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What Isn't There Is What You Want To Find: Gene Clark Considered

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Dusted's Kevin Macneil Brown looks back at forgotten eclectic genius and founding member of the Byrds, Gene Clark.

What Isn't There Is What You Want To Find: Gene Clark Considered

I’ve just had my heart haunted and broken by a rock star biography. Mr. Tambourine Man: The Story Of The Byrds' Gene Clark (Backbeat Books, 2005), by Canadian writer John Einarson, is a compassionate and fair-minded account of the life and too-early death of the brilliant, prescient, singer-songwriter who rode the waves of fame and fortune briefly with the Byrds before foundering into near-obscurity. Gene Clark was to some degree a victim of his own creative integrity in the face of record industry marketing considerations, not to mention his addictions and insecurities, and paradoxically, his own big - but easily-bruised - ego. Of course, this is not by any means a new story line within the world of music as commerce; but Gene Clark’s life and work deserve renewed attention, if only to shine some light on Clark’s stunning songs and haunted, majestic singing.

My own first exposure to Clark’s throbbing, passionate voice was on the AM radio back in 1966, when I was eight years old. I fell in love with the 12-string guitar chime and cool west coast spaciousness of the Byrds’ version of folkie Pete Seeger’s setting of words from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, “Turn, Turn, Turn!” Clark’s voice was, I found out later, the deeper one at the root of the vocal blend, solidly anchoring Jim McGuinn’s transistor radio-friendly high-midrange lead and David Crosby’s atmospheric choirboy harmonies.

Years later, as I reached adolescence and turned back to my beloved Byrds, I zeroed in more closely on the love-lorn Gene Clark originals that were the secret treasures of the first two albums. That heart-felt voice, those odd and dreamlike major-minor chord progressions, and those poetic, melancholy lyrics added up to a folk-rock sound somewhere between Elizabethan madrigals and Appalachian mountain ballads. And wrapped as they were in lush Byrds harmonies and magical 12-string drone, Clark’s songs were the perfect soundtrack for either a devastating break-up or the exhilarating rush of finding new love. For me, Gene Clark’s songs were like chocolate or endorphins: a drug to recreate and enhance deep emotional states. The consciousness-expanding raga-rock of “Eight Miles High,” – the very apotheosis of synergy between Clark’s brooding aura of dark mystery and the Byrd’s transcendental rush and lift – was the band’s finest moment. Unfortunately, in just one of the many ironies plaguing Clark’s career, Gene had left the Byrds by the time the song was a hit.

I followed Gene Clark’s solo career, alas, mostly through the cut-out bins: first, the pioneering country rock and orchestrated song-poems that made up 1967’s Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers; next, the bluegrass, honky tonk, gospel and roots of the Dillard and Clark Expedition, exploring nearly contemporaneously – and with less self-consciousness and much more poetry – territory similar to that limned by the Gram Parsons-era Byrds’ on Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Gene Clark’s art was one of contrasts: the starkly honest innocence- meets- experience spiritual confessions of 1971’S White Light were followed in 1974 by one of the great forgotten masterpieces of L.A. studio rock, the dreamy, dense No Other. (Something like the musical journey Clark’s solo work took in the 1970s - from pure, unadorned roots to studio-painted, roots-inflected epics - was to be traced, decades later, in an eerily similar arc, by Wilco. )

Clark’s difficulties in finding an audience for his solo work, in finding a marketing niche for his sound, in finding and holding onto money-- in finding a center and controlling his increasingly destructive alcohol and drug abuse- -are described with painstaking honesty in Einarson’s book. Band-mates, music business associates, family, and friends are quoted at length, and the story of Gene Clark’s last decade spirals into nearly relentless sadness and a sense of tragic waste. Out of this dark period came, though, Gene’s powerful work with singer Carla Olson. Stripped-down and spare, So Rebellious A Lover could have served as map and blueprint for the alt-country/No Depression movement that was to follow a few years later.

To Einarson’s credit as a writer, he succeeds in relating the messy details of Clark’s 1991 death - and the legal morass that followed - without resort to the lurid sleaziness all too often found in rock star biographies; he even manages to find some redemption in the story of Gene’s surviving family. Still, I found dark clouds hanging over me for a few days after I’d finished the book. I just couldn’t get the sadness and loss - and its contrast with the brilliance of Clark’s musical and lyrical gifts - out of my mind.

It was, of course, in turning to the music itself that I found a way to dispel the dark clouds. Two songs in particular both haunted and healed. In “Silver Raven,” from No Other, Clark begins quietly, with an ancient-sounding Celtic/Appalachian modal melody and spacious, enigmatic lyrics rich in nature imagery and American Indian symbology. As the song’s arrangement begins to swell with layers of keyboards and, eventually, a disconcerting gospel chorus, Clark’s voice breaks at times to a soft keen that hints at something between cowboy yodel and Apache ululation. All the while, the imagery of the song becomes more dense as the verses unfold, revealing in Clark a deeply resonant personal mythology worthy of a sagebrush Verlaine or Mallarme.

“The Radio Song,” from The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark is the perfect highway song, with its lazy bluegrass banjo, loping gait, and yearning sense of knife-blade-balanced regret and optimism. The road imagery of the lyrics spools out like high tension wire across open space as miles go by, and Clark finds the line that might well encapsulate his own restless journey:

“What isn’t there is what you want to find...”

I suspect that before long we will be hearing a Gene Clark song as the soundtrack for a TV commercial: selling cars, or computers, or who knows what. If that’s what it takes to get more people to hear his music, it will be a bittersweet victory. When that day comes, I will probably meditate for a while on the sometimes tragic ironies that can result when arts meets commerce. And then I will have to wonder: when will we - all of us who create or write about or listen passionately to music - ever learn?

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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