Published on November 26, 2012 by Amy
Harold Eugene “Gene” Clark (November 17, 1944 – May 24, 1991) was an American singer-songwriter, and one of the founding members of the folk-rock group The Byrds.
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Gene Clark is best remembered for being The Byrds’ main songwriter between 1964 and early 1966. He created a large catalogue of music in several genres but failed to achieve solo commercial success. Clark was one of the earliest exponents of psychedelic rock, baroque pop, newgrass, country rock and alternative country.
Clark was born in Tipton, Missouri, the third of thirteen children. His family soon moved to Kansas City where he began learning the guitar from his father at age nine and was soon playing Hank Williams tunes as well as material by early rockers such as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. Before long he was writing his own songs and, at 13, joined a local rock and roll combo, Joe Meyers and the Sharks. Like many of his generation, Clark developed an interest in folk music because of the popularity of the Kingston Trio. Clark graduated from Bonner Springs High School in Bonner Springs, Kansas in 1962.
Formation of The Byrds
He began performing with several folk groups working out of Kansas City at the Castaways Lounge, owned by Hal Harbaum, where he was discovered by The New Christy Minstrels, in August 1963, who hired him for their ensemble and with whom he remained for six months. After hearing the Beatles, Clark quit the Christys and moved to Los Angeles where he met fellow folkie/Beatles convert Jim (later Roger) McGuinn at the Troubadour Club and in early 1964 they began to assemble a band that would become The Byrds.
Gene Clark wrote or co-wrote many of The Byrds’ best-known originals, including: “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “Set You Free This Time”, “Here Without You”, “If You’re Gone”, “The World Turns All Around Her”, “She Don’t Care About Time” and “Eight Miles High”. He played harmonica for the band, too (notably on “Set You Free This Time”). Bassist Chris Hillman noted years later in various interviews remembering Gene: “People don’t give enough credit to Gene Clark. He came up with the most incredible lyrics. I don’t think I appreciated Gene Clark as a songwriter until the last two years. He was awesome! He was heads above us! Roger wrote some great songs then, but Gene was coming up with lyrics that were way beyond what he was. He wasn’t a well-read man in that sense, but he would come up with these beautiful phrases. A very poetic man–very, very productive. He would write two or three great songs a week”. “He was the songwriter. He had the “gift” that none of the rest of us had developed yet…. What deep inner part of his soul conjured up songs like “Set You Free This Time,” “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “I’m Feelin’ Higher,” “Eight Miles High”? So many great songs! We learned a lot of songwriting from him and in the process learned a little bit about ourselves. At one time, he was the power in the Byrds, not McGuinn, not Crosby—it was Gene who would burst through the stage curtain banging on a tambourine, coming on like a young Prince Valiant. A hero, our savior. Few in the audience could take their eyes off this presence.”
A management decision delivered the lead vocal duties to McGuinn for their major singles and Bob Dylan songs. This disappointment, combined with Clark’s dislike of traveling (including a chronic fear of flying) and resentment by other band members about the extra income he derived from his songwriting, led to internal squabbling and he left the group in early 1966. He briefly returned to Kansas City before moving back to Los Angeles to form Gene Clark & the Group with Chip Douglas, Joel Larson, and Bill Rhinehart.
Solo career and rejoining The Byrds
Columbia Records (The Byrds’ record label) signed Clark as a solo artist and, in 1967, he released his first solo LP, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, a mixture of pop, country rock and baroque-psychedelic tracks—Chris Hillman had worked with the Gosdin Brothers in the mid 1960s when he and they were members of the Southern California bluegrass band called The Hillmen. The record received favorable reviews but unfortunately for Clark, it was released almost simultaneously with the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday, also on Columbia, and (partly due to his 18 month-long public absence) was a commercial failure.
With the future of his solo career in doubt, Clark briefly rejoined The Byrds in October 1967, as a replacement for the recently departed David Crosby, but left after only three weeks, following an anxiety attack in Minneapolis. During this brief period with The Byrds, he appeared with the band on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, miming to the group’s current single “Goin’ Back”, as well as to “Mr. Spaceman”. Although there is some disagreement among the band’s biographers, Clark is generally viewed as having contributed background vocals to the songs “Goin’ Back” and “Space Odyssey” from the then forthcoming Byrds’ album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, as well as being an uncredited co-author, with Roger McGuinn, of “Get to You” from that album.
