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Gene Clark

[The Guardian, 1998]

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 ones drop out, the tally remains much the same. The perennials swap positions with one another but never look in any danger of leaving the list. Will it be Sgt Pepper, Astral Weeks or Pet Sounds at number one this time? How high up the ladder has an album by a black artist - usually Electric Ladyland or What's Goin' On - managed to climb? Is 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 needs at the very least a cultish critical following. Failing that, it would help if people have heard it - or heard of it. There is one record that never makes the list, even though it is the equal of any of those mentioned above. You can't buy it at HMV or Virgin. It's not currently on release. The album is called No Other. It is one of the boldest, most brilliant and damn near perfect pieces of work in the history of pop music. It 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 Clark wasn't undiscovered. He was once seriously and substantially famous. Gene Clark was the earliest creative powerhouse behind a band who in terms of influence, reverence and acclaim rank second only to The Beatles: The Byrds.
  Somewhere along the way, Clark got 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 that he only seemed to be on them when crossing from one side to the other. It's amazing that he managed to leave behind the body of work he did. This work has now been compiled on a forthcoming album, Flying High, which covers his output from the superb songs he wrote for The Byrds, via his shaky but sometimes matchless major label solo recordings, to the countyrish pleasantries he turned out towards the end of his life.
  “There were two Genes,” says Saul Davis, who acted as Clark's manager during 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.”
  There was something amiss with Gene, but to this day nobody knows quite what. 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 is a genuine mystery in a business stuffed with fake and self-proclaimed enigmas. As a songwriter, he rivals Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, Jimmy Webb. As a performer, he is a match for such singular talents as Scott Walker or Nina Simone. As a human being, he is a puzzle, and a dead one at that.

THE BYRDS are rightly credited with bringing first folk and then country into the rock canon, but Clark excepted, they were city kids one and all. Clark was a genuine country boy, born in the small Missouri town of Tipton and raised in Kansas. Lean, rangy and muscular, he looks a little out of place in old Byrds photos. The mandatory shaggy bowl cut which so suited his bandmates sits uneasily on his rugged features, like a Beatles wig on a farmhand. He seems to have been taciturn and stolid, and good-natured enough to encourage his partners to take-co-composer credits on some of his songs (this also helped ensure that those songs made it onto record and earned him royalties, for which he was resented by his poorer bandmates.) At this point he 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 a lot.
  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. And their most famous track of all, Eight Miles High, was bequeathed to them by Gene when he suddenly left the group in 1966. Tormented by touring, deathly afraid of aeroplanes and already sluicing down liquor with the abandon of one truly spooked by his 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 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 simultaneously released their dazzling album Younger Than Yesterday, and they had the brand name and the marketing budget. Listening to Clark's LP, you can understand why Dylan was fascinated by his writing talent. At first Gene had been caught up in sincere and accomplished flattery of The Byrds' mentor. But by now he had developed his own complex, almost baroque 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 himself 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. Finally released, he fled into the night, not to be seen again for months. It was the end of his life 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 around to it. Clark actually did it. It took him a while. After the commercial failure of his solo LP, he teamed up with 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 gobsmackingly gay motorbiking cover of The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, which prefigures the Seventies clone look with spooky precision. If only Clark had actually been homosexual, he might have unwittingly lighted upon a failsafe route to cult heroism. Or he could always 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 cock 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 it 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 a hundred thousand dollars 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 grassroots 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 Screamadelica and Urban Hymns have their prototype in No Other, and the songs on the album make up one of 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 Gene.

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 what he must have known was 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 or night clubs, roaring drunk, trading ill-aimed punches with fellow sots or rolling around on the ground as some other lush tried to rip his ears off. But Clark also made 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 worked his way back to rude health in amazingly short order. 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 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, [failure] 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 that good for him.”
  Success of an unexpected nature kicked the door down 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 rock after rock of smouldering crack - alternated with dangerous amounts of sudden and strenuous exercise. On 24 May 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 which had chauffeured him to death's door and valet-parked his limo pursued him even to the funeral viewing. There, actor David Carradine drunkenly shook the corpse by the lapels of its jacket and howled tearful abuse at it. “You f***ed the girl and she was only -” he was heard to cry, before being dragged off by security guards
  Clark made a handful of extraordinary recordings which should one day gain him the recognition he deserves. His masterpiece can be still tracked down at record fairs or in second-hand shops. Rumours persist that somewhere gathering dust are further tapes from the No Other sessions which have never been released in any form. Flying High, while it omits many of his very best songs, may go some way to restoring his reputation. Even a rock'n'roll death couldn't revive his fame, but the music he left behind may yet do it.

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