"Dig This" With The Splendid Bohemians- New Episode: Gene Clark- Rich Buckland and Bill Mesnik Explore the Saga of The Byrd Who Flew Alone

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“Cruel ironies abound in Clark’s career. In 1966, he exited the Byrds, then one of the most popular bands in the world, because he was terrified of flying; shortly after, the group scored one of its biggest hits, “Eight Miles High,” which he cowrote. A few years later, Clark teamed up with banjo player Doug Dillard and recorded a brilliant LP, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, that influenced the mellow, country-inflected L.A. rock sound of the ’70s. But when Dillard & Clark debuted at the Troubadour, the Sunset Strip club where future stars like Don Henley and Glenn Frey first hatched plans for world domination, Clark was too drunk to perform competently, and the group quickly fell apart.

Later, one of Clark’s sidemen, Bernie Leadon, joined the Eagles, and a Dillard & Clark song, “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” ended up on the Eagles’ self-titled 1972 debut. That same year, Clark commenced work on a new album called Roadmaster with a promising set of songs and a relatively healthy and sober outlook. Unfortunately, this project was derailed spectacularly by another’s near-comical maleficence: The producer decided it was wise to invite Sly Stone to the studio when Clark was out of town, and Sly arrived with an entourage of 40 people and an RV full of cocaine. They proceeded to max out the record company’s production tab in a manner of days, ordering thousands of dollars’ worth of food from a neighboring restaurant. Work on Roadmaster was halted, and the tracks were dumped unceremoniously on a record released only in the Netherlands. (Roadmaster was later given a wider reissue.)

Clark’s most celebrated album, 1974’s No Other, was similarly derided, then discarded by Clark’s benefactors. Signed by the top mogul of SoCal pop, David Geffen, on the strength of his songs for the ill-fated 1973 Byrds reunion album, Clark finally had at his disposal world-class musicians and a big budget topping out at $100,000. Clark and his producer, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, responded by swinging for the fences, creating dreamy, wide-screen soundscapes that stretched on for several minutes per track. Geffen, in turn, was pissed that No Other had only eight songs. “Make a proper fucking album!” Geffen screamed.1 Geffen subsequently released No Other with no promotional support, and cut Clark loose.

Clark, once again, had lost. Perhaps No Other’s opener, “Life’s Greatest Fool,” was prophetic, though Clark played the unlucky fool in nearly all of his songs. Loss was his great theme. For the Byrds, he wrote breathtaking ballads about abandonment (“Here Without You”) and nobly walking away from those he would inevitably disappoint (“Set You Free This Time”). As Clark grew older, and his despair over the turns his life had taken deepened, romantic desolation gave way to spiritual yearning — on sweepingly meditative numbers like “Out on the Side,” “Full Circle Song,” and “Silver Raven,” he sounds like a man whose dignity derives from holding it together amid the wreckage of his life as he calmly addresses the heavens, looking for answers.

Clark was weary but not exactly angry, at least not on his albums. He appeared to be seeking relief in the one place in his life that hadn’t been corrupted. Clark was a romantic at heart, and sentimental about the act of creating something luminous. My favorite Gene Clark song, and possibly the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard by anybody, is “For a Spanish Guitar,” from 1971’s Gene Clark, a.k.a. White Light, where he sings with heartbreaking purity about the restorative power of music in the face of constant hardship. Clark’s resolve in that regard held more or less firm for another 20 years.”

Steven Hyden

By Rich Buckland 10/01/2016 09:59 AM

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