Any road you take in rock music, the one to fame or the one to anonymity or oblivion, is paved with sad stories of mishaps and misfortune. Late Gene Clark, co-founder of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, a solo artist in his own right is probably the epitome of them. From Missouri to fame in Los Angeles, from substance abuse (many substances), to one of the progenitors of country rock, to a brilliant solo artist, to more substance abuse and a premature death, to a cult status that seems to grow as time passes by.
Even at the times when success was all around him, it seems that sadness always prevailed in a man that wrote “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better.” It seems he never did. In the process of trying to find that better feeling he wrote some of the most exquisite music, whether it was jangly, baroque pop, or ‘plain’ country music. After all, Gene Clark was the man who played in The Byrds and wrote “Eight Miles High”, as somebody who had a compulsive fear of flying. His highs were somewhere else.
Fame, Fortune, Jealousy and Fear
You really have to be talented to make it as one of 13 siblings of multiple ethnic backgrounds (including American Indian), and from Tipton, Missouri to make it in the mid-’60s. After playing in a number of folk and rock bands, covering everything from Hank Williams to Everly Brothers, Clark was hired by, then very popular, folk revival group The New Christy Minstrels, with whom he recorded two albums in the early ’60s.
Clark was not only the sole composer in the group, more or less, but actually, along with McGuinn, the only other accomplished musician in the band at the time
But then he heard The Beatles and hooked up with Roger (then Jim) McGuinn to form The Byrds. At the time the band was set to record Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds’ first album, Clark was not only the sole composer in the group, more or less, but actually, along with McGuinn, the only other accomplished musician in the band at the time, and that included David Crosby and Chris Hillman. So much so, that Columbia Records producers brought in session musicians to cover for everybody except Clark and McGuinn. Of the 13 songs on the original album Clark wrote six songs (sharing credits for two with McGuinn), with songs like “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, “Here Without You”, and “I Knew I’d Want You”, remaining some of the best The Byrds came up with.
For Turn! Turn! Turn! the situation did not change much. Clark was the author of five songs, including gems like “Set You Free This Time” and “She Don’t Care About Time.” But what that produced within the band was tension and friction, particularly in relations between Clark and David Crosby. Clark was not only the front figure during their live shows, but was in a much better financial situation within the band due to all the song royalties he was receiving.
The first point of discontent was when Clark gave up his rhythm guitar duties over to Crosby, which turned into a constant squabble with Crosby making snide remarks on Clark’s account. But then, at that point, Clark was already deep into substance abuse. He would spend large sums on anything from booze to any sort of drugs he could lay his hands on. By the time of 5th Dimension in 1966 (one of the weaker Byrds albums) he was down to just one song – “Eight Miles High”, which is still one of the best drugs songs around.
As is usually the case, highs usually lead to big crashes and the internal conflict within the band came to a head when Clark literally refused to fly to a gig while they were set to board an airplane. At that point, he was out of the band.
Flying In The Shadow… Of The Byrds
Clark’s reputation as a songwriter in music circles was strong, even after he left The Byrds – Columbia Records signed him immediately as a solo artist. What Clark delivered was a joint effort with TheGosdin Brothers (hence the name of the album, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (1967)) with Clark getting the head billing. As far as the music was concerned, he delivered. The album was an excellent concoction of ‘regular’ and baroque pop, and something that can be pinpointed as one of the origins of country rock, a few albums ahead of the seminal effort of his old band, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo.
But the shadow and the success of McGuinn, Crosby and the rest of The Byrds, from then on, kept following Clark throughout the rest of his career. The album came out at the same time as Younger Than Yesterday, one of The Byrds’ best. In the meantime, David Crosby left The Byrds, Clark and the band attempted another go, but after a panic attack before one of the concerts, Clark was again out after only a few weeks.
…an excellent concoction of ‘regular’ and baroque pop, and something that can be pinpointed as one of the origins of country rock, a few albums ahead of the seminal effort of his old band, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo
After the commercial flop of his first solo effort, Clark changed labels, and went for another joint musical venture. He teamed up with the banjo wizard Doug Dillard and Bernie Leadon, later the guitarist of Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles for The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968). The album was a full-on country rock affair, ahead of the attempts that ensued by almost everybody else. But the quality of the songs, the inclusion of one in Sam Pekinpah’s movie The Gateway and the fact that “Train Leaves Here This Morning” and “She Darked The Sun” were covered by almost everybody, from The Eagles to Robert Plant, didn’t help much as far as commercial success was concerned, and the bottle became Clark’s new best friend.
As the commercial success failed, Clark’s status in the ever-growing country rock circles at the time grew and he contributed to The Flying Burrito Brothers. Clark’s next solo attempt followed in 1971 with the White Light album. Another set of brilliant Clark songs, another critical success, another commercial failure. The fact that Dennis Hopper commissioned two of his songs for his documentary American Dreamer didn’t help either.
Clark started recording a new album and his drinking problem made the recording slow and expensive so A&M, his then label, pulled the plug on the project. The recorded tracks were released as Roadmaster (1973), but in the Netherlands only, where White Light was actually commercially viable and was voted the album of the year.
As the commercial success failed, Clark’s status in the ever-growing country rock circles at the time grew…
There’s No Other Way to Two Sides to Every Story
What ensued was a duo of albums that confirmed Gene Clark’s reputation as one of the best songwriters of his generation, a critical darling that garners an ever-growing fan base to this day but still remains a complete commercial failure as a solo artist.
This is particularly the case with No Other (1974), the album that remains on all best of lists until today, and which prompted the likes of current faves like The Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, among others, to perform the album in its entirety during a series of concerts in 2013. The ensuing Two Sides to Every Story (1977), after another label change, just confirmed Clark’s songwriting strengths as one of the most influential forces in country rock, with or without public success.
But that commercial side of the story had a brief change. In 1979 he rejoined his former Byrds bandmates McGuinn and Hillman, and the ensuing album, under the trio’s last names, was somewhat of a success, partly due to the slick production favored at the time. A second album was also recorded and eventually released, but Clark became erratic again, experimenting with drugs again, and the project fell through.
At the time Clark released Firebyrd (1984), another solo effort, he became a name revered among the LA’s Paisley Underground and bands like R.E.M., and The Long Ryders (with whom he also played. Another critical acclaim came for his duet album with Carla Olson (1986), with contribution of a number of acclaimed artists paying their homage to Clark.
Still, even a lucrative set of concerts on the nostalgia circuit with former Byrds, The Band, The Beach Boys, and other name artists didn’t help Clark’s health problems caused by drug and alcohol abuse. An operation from a malignant ulcer didn’t change his habits, and by the end of May 1991, Clark was gone.
… No Other (1974), the album that remains on all best of lists until today, and which prompted the likes of current faves like The Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, among others, to perform the album in its entirety during a series of concerts in 2013
Although the list of musicians that have covered and are still covering Clark’s songs is ever growing, that remains a fact mostly known only to a fiercely devoted cult fan base gathered around a number of online sites devoted to Clark’s musical legacy. Some of these songs have done quite well for those who covered them, like the late Tom Petty, but after The Byrds, Clark never experienced that commercial success again – something that had a huge negative effect on him personally.