Friday July 24, 1998

 

Byrd of paradise

Gene Clark followed the rock-star rulebook. He was in a great band, made one
of the best albums ever and died after years of alcohol abuse. So why isn't
he a legend?

By David Bennun

 

Every so often, some magazine or newspaper ropes in a clutch of alleged
experts to catalogue The Greatest Albums Of All Time. While a few newly
fashionable records enter the inventory and a few briefly fashionable
records drop out, the tally remains much the same. The perennials swap
positions with one another but never seem to be in any danger of leaving the
list. Will it be The Beatles' Sgt Pepper, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or The
Beach Boys' Pet Sounds at number one this time? How high up the ladder has
an album by a black artist - usually Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland or
Marvin Gaye's What's Going On - managed to climb? Is Bob Dylan's Highway 61
Revisited rated above or below Blonde On Blonde? Each chart is a diverting
but meaningless consensus of received wisdom. For an album to appear at all,
it requires, at the very least, a cultish critical following. Failing that,
it would help if people have heard of it - let alone heard it.

 

Amazingly, there is one record that has never made the list, despite being
the undoubted equal of any of the above. You can't buy it at HMV or Virgin -
because it's not currently on release. Yet the album, called No Other, is
one of the boldest, most brilliant and damn near perfect pieces of work in
the history of pop music.

No Other was recorded in 1974 by a little-known songwriter called Gene
Clark, who died of heart failure in 1991 after a lifetime of alcoholism,
buffered for good measure with the occasional sally into substance abuse.
The perfect credentials, then, for an undiscovered rock'n'roll hero.

But Gene Clark wasn't exactly undiscovered. He was once a seriously and
substantially famous rock'n'roller, as the earliest creative powerhouse
behind the band that ranks second only to The Beatles in terms of influence,
reverence and acclaim - The Byrds.

But somewhere along the way, Gene Clark got seriously lost. His story is one
of missed chances, poor timing, squandered talent, destructive appetites,
demonic fears and plain rotten luck. Rarely can the word 'career' be so
aptly applied to a musician's history. Clark went off the rails so often, he
only seemed to be on them when crossing from one side to the other So it's a
small miracle that he managed to leave behind the body of work that now
appears on a new compilation album. Flying High covers his output from the
superb songs he wrote for The Byrds, via his shaky but sometimes matchless
major label solo recordings, to the countryish pleasantries he turned out
towards the end of his life.

"There were two Genes," says Saul Davis, who acted as Clark's manager
throughout the eighties. "When he was indulging, he could be rather gross
and obnoxious. When he was being creative and was taking care of himself, he
would be absolutely wonderful, very warm, sweet, bright, concerned and the
rest of it." "Gene was the complete and total romantic, probably from the
moment he was born," adds singer Carla Olson, with whom he collaborated on
his last two albums. "Alcohol would affect his personality dramatically and
he would become a bit of an asshole. I don't think he was ever able to find
a balance between insanity and boredom." It's perfectly clear that there was
something seriously wrong with Gene, but to this day nobody knows quite what
it was. Johnny Rogan's authoritative and meticulous book, The Byrds:
Timeless Flight Revisited, offers strong character studies of Clark's fellow
original band members through their own words and the opinions of others.
But Harold Eugene Clark remains a genuine mystery in a business stuffed with
fakes and self-proclaimed enigmas.

As a songwriter, he rivals Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney and Jimmy Webb.
As a performer, he is a match for such singular talents as Scott Walker or
Nina Simone. Yet as a personality, he remains a puzzle.

The Byrds are rightly credited with bringing first folk and then country
into the rock canon, but they were all city kids - with the exception of
Gene Clark.

Born in the small Missouri town of Tipton and raised in Kansas, Clark was a
genuine country boy. Lean, rangy and muscular, he looks a little out of
place in the old Byrds photos. The mandatory shaggy-bowl cut, which so
suited his band-mates, sits uneasily on his rugged features - like a Beatles
wig on a farmhand.

