Another Perspective

Gene Clark: A Byrd Like No Other

Dead 25 years, he’s feeling a whole lot better.

By 1.28.14

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The last thing I expected to happen in this new year was that I would be in a nightclub with a bunch of 20-somethings listening to a performance of an album recorded by Gene Clark nearly 40 years ago.

Well, this past Saturday night I was in nightclub with a bunch of 20-somethings listening to a performance of an album recorded by Gene Clark nearly 40 years ago.

For those of you who are not familiar with Gene Clark, he was a member of the legendary 1960s folk-rock band The Byrds. The Missouri-born Clark was responsible for writing the lion’s share of their songs such as “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “Here Without You,” “She Don’t Care About Time,” “Set You Free This Time,” and “Eight Miles High.” Clark’s songwriting elevated The Byrds into something more than a very good Bob Dylan cover band.

Gene Clark did all this by the tender of age of 21. But like many 21-year olds who attain overnight success, he was overwhelmed by it. Heavy drinking and high anxiety make for a potent mix. Clark abruptly left the group in early 1966 when he demanded to get off a plane bound for a gig. Fellow band member Roger McGuinn told Clark, “If you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd.”

Clark continued to make music for the remaining 25 years of his life, but would never again soar to the heights of commercial or critical success. Collaborations with the Gosdin Brothers and bluegrass legend Doug Dillard as part of Dillard & Clark as well as two other solo albums (White Light and Roadmaster) would serve as the foundation for the fusion of country and rock music in the decades that followed. But these efforts were largely ignored and unappreciated at the time of their release.

In 1973, Clark would rejoin The Byrds for one last album contributing two songs — “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart.” These two songs sufficiently impressed David Geffen of Asylum Records to sign Clark to a recording contract. Clark desired go beyond the familiar folk/country-rock milieu and veteran record producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye helped Clark with his musical declaration of independence.

The result was No Other. It was truly an album like no other Gene Clark had ever recorded. Released in September 1974, No Other was a heavily produced amalgam of folk, country, funk, r&b, and gospel, but its other worldly sounds have been described as cosmic. Needless to say cosmic wasn’t commercial. Geffen was aghast at the $100,000 costs accrued in the studio and refused to promote the album. Legend has it that an enraged Clark tried to attack Geffen at a Hollywood restaurant although Geffen denies such an incident ever occurred. Whatever the case, he was out of the Asylum and No Other went nowhere.

Although Clark continued to perform and record, he never fully recovered from the failure of No Other which he considered to be his masterpiece. Clark’s drinking caught up with him in 1991 when he died of a heart attack at the age of 46. His gravestone in his hometown of Tipton, Missouri simply reads, “Harold Eugene Clark, 1944-1991 — No Other.”

In the near quarter century since his death, Clark’s music has been slowly but surely going somewhere by finding new audiences. Although I had been long aware of his music, I heard No Other for the first time in 2011 while perusing YouTube and was absolutely blown away by it. A few months later, I purchased a Japanese import CD of No Other at Planet Records in Harvard Square. I only wish I could have read the liner notes.

Despite my best efforts to share Gene Clark’s music with friends and acquaintances, I knew I was probably the only person on the Orange Line listening to No Other on his MP3 player. But within the past few days I came to the realization that I was not alone in my appreciation for this rare Byrd.

This realization was precipitated by a completely unrelated event. I had wanted to read David Remnick’s lengthy interview with President Obama in the New Yorker. Under normal circumstances, I would have read the article online. But for some reason my home computer could not connect to the New Yorker website. Whether my computer is averse to the New Yorker or to President Obama or perhaps both I cannot say with any certainty. But what I am certain of is that I felt the need to buy the New Yorker off the newsstand. Before I got to the Obama interview I saw this headline in the Nightlife section:

The Gene Clark “No Other” Tour

I learned that Beach House, an indie pop group from Baltimore, had assembled a group of other indie musicians to perform No Other note for note at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. My excitement escalated when I further learned that Iain Matthews was among the musicians participating in this tribute. A contemporary of Clark, Matthews has been playing music for nearly half a century in groups such as Fairport Convention, Matthews’ Southern Comfort and Plainsong. In that time, Matthews has covered Clark songs such as “Polly,” “Spanish Guitar,” and “Tried So Hard.” Now a resident of the Netherlands, Matthews seldom performs in the United States. At this point, my mouth is watering. So naturally I wonder if this tour will be making its way to Boston or Cambridge. The itinerary read Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. and New York. So I headed south down I-95 to NYC.

Before the concert began, an excerpt from the recently released documentary The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark was shown. I was skeptical that a crowd of 20-somethings in a loud music hall would hush up to watch a documentary. But hush up they did. The hush turned to awe when a picture of Clark performing on stage with Dylan came on the screen. The awe turned to cheers upon sight of the No Other album cover.

True to their word, this makeshift band played No Other note for note. Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes captured the countrified air of “Life’s Greatest Fool” and the cosmic essence of “Strength of Strings.” Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen was in fine, funky form on the title track and downright ethereal on “Some Misunderstanding” while Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen got into my head with both “Refuse for a Silver Phial” and the Dillard & Clark composition “Lady of the North.” I wish Jesse Ed Davis could have played the guitar solo on “Lady of the North,” but he too ascended to rock ’n’ roll heaven long ago.

Meanwhile, Matthews performed a haunting rendition of “Silver Raven.” Later, he would return with a spirited rendition of “The True One.” I should mention here that Matthews does not look 67-years old. Just the same, it is a shame Clark did not live to celebrate what would have been his 70th birthday this year. I’m sure he would have been delighted to hear Matthews tell the crowd that sales of No Other on iTunes had increased by 4000% since this tour was announced. When Matthews wasn’t singing, he stood in the background playing the tambourine much like Clark did during his heyday with The Byrds.

A good section of the audience that had never heard of Gene Clark let alone listened to his music were full-fledged fans by the time the eight songs from No Other were finished and they wanted more. The No Other Band did not disappoint and returned for an encore which began with “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” Victoria LeGrand of Beach House, who served as part of a trio of female back up singers, took center stage to sing “Here Comes The Wind.” The male leads then returned to end the show on a high note with “Eight Miles High.”

I never thought I would get a chance to hear No Other while surrounded by an audience and at that a very young audience. This audience left the show happier than when they came in and I was glad I was part of it. There is no doubt that this audience will now join me and declare that Gene Clark is a Byrd like no other.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.