I’m alway surprised – and amused, I might add – when, all these years into my journey through rock and roll I find an artist or album that I know absolutely nothing about. Not that I’ve ever claimed to know everything, despite what my wife would tell you. There are artists I don’t like (the Beach Boys, the Moody Blues) that I’ve sort of ignored. There are some bands that I’m just not cool enough to listen to like say, King Crimson, the Smithereens or Elvis Costello that I’ve sort of turned a blind eye toward. I’ve always thought eventually I’d listen to them later down the road. I always seem to be listening to something else at the time. But it’s exceedingly rare (and getting more rare) that there’s someone I haven’t heard of at all. Since somewhere along the line I appointed myself rock n’ roll “Town Crier” I like to think I’ve got a broad view of things.
I watched the Jakob Dylan documentary about the music that came out of Laurel Canyon in the mid-60s a few weeks back, Echo In the Canyon (Movie Review: ‘Echo In The Canyon’ – Flawed, Enjoyable Look at Cali ’65-’67). I really enjoyed that documentary. It led me to start listening to some of the featured music in the film. I’ve always hated the Beach Boys but I found myself adding “In My Room” to my iPod. Somehow I ended up with their “Greatest Hits” (and I use that term loosely) so it was an easy song to add. I was already a fan of the Mamas and the Papas and I found myself listening to “Go Where You Wanna Go” which played a significant role in the movie along side “California Dreaming” and “Monday, Monday.” Michelle Phillips, we love you down here at B&V.
More importantly I went back and rediscovered the Buffalo Springfield – Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay – what’s not to love? I say rediscover, but I really only previously owned Buffalo Springfield Again which I hadn’t listened to in a while. I had their greatest hits too, but it really doesn’t do them justice. I quickly bought their eponymous debut and their third and final album, Last Time Around and am absolutely in love with those albums. Everything those guys did was great. It’s a shame they didn’t get along better. Of course Stills and Young ended up working together in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young so alls well that ends well.
I thought perhaps that would be the end of the road, the musical vein I was mining based on the movie had run out… But something was bothering me… The Byrds played a prominent part in the movie and I’d never really checked them out. The folk-rock, country-rock they helped popularize played a big part of that Cali sound. David Crosby and Roger McGuinn were both in the movie. My brother had been into the Byrds when we were young. I mistakenly thought of them as only a Dylan cover band. I had to investigate these guys… I quickly bought Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn!Turn!Turn, their first two albums and was really blown away. Yes, they did a lot of Dylan covers while inventing folk rock, but they had a lot of great originals. The guy who wrote most of those originals wasn’t Roger McGuinn, but a guy named Gene Clark.
Gene Clark actually grew up in my hometown, Kansas City but migrated, like so many of his generation to California where he found himself forming the Byrds with McGuinn (guitar/vocal), Crosby (guitar/vocal), Chris Hillman (bass) and Micheal Clarke (drums). While in the Byrds, he wrote some of the best tracks, especially on their first two albums. The most popular of which was “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” eventually covered by Tom Petty. But there are other great tracks – “I Knew I’d Want You,” “Set You Free This Time,” and “She Don’t Care About Time,” just to name a few. Like Neil Young, Clark wrote a lot of the songs for this band but unlike him, they let Clark actually sing on most of them. Eventually, because he was making more money on the publishing the other guys came to resent him. When his fear of flying got too bad, they booted him from the band, likely because of that built up enmity. As Roger said to him, “If you can’t fly you can’t be a Byrd.” Which for some reason makes me think of the TV show ‘WKRP in Cincinnati quote, “my hand to god I thought turkeys could fly.”
Once booted from the Byrds, Gene Clark started a solo career that can only be described as “star-crossed.” Coincidentally while I was mining all this music from Laurel Canyon – the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds – the record company 4AD released a deluxe, three-CD version of Clark’s album No Other. The serendipity of my listening to the Byrds for the first time in a long, long time and Clark’s album being rereleased was irresistible to me. I listen to the deluxe version of No Other and was completely, utterly blown away. How in the world was this not a smash hit? The phrase, “overlooked masterpiece” or “forgotten masterpiece” is used a lot nowadays but it completely applies here. This is a stone cold classic record that until a month ago I’d never even heard of it let alone heard it. I had barely heard of Gene Clark… I knew there were two guys in the Byrds named Clark (or Clarke) but I thought they were just like Duran Duran where everybody had the last name Taylor.