In 1968, Clark signed with A&M Records and began a collaboration with banjo player Doug Dillard. With guitarist Bernie Leadon (later with The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles), they produced two country rock and bluegrass-flavored albums: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark and Through the Morning Through the Night, both of which fared poorly on the charts. Through the Morning, Through the Night was more bluegrass in character than its predecessor, used electric instrumentation and included Donna Washburn (Dillard’s girlfriend) as a backing vocalist, all of which contributed to the departure of Leadon. The loss of Leadon as a co-writer meant that the album featured more covers than originals, and the change of musical direction caused Clark to lose faith in the group, which disbanded in late 1969. Today, Dillard & Clark are viewed as pioneers of country rock.
In 1970, Clark began work on a new single, recording two tracks with the original members of the Byrds (each recording his part separately). The resulting songs, “She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One in a Hundred”, were not released at the time due to legal problems and were included later on Roadmaster. Frustrated with the music industry, Clark bought a home at Albion near Mendocino, married, and fathered two children while living off his still substantial Byrds royalties.
In 1970 and 1971, Clark contributed vocals and two compositions (“Tried So Hard” and “Here Tonight”) to albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers.
It wasn’t until 1971 that a further Gene Clark solo set finally emerged. The album was titled White Light on the actual record, although the fact that the name was not included on the cover sleeve led some later reviewers to assume mistakenly that it was titled ‘Gene Clark’. The record was produced by the much sought after Native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis with whom Clark developed great rapport, partly due to their common Indian ancestry. A largely acoustic work supplemented by slide guitar work by Davis, the album contained many introspective tracks such as “With Tomorrow”, “Because of You”, “Where My Love Lies Asleep” and “For a Spanish Guitar” (supposedly hailed by Bob Dylan as a song he would have been proud to compose). All of the material was written by Clark, with the exception of the Dylan and Richard Manuel penned number “Tears of Rage”. Launched to considerable critical acclaim, the LP failed to gain commercial success, except in the Netherlands where it was also voted album of the year by rock music critics. Once more, Clark’s refusal to undertake promotional touring adversely affected sales.
In the spring of 1971, Clark was commissioned by Dennis Hopper to contribute the tracks “American Dreamer” and “Outlaw Song” to Hopper’s film project American Dreamer.
A re-recorded, longer version of the song “American Dreamer” was later used in the 1977 film The Farmer, along with an instrumental version of the same song plus “Outside the Law (The Outlaw)” (a re-recording of “Outlaw Song”).
In 1972, Clark assembled a backing group consisting of highly accomplished country rock musicians to accompany him on a further album with A&M. Progress was slow and expensive and the project was terminated before completion by A&M. The resulting eight tracks, together with those recorded with The Byrds in 1970/71 and another with The Flying Burrito Brothers (“Here Tonight”), were belatedly released as Roadmaster in the Netherlands only.
In 1972, the Dillard & Clark song “Through The Morning Through The Night” was used in Quincy Jones’s soundtrack of the Sam Peckinpah movie The Getaway. This song, along with “Polly” (both from the second Dillard and Clark album), was also recently covered by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their album Raising Sand.
Clark then left A&M to join the reunion of the original five Byrds and cut the album Byrds (released in 1973) which charted well (US # 20). Clark’s compositions “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart” plus the Neil Young covers on which he did the lead vocal work (“See the Sky About to Rain” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”) were widely regarded as the standout tracks on a record which received some negative critical response. Disheartened by the bad reviews and unhappy with David Crosby’s performance as the record’s producer, the group members chose to dissolve The Byrds. Clark briefly joined McGuinn’s solo group, with which he premiered “Silver Raven”, arguably his most celebrated post-Byrds song.
On the basis of the quality of Clark’s Byrds contributions, David Geffen signed him to Asylum Records in early 1974. Asylum was the home of the most prominent exponents of the singer-songwriter movement of the era and carried the kind of hip cachet that Clark hadn’t experienced since his days with The Byrds. He retired to Mendocino and spent long periods at the picture window of his friend (and future co-writer and drummer) Andy Kandanes’ cliff-top home with a notebook and acoustic guitar in hand, staring at the Pacific Ocean. Deeply affected by his visions, he composed numerous songs which would serve as the basis for his only Asylum LP, the aptly titled No Other. Produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye with a vast array of session musicians and backing singers, the album was an amalgam of country rock, folk, gospel, soul and choral music with poetic, mystical lyrics. The fact that No Other wasn’t a conventional pop/rock opus meant that its chances of success were greatly minimised by Clark’s relative obscurity. Furthermore, its production costs of $100,000 which yielded only eight tracks prompted Geffen to berate Clark and Kaye. The album then stalled in the charts at No. 144. On a more personal note, the singer’s return to Los Angeles and his reversion to a hedonistic lifestyle resulted in the disintegration of his marriage. In spite of these setbacks, he mounted his first solo tour (by road), playing colleges and clubs with backing group, the Silverados.
