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Gene Clark - Here Tonight: The White Light Demos

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Artist: Gene Clark

Album: Here Tonight: The White Light Demos

Label: Omnivore Recordings

Review date: Apr. 9, 2013

The narrative behind the release of demo recordings often goes something like this: The released material was in some way dated or impeded by inappropriate production that obscured the artist’s pure vision, which is revealed via their undiluted expression of first intent. Gene Clark might have made an album that fits that story line, but White Light isn’t it. In fact, White Light is a damned near perfect example of the 1970s singer-songwriter genre and a flawless expression of Clark’s intent.

It’s also a stout blow struck against the myth that an artist has to suffer to make his best work. Clark went through his share of dark times on his way to a young end, hastened by health problems brought on by rampant substance abuse, but the time when he wrote the songs on White Light wasn’t one of them. He was still sufficiently blessed with the record label goodwill (derived from his run as The Byrds’ best songwriter) to be able to head for the country with his new bride and hide out for a year. When Clark wrote these songs, he was living in a country cabin near Mendocino, anticipating fatherhood, secure in his artistry, and not yet starved of cash; these circumstances conspired to get him in touch with the cycle of life, the beauty of nature, and the ways that love can bring the best out of a man. Earthly joy, mystical awe, and home-bodied contentedness suffused White Light, and Jesse Ed Davis’s spare production made these qualities shine without distraction.

So what’s the point of releasing these demos, 41 years after the record first came out? There’s very little difference in lyric, pace or melody between these unaccompanied performances and those on the original LP. But even though Clark’s no jazz singer thriving on variation, there are sufficient differences in the way he sings the material that a fan would want to hear it. There’s a bit more force behind his delivery on the finished versions, and a gentleness to the demos that makes you feel like you’re alone in a room with the guy. Clark’s ability to make songs like “White Light” or “Here Tonight” work with just a simple strum, some huffing harmonica (his style nails the midway point between Bob Dylan and Neil Young), and his expressive voice reminds anew what a tragedy it was that his post-Byrds career never really took off, and that he died when he was only 46.

Another hook is that not everything on here ended up on the original LPThere are two songs that you can only find on the out-of-print 2002 reissue, and a couple more that Clark never revisited. “Jimmy Christ” is a verse too short, but its linkage of religious and cinematic struggles keeps me coming back. "Please Mr. Freud" sounds like he woke up one morning, said “you wouldn’t believe what I dreamed last night,” and put it to music. But neither feels like a throwaway, even though that’s just what Clark did with them.

If you haven’t heard White Light yet, go out and get it. But if you’re already under its spell, I expect you’ll want to hear this record.

By Bill Meyer

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