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Inside Steven Alan

Super Sounds Like This

  • December 31st, 2008 | Uncategorized

    (N.B.: This post was initially going to be about Thin Lizzy’s Vagabonds of the Western World (Deram, 1979). Then, Lungfish’s Artificial Horizon (Dischord, 1998). Then, after listening patiently to my insufferable griping about the unwritability of Lungfish, someone dear to me said, “Nate, just write about Gene Clark,” as if this should have been the most obvious idea in the world. And you know what? She was absolutely right.)
    Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers – Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (Columbia, 1967)

    The names that come most readily to mind when most people think of The Byrds are, of course, Roger (né Jim) McGuinn and David Crosby. In the excavatory spirit of our new Music Section, I call your attention to the seldom-sung career of Gene (né Harold Eugene) Clark, who was in fact the primary songwriter in The Byrds from 1964 to 1966, responsible for such early Byrds hits as “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “Eight Miles High,” and “Set You Free This Time”. After a brief stint on Elektra Records as The Jet Set, Clark, McGuinn, and Crosby attracted the attention of Miles Davis, who in turn facilitated their signing to Columbia Records in late 1964. Jim Dickson, a friend of David Crosby’s who became The Byrds’ first manager, delegated lead vocal duties to Roger McGuinn, though even the most cursory listen to Clark’s solo albums will tell you that it’s he who’s got the goods; his is simply one of the most compelling voices in American rock music. Yet, much as in the case of The Small Faces’ Steve Marriott—whose voice outshines, by a power of about nine hundred million, that of Rod “The Mod” Stewart, who would replace Marriott when The Small Faces abandoned the diminutive and became, simply, The Faces—Gene Clark, sadly, is often relegated to a footnote in most histories of rock (the fact that he drank himself to an early death doesn’t help, either). Gene likely bristled at his being passed over for McGuinn; this, combined with a paralyzing fear of flying (unhelped by what was becoming a rigorous touring schedule), and mounting problems with alcohol and drugs led Gene Clark to leave The Byrds in 1966. Clark, a Missouri native, hunkered down for a bit in Kansas City, then returned to L.A. in early 1967, eventually landing a solo contract with Columbia.

    Clark’s solo career was basically one long commercial nightmare, though he had several critical successes with White Light (A&M, 1971), No Other (Asylum, 1974), and the veritable masterpiece we’re concerned with here, Gene Clark with The Gosdin Brothers, his first solo album for Columbia. Hillman and another Byrd, Michael Clarke, make appearances in Clark’s backing band; Vern and Rex Gosdin (whose managers, Dickson and Eddie Tickner, were also those of The Byrds and of Gene Clark) were a country and bluegrass duo from Woodland, Alabama, and their collaboration with Gene Clark earned them a spot on the Capitol Records roster, where they released the ridiculously-good Sounds of Goodbye in 1968. Besides Hillman and Clarke, the Gene Clark band at this time also comprised Clarence White (who would later go on to play guitar in…The Byrds), Doug Dillard (with whom Clark would release the excellent The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark on A&M the following year), touring Beach Boy Glen Campbell, and Van Dyke Parks. Has this gotten ridiculous and/or confusing enough yet?
    Back to Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. Each song—except for the one straight-up miss on the album, “Elevator Operator”—is meticulously wrought, and the album itself (thankfully, to my mind) is difficult to pin down as a whole into one genre. There are certainly traces of the Byrds’ folk-rock (“Keep on Pushing” and the downright amazing “Tried So Hard,” one of Clark’s most well-known compositions and one that, all alone, is reason enough to get your hands on this album like basically right now), alongside mid-tempo British Invasion influences (“Is Yours Is Mine”), and even elements of baroque psych-pop (“So You Say You Lost Your Baby” and “Echoes,” both of which feature lavish string arrangements, probably courtesy of Parks). Gene Clark’s undoubtedly a key figure in the history of American folk-rock, yet with this album he simultaneously helps to create and to place himself beyond the reach of any one particular musical mode. Every single thing about this record betrays a sense of very deliberate caution and craftsmanship, particularly in the restraint of its production. Even the more up-tempo pop songs are tinged with a kind of ineffable sadness and longing, thanks mostly to Gene and the Gosdins’ rich vocal harmonies.

    However, as fate would have it, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers was slated for release a few short days before The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday, which in turn received the full force of Columbia’s promotional efforts, and Clark’s first solo album was a commercial flop. In spite of this, I would argue that it’s Clark’s solo album that’s the more compelling effort; oddly enough, I think The Byrds’ shining moment, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia, 1968), their second post-Gene Clark full-length, is easily their best, though I’m certainly not alone in this.

    Clark was to wander the wilderness of commercial failure, lousy management, and stints in rehab for twenty-odd years following this album’s release, until his death in 1991. As I write this, I realize that I want to encourage you all, in the strongest possible terms, to choose your own point of entry into the world of Gene Clark; the other Clark solo records mentioned above are nothing short of phenomenal. And, if anyone’s feeling particularly generous and wants to give me a copy of Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of The Byrds’ Gene Clark for the holidays, I’d be much obliged.

    Sloppy, inadequate historicizing of The Byrds: check.
    Unabashed solicitation of SA Journal readers: check.
    Too many parentheses: check.
    Preaching the Gene Clark gospel: check.

    Happy Holidays, SA Journal readers!

    This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 31st, 2008 at 9:59 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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