It’s a rainy day in early October 2018, and Gene Clark still hasn’t received his full due. It is happening, though. Slowly but surely. And, it’s somewhat remarkable considering we’re over 50 years removed from the first hits which he wrote, and it’s mostly the result of extremely well curated archival releases on small labels, well-written biographies and video documentaries, acknowledgements from current artists, and good ‘ol grass-roots efforts.
I must admit, I’m symbolic of how Gene has been overlooked by mainstream music fans over the years. Though I was born a few years after Clark’s first and most important stint with the Byrds, I became a fan of that band at a young age – yet I had no idea until the 1990’s that Gene Clark was from my home state of Missouri and that he had written some of the Byrds’ earliest hits. So, how did he become another unsung troubadour, a “songwriter’s songwriter,” who died too young, a somewhat obscure figure to the masses? Call it a combination of personal choices, phobias, and bad luck.
Gene Clark was born in the small, central Missouri town of Tipton on November 17, 1944. Early on, his family moved to the Kansas City area. By the time he graduated from Bonner Springs High School he was a folk music convert in a band called the Surf Riders. While playing a gig in Kansas City, he was discovered late one evening by members of the New Christy Minstrels (whose lineup included Barry McGuire) who hired him on the spot and with whom he recorded two albums in the early-mid 1960’s. Upon hearing the Beatles for the first time, he quit the group and moved to L.A. where he met Jim McGuinn at the Troubadour Club, and the seeds of the Byrds were sewn.
From 1964-66, the biggest singles recorded by the Byrds not written by Bob Dylan were written by Clark, including Set You Free This Time, I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better, Eight Miles High, and She Don’t Care About Time. But internal issues within the Byrds led to Clark quitting just as the band took flight. These included their management’s decision that McGuinn would sing the major singles, including the Dylan covers. Additionally, Clark’s fear of flying (which Crosby alluded to in the song Psychodrama City) was an obvious hindrance to touring. Finally, there was resentment of the others toward Clark due to the songwriting royalties he was receiving while they were still struggling – something McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman acknowledge today as due to their immaturity at the time. They were all so young and talented, and extremely ambitious. Something had to give.
Clark’s first solo album (though co-credited), Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, was a critical success. It’s a fully realized, damn-near perfect country rock album right out of the gate. Unfortunately, it was not promoted well and was released very close to the same time as his former band the Byrds’ Younger than Yesterday, which meant his record was mostly overlooked by the media and public. Add to this his refusal to tour, and his fate as a solo artist was mostly set.
Going forward, he would release six more critically acclaimed albums, including his next two with Doug Dillard. He also returned, along with David Crosby, to the Byrds for one final attempt at a reunion album in 1973, but it was a flop. Additionally, he joined McGuinn and Hillman for a brief period. But by the 1970’s, Gene’s time in the studio became sporadic. He purchased a home in northern California and mostly avoided the L.A. scene, living off Byrds royalties. He married and started a family, but his consumption of alcohol and other substances which drag a fellow down increased until he was mostly forgotten.
Sadly, his final straw came about as a result of something which should’ve been the instigation of a Gene Clark revival: the release of Tom Petty’s version of I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better on his 1989 Full Moon Fever album. Clark became flush with cash from songwriting royalties thanks to Petty, but he was also heavily addicted, and there his money and health went. In January of 1991, all five original Byrds put aside their differences and took the stage for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Four months later, on May 24, 1991, Gene Clark died of heart failure at the age of 46.
There would be no latter-career mega-group participation for him, nor would there be well orchestrated, 21st century, sober, smaller theater tours for the next generation (or two) of his fans to express their appreciation for the brilliant music he made. There would be, however, a legion of fans and critical acclaim, both growing by the day, as well as a legacy of some of the greatest songwriting of all time. Some of this can be heard on two recent releases consisting of amazing, previously unheard Clark recordings.
There would also be inevitable comparisons to other songwriting troubadours who left us too soon, namely Gram Parsons. The thing is, if you aren’t already familiar with Gene Clark, you’ll have to discover him on your own. Like Gram, Townes Van Zandt, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, etc., you’re not likely to hear Gene Clark on the radio. But he’s not hard to find. In fact, his music’s been around us all along.
As the main theme of my blog, begun in 2018, is 50th anniversaries of album releases, I missed out on celebrating Clark’s first solo album released in 1967 which I mentioned above. Here it is in all its 28 minute folk/country/psychedelic/baroque-pop glory:
- Think I’m Gonna Feel Better
- Tried So Hard
- Is Yours Is Mine
- Keep on Pushin’
- I Found You
- So You Say You Lost Your Baby
- Elevator Operator
- The Same One
- Couldn’t Believe Her
- Needing Someone