Gene Clark: The Byrd Who Wouldn’t Fly

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.

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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.

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The classic Byrds lineup (L-R):  Hillman, Crosby, Michael Clarke, McGuinn, and Gene Clark.

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.

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Clark, showing the master where the new direction of music was headed.

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.

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Clark, circa 1974

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.

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One final hurrah:  the original Byrds lineup at the R&R Hall induction in January 1991.  Four month later, Clark (far right) was no longer with us.

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.

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Full Circle:  Gene Clark’s final resting place in Tipton, MO, a couple of country miles from where I grew up.

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:

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Echoes
  2. Think I’m Gonna Feel Better
  3. Tried So Hard
  4. Is Yours Is Mine
  5. Keep on Pushin’
  6. I Found You

Side Two:

  1. So You Say You Lost Your Baby
  2. Elevator Operator
  3. The Same One
  4. Couldn’t Believe Her
  5. Needing Someone
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A very nice documentary by Four Suns Productions, complete with interviews with McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman.

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-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Clark

http://foursunsproductions.com/Gene-Clark-Documentary/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_Clark_with_the_Gosdin_Brothers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Byrds#Ersatz_Byrds_and_further_reunions_(1989%E2%80%9391;_2000)

 

August 30 – Country Byrds

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The winds of change in the music world were really picking up speed by the second half of 1968, and nowhere was it any more evident than with the Byrds on their second release from that year and sixth overall, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released 50 years ago today.

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The shift had already begun with January’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers and its mellower, more pastoral sound.  More significantly, David Crosby had been fired from the group during its recording, and original drummer Michael Clarke was gone as well and replaced by Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley.  Interested in taking their sound a little more toward country they hired Gram Parsons, whom Chris Hillman happened to meet while standing in line in a Beverly Hills bank.  They auditioned Parsons, fresh out of the International Submarine Band, on piano, but he quickly showed that his place was up front with a guitar.  What Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman didn’t realize was that Parsons had an agenda of sorts:  to bring country and western music into the rock ‘n’ roll world, to make it hip.

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L-R:  Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

The album was originally intended by McGuinn to be a review of American music featuring bluegrass, Appalachian, country, jazz, R&B, rock, and even futuristic/electronic sounds.  With guitarist Clarence White on board for the sessions they were already leaning in a country/bluegrass direction, but Gram Parsons was obsessed with country music, and his enthusiasm for it rubbed off on the others enough that Sweetheart became a purely country record – the first major country rock album by an established band.  Much of the album, including the two Dylan songs, was recorded in Nashville.  The band was in for a rude awakening as the Nashville establishment, including disc jockeys and the Grand Ole Opry audience, was not kind to a “hippie band” supposedly undermining true country music.

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The Byrds performing at the Grand Ole Opry

It was all over with Gram Parsons about as quickly as it came together.  Tensions arose over Parsons stepping on toes regarding the band’s direction, including genre and personnel recruitment, as well as demanding more money.  Further adding to the strain was the concern that Parsons was still under contract from his ISB days.  This resulted in Roger McGuinn recording his own vocals over Parsons’ on a few songs in order to avoid legal issues.  However, since he didn’t do this with all of Gram’s songs, it’s been suggested McGuinn was also also trying to lessen the newcomer’s stamp on the group.  Gram had joined the group in February, and he had moved on by the time the album was released with an eye toward his next project, the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a commercial failure upon its release and was seen as a betrayal by much of the Byrds’ fan base.  Little did rock fans know that this was part of a larger shift away from the psychedelic sounds of the previous couple of years.  Dylan had already released John Wesley Harding and was then currently hidden away in upstate New York recording some rather strange-sounding music with the Band.  Bob would also return to Nashville for the following year’s Nashville Skyline, another highly influential country album by a Nashville outsider.  And, of course, the aforementioned Band had just released Music from Big Pink.  All of these releases, including Sweetheart, became very influential on groups right around the bend including Poco and the Eagles.

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Thankfully, subsequent re-releases of the album have included the tracks with Gram Parsons’ original vocals.  McGuinn’s attempt to sound country on the Louvin Bros. The Christian Life is almost embarrassing.  However, despite Gram’s sincere love for the genre, his status as a countrified avatar sent to Earth to enlighten the music world is, in my mind, rather dubious.

He was a trust fund Harvard dropout – albeit a very talented one – and had only come into country around this same time having been more interested in folk music before.  And his labeling of his brand of country as “Cosmic American Music” was just that:  marketing his brand.  I’ve yet to understand what is “cosmic” about it, other than the fact it was performed by country music outsiders who were folk and rock musicians by trade and had experimented with psychedelic drugs.

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Pre-country Gram Parsons

I do like this album a lot, with Parsons’ Hickory Wind and Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere among my favorite tracks.  The Christian Life with Parsons on vocals, too.  But it’s not my favorite country rock album from the era.  Dylan’s Nashville Skyline the following year is better in my mind, but there was also one more:  Recorded at about the same time as Sweetheart, ex-Byrd (and co-founding member) Gene Clark’s to-this-day-underappreciated album with Doug Dillard tops them all (I’ll be sharing more on it in a couple months).

