edge
    Mar 1, 2014

    Terrific stuff Calvin.

    As tragic an overall tale as it is I love to read anything relating to Gene and when it’s by a fellow enthusiast it makes it all the more rewarding.

    In a commercial sense, it’s difficult to know why his singularly exceptional pantheon of songs never provided him with that vital archway for the breakthrough.

    You go through the catalogues of so many truly decent artists who have achieved so much greater commercial pedigree, yet few can approach anything like the depth, range and sustained quality of Gene’s offerings in either a melodic or lyrical sense.

    When you plug in the aching beauty of that vocal, the hugely underrated guitar/harmonica [underrated a la his Bobness] and those innocent mid-western ‘looks’, the mimimalist popularity starts to become unfathomable.

    As you rightly say the self abuse must play a significant role in dragging him back. Yet others have managed despite its negative baggage. We’ll never really know I guess.

    As it is, we’re left with the pedigree of an artist I regard as one of the real true greats. A huge legacy of fantastic songs delivered, prior to his later life physical derailments, with a timbre and poignancy that hits spots so few can approach. Yet even following the vocal downturn there’s so much to savour as your list reminds us with Gypsy Rider, Home Run King and Mary Sue.

    I adore all of your ten Calvin. And several would certainly get into my own ‘Gene’ top thirty. As for my own ten? I find it nigh impossible to whittle it down. For me it’s almost like trying to present a Beatles, Dylan or Springsteen top ten.

    But I’ll give it a go – and at least I now know what I’ll be listening to these next few weeks or so! Cheers Calvin :-0)

    One in a Hundred, Here Without You, Polly, Life’s Greatest Fool, Why Not Your Baby, Kathleen, Gypsy Rider, Tell it like it is, She Darked the Sun, Your Fire Burning

  3. Calvin Rydbom
    Mar 1, 2014

    Glad you like it Al, and you’re right – why. Why did he never break through with so many amazing songs and such talent? Such talent.

  4. Colin Duncan
    Mar 1, 2014

    Great article, Calvin. I would select many of his compositions on the early Byrds’ albums as my favourite songs and it’s good to read how Chris Hillman gives Gene credit as being the driving songwriter on the early Byrds’ albums. I’m trying to work towards completion with Gene Clark, getting White Light and Roadmaster for Christmas. Before these purchases it was a great compilation double album, Gene Clark, that I played. Still to hear the Gene Clark and Gosdin Brothers and Gene Clark and Carla Olson albums, but this is a great selection of the songs that I know. Thanks, Calvin.

  5. Rob Morgan
    Mar 2, 2014

    Excellent choices. As soon as I started listening to the Byrds it was Clark’s songs that stood out – “The world turns all around her”, “If you’re gone”, “Here without you” – there’s a brooding melancholy there which disappeared when he left the Byrds – oddly enough on March 1st ’66 – 48 years to the day when this was published. His solo career is almost the definition of ‘overlooked’ but for those willing to search for the records (and in the 80s and 90s part of the joy was the searching), the rewards were some wonderful music. The first Dillard and Clark LP is a personal favourite – joyous yet brooding.

    For those interested, there’s a 90 minute documentary on Gene Clark being shown on BBC4 at 9pm on Friday 14th March. BBC4 usually have music themed nights on Fridays so there may be other related programmes that night.

    • Al Edge
      Mar 3, 2014

      Look forward to that documentary. Many thanks for the nod Rob.

      Hopefully, you can catch it on BBC iPlayer Calvin

  6. Al Edge
    Mar 15, 2014

    Thanks again Rob for giving us the nod on the documentary. I savoured every moment. Hopefully Calvin and others across the pond can catch it on BBC iPlayer. If not it’s well worth forking out for the dvd with it being the only analysis of its type available. I’ll be buying it anyroad in appreciation of the folks who went to the trouble of making it. I presume solely out of their devotion to the artist.

    Of course, it confirmed that Gene was a unique talent. No doubt about that. The soaring melodies, the aching brooding beauty and fragility of those lyrics, the longing in his vocals. Doubt there’s ever been much if anything to match such a complete artistic package. Nor can you ever envisage there ever being again. Incredible how an artist with such a catalogue of outstanding music is so little known or appreciated.

    In the end one of life’s sad tales I guess. Yet the majesty of the music ensures a lasting legacy to his genius. I loved Chris Hillman’s incredulity as to where the amazing lyrics came from with Gene having scarcely ever read a book or anything for that matter!

    All in all a terrific documentary made independently I believe by a father and son who were merely Gene devotees but who felt it was high time that at least something existed to mark the genius of the guy. Good on them. As a fan I loved it. They had so little visual material to work with of Gene himself but still managed through the interviews and song backdrops to do justice to the subject matter.

    Enjoyed listening to most of the interviewees but especially nice in the context of the thing to see the family members – and boy is the eldest lad the dead spit of his arl fella! Made me happy to see that.

  7. Ian Ashleigh
    Mar 15, 2014

    Thanks for the review Al, I set the Sky+ to record it. I have a feeling I will enjoy every moment.

  8. Dave Stephens
    Jun 16, 2017

    Good essay and good list, Calvin. Personally I couldn’t have done without Set You Free This Time, Here Without You, Through The Morning, Through The Night and Fair And Tender Ladies with Ms Olson. Yes, I’m well aware the first two are Byrds tracks but that shouldn’t matter. Mind you Gene wrote so many great songs and appeared on so many brilliant records that there’s a case for breaking the restriction of ten picks.

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