I came to discover that Clark released a series of fabulous albums that nobody listened to or purchased. I’ve sampled Roadmaster and White Light (aka Gene Clark) and I can’t believe this guy’s name isn’t whispered in the same reverent tones as Neil Young or Gram Parsons (who later joined the Byrds after Clark’s departure before forming the Flying Burrito Brothers). Gram Parsons wanted to fuse country and rock and roll into a “new American music,” but Gene Clark was actually able to do so. I guess since Gram hung out with Keith Richards he got more publicity. The Eagles, who Parsons hated, owe more of a debt to Clark, based on what I’ve heard. They even covered his song, “Train Leaves Here This Morning” and Bernie Leadon played with Clark a little. I think I can say, unequivocally, that Gene Clark may be the most under appreciated man in rock and roll.
In 1974, after a brief Byrds reunion album, Clark signed to Asylum records, led by the notorious dick, David Geffen. Clark chose producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye who was notorious for cost overruns. They spent the then unheard of sum of $100k (over $500k in today’s dollars) to record No Other. When Geffen heard it, furious about the cost, he refused to promote it. The album was basically stillborn. Geffen also said, he couldn’t hear a single…kind of like the guy who rejected Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The people who played on this album are pretty impressive. The guys who later backed up Jackson Browne and Don Henley are here – Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Craig Doerge (piano), Russ Kunkel drums and Leland Sklar (bass). Jesse Ed Davis who sat in with Rod and the Faces plays some guitar. Pre-Eagles Timothy B. Schmidt shows up to sing back up vocals. Butch Trucks from the Allman’s plays drums on a track. Hell, ex-bandmate Chris Hillman plays on a track. Rumors were that Sly Stone was hanging out at some of the sessions… and there is a funk vibe on some of these tracks. It’s pretty damn impressive.
Clark, raised a Christian, had veered toward Zen and Buddhism and the lyrics here reflect that. I think the songs are deeply rich in meaning. There’s a soulfulness here that really drew me in. His singing throughout is plaintive. He’s got an amazing voice. The music veers from country to folk to borderline prog rock. The album starts out with the country weeper “Life’s Greatest Fool.” It’s a track with hard learned truths… “Children laugh and run away while others stare into the darkness of the day.” I’m surprised the Eagles didn’t take a crack at this one. The second track, “Silver Raven” is a beautiful acoustic track that literally, fucking soars. The title track is the one that borders on prog-rock and funk. It’s got a great keyboard/guitar riff that fuels the track. Clark’s voice is slightly distorted. The lyrics are the trippiest and most spiritual, “If the falling tide can turn and then recover, all alone we must be part of one another.” To my ears, “No Other” was the single. It comes with a great guitar solo. “Strength of Strings” is another soaring track. When Clark sings, “Fiery rain and rubies cooling in the sun,” it’s epic. There’s an almost Native American vibe, it’s incantatory.
What would have been side two starts with “From A Silver Phial.” It’s another beautiful, country-rock/folk-rock track. It’s just a wonderful ballad. It also could have been a single. “Some Misunderstanding” is a great mid tempo track that makes me think of Young’s “Out on the Weekend.” It’s plaintive and haunting. “True One” is an upbeat country rock tune. The album ends on another epic, “Lady of the North” written for Clark’s wife who’d stayed up in North California while he recorded and partied in L.A.
That’s the original album… the deluxe material is all interesting. It’s different versions of the tracks that ended up on the album. All of the tracks are complete. Some you hear Clark directing the band or calling out to band members. It’s a fascinating look into the man’s creative process. There are two versions “Train Leaves Here Tomorrow” on the deluxe version of the album. I can’t help but wonder, if he’d completed that one, maybe that could have been the single. This is all just fantastic music. There were rumors this was meant to be a double-album, but there’s nothing here that isn’t on the original record.
When Geffen pulled support and this album tanked, it hurt Clark, badly. He never recovered really. The booze and drugs took off. He lived until 1991, but things were never quite the same for him. Commerce was not his friend. I can’t help but again compare this guy to Neil Young. The writing and the music was all there but for Clark, no one listened. Thankfully we all have a chance to revisit his masterpiece, No Other. If you’ve heard Gene Clark, you know. If you haven’t, you need to check this guy out. Having just written about Leonard Cohen (LP Review: Leonard Cohen’s Posthumous ‘Thanks For The Dance’ – A Haunting Elegy) and Iggy Pop (LP Review: Iggy Pop’s ‘Free’ – An Atmospheric, Stylistic Left Turn) at least now I’m writing about someone who is a beautiful singer!
It’s a dark ride folks, be good to each other!