Two Sides to Every Story
Throughout 1975 and 1976, Clark hinted to the press that he was assembling a set of “cosmic Motown” songs fusing country-rock with R&B and funk, elaborating on the soundscapes of No Other. A set of ten demos were submitted to RSO Records, who promptly bought out Clark’s contract.
In 1977, Clark released his RSO Records debut entitled Two Sides to Every Story. Once again produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye but with a much more understated hand, the record was another characteristic offering of his style of sensitive country-rock balladry but failed to achieve US chart success. In a belated attempt to find an appreciative public, he temporarily overcame his fear of flying and launched an international promotional tour.
McGuinn, Clark & Hillman
For his British tour dates, Clark found himself on the same bill as ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. The three signed with Capitol Records which released their self-titled debut in 1979. McGuinn, Clark & Hillman was a rebirth in both performing and songwriting for Clark. McGuinn’s “Don’t You Write Her Off” reached No. 33 in April 1979. Many felt that the album’s slick production and disco rhythms didn’t flatter the group, and the album had mixed success both critically and commercially, but it sold enough to generate a follow up. McGuinn, Clark and Hillman’s second release was to have been a full group effort entitled City, but a combination of Clark’s unreliability and his dissatisfaction with their musical direction (mostly regarding Ron and Howard Albert’s production) resulted in the billing change on City to “Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, featuring Gene Clark”. Despite the turmoil, Clark penned a classic love song, “Won’t Let You Down”, rumoured to have been offered as an olive branch to the other former Byrds. By 1981, Clark had left, and the group recorded one more album as “McGuinn/Hillman”.
Rehabilitation, Firebyrd, and So Rebellious a Lover
Clark moved to Hawaii with Jesse Ed Davis to try to overcome his drug dependency, remaining there until the end of 1981. Upon his return to L.A., he assembled a new band and proceeded to record what would eventually become the album Firebyrd (the title acknowledges the Byrds and Firefall origins of some members). While waiting for Firebyrd to be released, Clark joined up with Chris Hillman and others in an abortive venture called Flyte which failed to secure a recording contract and was quickly dissolved. Firebyrd’s eventual release in 1984 coincided with the emergence of jangle rockers like R.E.M. and Tom Petty who had sparked a new interest in the Byrds. Clark began developing new fans among L.A.’s roots-conscious Paisley Underground scene. Later in the decade, he embraced his new status by appearing as a guest with The Long Ryders and by cutting an acclaimed duo album with Carla Olson of the Textones titled So Rebellious a Lover in 1986, which was produced and arranged by noted session drummer, Michael Huey.
Later career, illness and death
In 1985 Clark approached McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman 1984 regarding a reformation of The Byrds in time for the 20th anniversary of the release of “Mr. Tambourine Man”. The three of them showed no interest. Clark decided to assemble a “superstar” collection of musicians, including ex-Flying Burrito Brothers member Rick Roberts, ex-Beach Boys singer/guitarist Blondie Chaplin, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of The Band, with ex-Byrds Michael Clarke and John York. Clark initially called his band “The 20th Anniversary Tribute to The Byrds” and began performing on the lucrative nostalgia circuit in early 1985. A number of concert promoters began to shorten the band’s name to “The Byrds” in advertisements and promotional material. As the band continued to tour throughout 1985, their agent decided to shorten their name to “The Byrds” permanently, to the displeasure of McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman. Clark eventually discontinued performing with his own “Byrds” band, but drummer Michael Clarke then continued on with Skip Battin (occasionally using ex-Byrds York and Gene Parsons, also), forming another “Byrds” group, prompting McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby into going on the road as “The Byrds” to attempt to establish claim to the rights to the band name. Their effort failed at the time, and Gene Clark, primarily due to his involvement with the act that didn’t include them, was not included in their reunion. David Crosby finally secured rights to the band name in 2002.
In 1987 So Rebellious a Lover became a modest commercial success, but Clark began to develop serious health problems; he had ulcers, aggravated by years of heavy drinking (often used to alleviate his chronic travel anxiety). In 1988, he underwent surgery, during which much of his stomach and intestines had to be removed.
A period of abstinence and recovery followed until Tom Petty’s cover of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” on his 1989 album Full Moon Fever yielded a huge amount of royalty money to Clark who quickly reverted to drug and alcohol abuse. The Byrds set aside their differences long enough to appear together at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in January 1991, where the original lineup performed several songs together, including Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”.
However, Clark’s health continued to decline as his drinking accelerated. He died of a heart attack on May 24, 1991 at age 46. He was buried at Saint Andrews Cemetery in Tipton under a simple headstone inscribed “Harold Eugene Clark – No Other.”