He was, by all accounts, taciturn and stolid - though good-natured enough to
encourage his partners to take co-composer credits on some of his songs
(although this also helped ensure that those songs made it on to record and
earned him royalties, for which he was resented by his poorer band-mates.)
At this point, Clark was a remarkable pop balladeer. His placid exterior
concealed a deeply passionate nature, which, according to the other Byrds,
delivered another cracker of a love song every time he split up with a
girlfriend. Luckily for them, this happened fairly often. The band built
their fame on Bob Dylan covers, but their first two albums, long recognised
as classics, are packed with astonishing numbers from Clark.

Their most famous track, Eight Miles High, was bequeathed to them by Clark
when he suddenly left the group in 1966. Tormented by touring, terrified of
flying, and already sluicing down the liquor with the abandon of one truly
spooked by his own existence, he began the song as a record of the band's
first, disastrous, visit to Britain. The paradox of the Byrd who couldn't
fly writing the definitive song about a plane ride is as characteristic of
Clark as anything. Which is to say it's hard to figure it out.

The following year, Clark stepped back into the spotlight with his solo
debut, Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers. But the spotlight had shifted.
His old band released their dazzling album, Younger Than Yesterday, around
the same time as Clark's effort - with the advantage of the brand name and
marketing budget.

Listening to Clark's album, you can understand why Bob Dylan was fascinated
by his writing talent. At first the ex-Byrd had been caught up in sincere
flattery of Dylan. But by now he had developed his own complex, almost
baroque pop style. Tracks like Echoes and So You Say You've Lost Your Baby
are forgotten gems of the sixties. Sadly, they were forgotten even in 1967.
The album flopped and Clark, for neither the first nor the last time, went
into a tailspin.

A touring reunion with The Byrds saw him plagued by stage fright, and
attempting to blot out his dread of air travel with yet more booze and
barbiturates. He quit after three weeks, returned to Los Angeles, and
promptly got stuck in a lift. The Missouri boy had a horror of tiny spaces.
He screamed like a deranged gibbon and clawed at the walls in a
claustrophobic frenzy for nigh-on three hours. When he was finally released,
he fled into the night, not to be seen again for months. It was the end of
his career as a rock star.

One of Gene Clark's many successors in The Byrds was Gram Parsons, who
famously dreamed of creating 'Cosmic American Music' and, even more
famously, died before he got round to it.

Gene Clark actually did it, although it took him a while. After the
commercial failure of his solo LP, he teamed up with bluegrass legend Doug
Dillard and released a pair of amiable records which sit easily at the
rootsier end of the country-rock canon. In retrospect, the pairing is
perhaps most memorable for the outrageously camp motorbiking cover of The
Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark, which prefigures the seventies
clone look with spooky precision. If only Clark had been homosexual, he
might have lighted upon a fail-safe route to cult heroism.

Or he could have dropped dead while still in his mid-twenties, like Parsons,
whose early and bizarre demise in 1973 - bloodstream full of chemicals,
rectum full of ice cubes, a groupie's hand tugging on his penis in a vain
effort to revive him - ensured his future status.

But Gene lived to be older, wiser and not a little drunker. And while
Parsons spent the early seventies retreating into the comfort of country
music, Clark began to build upon it. In 1971, he released the well-received
album White Light. He then embarked on a series of costly recording sessions
which were eventually abandoned and written off for no particular reason.
The results later appeared on the Roadmaster LP, which still stands as one
of the peaks of country-rock. In a genre rife with archaic posturing and
whiny harmonies, it sounds fresh and invigorated, and contains many of
Clark's loveliest songs, including the definitive reworking of his Byrds gem
She Don't Care About Time.

Usually disappointment would have, quite literally, sent Clark reeling. But
his moment was upon him. Signing up with Asylum, he began work on No Other.
It cost $100,000 to record, which in 1974 was a vast budget even for a
top-selling act, let alone a singer-songwriter who hadn't had a hit record
in an eight-year solo career. It brought together two of the great
grass-roots musical forms of America, country and gospel, mixing them with
soul, funk and rock to produce a breathtakingly fluid and complete sound.