As for Roger McGuinn’s original idea for the album – a review of multiple genres of American music – it’s interesting to me that Stephen Stills’ band Manassas, which included Chris Hillman, did something quite similar on their 1972 eponymous debut.  Whatever one’s preference, it’s safe to say that any artist in what we refer to today as the Americana genre owes a debt to Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

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Postscript:  Fifty years after the Byrds were heckled and jeered during their performance at the Grand Ole Opry, McGuinn and Hillman have joined forces with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives on a Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th anniversary celebration tour which will take them to none other than the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  McGuinn has been careful to mention that it’s not the Byrds, and there are no plans for a reunion with Crosby.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
  2. I Am a Pilgrim
  3. The Christian Life
  4. You Don’t Miss Your Water
  5. You’re Still on My Mind
  6. Pretty Boy Floyd

Side Two:

  1. Hickory Wind
  2. One Hundred Years from Now
  3. Blue Canadian Rockies
  4. Life in Prison
  5. Nothing was Delivered

On my reading list but yet to obtain:

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-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweetheart_of_the_Rodeo

https://www.allmusic.com/album/sweetheart-of-the-rodeo-mw0000653106

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/byrds-co-founders-plan-sweetheart-of-the-rodeo-50th-anniversary-tour-629457/

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/roger-mcguinn-talks-sweetheart-of-the-rodeo-gigs-rules-out-byrds-reunion-704131/

January 15 – Three Byrds (and a Horse)

The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers

Some bands and individual performers can become pigeon-holed by their sound and/or image over a relatively brief period of time.  MTV certainly played a role in that in the 1980’s, as to this day many non-fans assume Bob Dylan still sings in the nasally tone that they only heard, albeit many times, on his contribution to We Are the World, and Bruce Springsteen to them probably still wears a red bandanna and a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off.  Dylan’s singing voice has probably been through nine or ten distinct incarnations over the years, with at least three different phases since U.S.A. for Africa, and Bruce has added to his playing and singing style a few times and traded the bandanna for a hair piece long ago.  Another such band that many have one impression of, thanks to soul-sucking commercial Classic Rock and Oldies radio formats,  is The Byrds.

The first Byrds album I ever “owned” was their original Greatest Hits that I pirated in 1985 onto cassette from my Uncle Chris’s original 1967 vinyl.  I’m fairly certain it’s out in the garage with my other tapes that I continue to hold onto for posterity, and for those Grateful Dead soundboards my friend Mitch gave me years ago.  But that hits album is the epitome of the early Byrds that is assumed by many to be the one and only Byrds sound:  Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker playing Dylan covers.  While I love that music, the band evolved remarkably over its lifespan, and I consider The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released January 15, 1968, to be a fascinating shift that took a stunning leap with their next album later in the year.

For the heavy hitters in music, 1968 seems to have been a psychedelic hangover of sorts that inspired them to branch out, or at least “return to roots,” while many of the others were still playing catch-up in a commercially paisley world.  Though Dylan didn’t release an official LP that year, he was cloistered in Upstate New York recording stripped down “weird America” music (to steal writer and critic Greil Marcus’s term) with The Band.  The Stones stepped forward and backward all at once with straight forward rock and blues on their followup to Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Beatles were all over the place on their upcoming double LP release.  While this Byrds record is still considered “psychedelic” and McGuinn’s jingle-jangle guitar is very present, the band integrates hints of country music with a steel pedal, pop (the opening track, Artificial Energy, reminds me of Devol, the studio group  that recorded incidental music for TV shows such as The Brady Bunch, but in a good way), and electronic music with the introduction of a Moog synthesizer into an overall more laid back, sometimes pastoral, sound.  The themes include Vietnam, peace, love, freedom, ecology, and outer space.  Far out, man.

Another theme that might have been considered far out and was put to tape but not the final LP song lineup was found in David Crosby’s Triad, which the band subsequently gave to the Jefferson Airplane to record and which Crosby would go on to include in CSNY live sets.  The Byrds’ version finally ended up on the album’s remaster almost thirty years later.  Crosby’s anger over this song about a ménage à trois being considered too risqué for inclusion, along with his increasingly unbearable personality, caused him to be fired during the album’s recording.  Drummer Michael Clarke had quit briefly before this, due in part to disputes with Croz, only to return after the latter was fired.  Clarke was then let go after recording was completed.  Founding member Gene Clark (from my home state of Missouri), who had quit the group in 1966, returned for three weeks before quitting again.  Despite all the group upheaval (i.e., drugs and ego) and the various styles and instrumentation introduced, this is a very cohesive album which stands on its own merits fifty years on without a major hit to anchor it.

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. Artificial Energy
  2. Goin’ Back
  3. Natural Harmony
  4. Draft Morning
  5. Wasn’t Born to Follow
  6. Get to You

Side Two:

  1. Change is Now
  2. Old John Robertson
  3. Tribal Gathering
  4. Dolphin’s Smile
  5. Space Odyssey

Fun with Album Covers:

The location of the group photo on the cover of The Notorious Byrd Brothers is in Topanga Canyon, L.A.  The horse in the photo was thought to represent the recently fired David Crosby, although perhaps the wrong end of the horse.  It’s also the scene of another album photo shoot – for Linda Ronstadt – the following year.  Today it appears to be a renovated guest house next to a rather posh Topanga spread.

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http://www.popspotsnyc.com/the_byrds/

-Stephen