Later masterpieces like Primal Scream's Screamadelica and The Verve's Urban
Hymns have their prototype in No Other, and the songs on the album make up
one of the most astonishing sets ever brought into a studio.

Curiously, considering what we know about Clark, No Other sounds like the
work of a man at peace with himself. Perhaps the highest point of this
consistently Himalayan album is Some Misunderstanding, a song of stunning
beauty and scope, smoothing over rifts, celebrating life and repudiating
quick fixes. Within months of recording it, Clark would be back on the
bottle. The problem seemed to be that no one was listening to Gene Clark.
Not even Clark himself.

When No Other failed to sell in even respectable quantities, it was one blow
too many. Clark had come back from years of disappointment and frustration
to create one of the supreme records in pop history. For all his boasts on
Roadmaster, of being 'a travelling musician', he still abhorred touring and
did little to promote the album.

Even so, the failure of No Other was an unusually cruel twist. This was an
era when almost any pumpkin-headed fool with a guitar and a willingness to
explore the shallow puddle he called his soul could shift albums by the
tanker-load. Clark was the real deal, and after No Other flopped, he never
again approached the outer edges of that kind of brilliance. For some time
afterwards, he seemed to devote most of his creative energy to growing a
beard the size of a bramble thicket.

After a brief reunion with ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, Clark
spent the eighties making agreeable but unexceptional country-rock records
and raising hell. Friends would see him lurching out of LA bars, roaring
drunk and trading ill-aimed punches with fellow sots.

But he did make genuine efforts to clean up his act. He moved in with his
long-term lover Terri Messina and brought his two sons to live with him.
Despite having most of his stomach removed in a life-saving operation, he
managed to work his way back to rude health amazingly quickly. As Carla
Olson is quick to point out: "He was a regular guy in many ways. He had a
real, heartfelt side to him that wanted to be a family man. But he couldn't
deal with that responsibility and still be Gene Clark." According to Saul
Davis, commercial failure wasn't the root of Clark's problem. "Gene seemed
to do better when he was having to struggle a bit. As long as he could
survive financially and make records, he kind of liked it because it allowed
him that sort of motorcycle outlaw, renegade Easy Rider kinda status. He was
quite a man's man, I would say. He was tall and handsome and proud. But I
think being as proud and as talented as he was in a world of mediocrity,
obviously bothered him. And when success came, little or big, it seemed to
be kind of destructive for him. He would indulge, and it wasn't good for
him."

 

Success of an unexpected nature came in 1989, in the form of a big-selling
Tom Petty solo album which featured a cover of Clark's classic Byrds number,
Feel A Whole Lot Better. Out of nowhere, Clark sighted a huge wad of
publishing money heading in his direction. "That perhaps led to his demise,"
suggests Davis, "because he started being irresponsible again." For
'irresponsible', read marathon benders, heroin abuse and sucking down
burning crack - alternated with dangerous amounts of sudden strenuous
exercise. On May 24, 1991, Gene Clark was found dead on the floor of his
home.

The cause was given as a heart attack, and technically that's what it was.
But the kind of behaviour that had chauffeured him to death's door, pursued
him to the funeral viewing. There, actor David Carradine drunkenly shook the
corpse by the lapels of its jacket and howled, "You fucked the girl and she
was only..." before being dragged off by security guards.

Clark made some extraordinary recordings which should one day gain him the
recognition he deserves. His masterpiece can be found in second-hand shops,
and, gathering dust somewhere, are further tapes from the No Other sessions
which have never been released. While it omits many of his best songs,
Flying High may go some way to restoring his reputation. A rock'n'roll death
couldn't make him famous, but his music might yet do it.

Flying High is released on A&M records later this year. Many other Gene
Clark albums are available on Edsel.

 

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.1998