Thursday, January 21, 2010

the Rise of Country Rock
By Luke Torn

The scene is LA International Airport, 1965. The Byrds, riding a wave of scrumptious hit singles that have redefined rock 'n' roll, and having just recorded their sizzling psychedelic masterpiece "Eight Miles High," are headed to New York City, for a promotional photo shoot and a TV special hosted by Murray the K. Gene Clark, though, is in a panic. The group's darkly handsome lead singer and principal songwriter, terrified to his bones of flying in the best of circumstances, is further alarmed by technical issues stalling the plane's takeoff. In an instant, in one fear-swept moment, Clark snaps, bolts off the plane, a momentous decision with a ripple effect throughout the pop world.

"Gene was standing up in his seat, and he's in a cold sweat," remembers fellow Byrd Roger McGuinn. "He's kinda like shaking. I was like 'What's going on, Gene.' He says [in a terrified voice], 'I can't do this, man. I have a really bad feeling about this. I can't do this.' He's just in a panic, like he's got a premonition about the plane crashing. He walks off the plane. He later said it was kind of a nervous breakdown, a lot of stuff going on, more than just airplanes."

Turning one’s back on a chart-topping group was treacherous territory in 1965, and Clark’s career, beginning its pendulous fluctuation from inspired genius to maddening self-sabotage, would suffer accordingly. Bandmate David Crosby mythologized the incident in his song "Psychodrama City," chiding Clark for his phobia: "To this day don't know why/He got on at all/if he didn't really want to fly/Psychodrama City, don't need none today."

Yet as the decades wear on, it’s Clark’s intriguing tangle of solo work—highly influential within numerous strands of popular music yet virtually unheard by the general public—that gains in stature. A daring musical synthesist, author of a ‘70s trilogy as ambitious and eloquent as anything then waxed by far more celebrated peers Neil Young and Bob Dylan, Clark was a phantom, unable or unable willing to capitalize on his good work.

Poetic, spiritually attuned, charismatic, difficult, complex, Clark was in continual battle with a demonic dark side—replete with a vicious drug and alcohol habit—that would eventually contribute to his death. In his comprehensive biography (Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds' Gene Clark), John Einarson weaves a fascinating, ultimately devastating story of a compartmentalized man, a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure of zigzagging personas--from a warm, gracious, artistically driven personality to a soul wrestling with the depths of human desperation.

"To this day," says Duke Bardwell (who toured with Gene in the mid-'70s), "I will never forget watching genius and insanity go hand in hand like they did with Gene Clark."

As a Byrd, Clark launched the riff of a thousand garage bands ("I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better"), prefigured acid rock ("Eight Miles High"), seriously influenced the Beatles (see "If I Needed Someone"), and spilled out a dozen other shimmering, romantically idealistic ballads: "The World Turns All Around Her," "She Don't Care About Time," and "Set You Free This Time," melodic gems all, retain a regal classicism.

But after stepping out of the Byrds cauldron, Gene's brand of poetic songcraft quickly lost traction. He was tentative, trying out different bands, different musical equations. “I think he may have been someone who was really scared to death of being a solo guy,” surmises guitarist Stephen Bruton, who befriended Clark in later years. “Whereas he had the ego where he wanted to be a solo guy, he was really full of doubt."

Country music was on Clark's mind as he took tentative steps toward a solo career. In a 1966 Hit Parader interview profiling the Gene Clark Group, he hinted at the future: "In the short time we've been together, we've worked up a lot of material. It's kind of a strange sound. We're working on some things, which are a mixture of country, western, and blues combined."

Hopes were high as Clark’s combo began a summer '66 residency at LA’s Whisky A Go-Go. Though the image proffered by the Long Ryders’ Sid Griffin of "young Doc Hollidays wearing Bolo ties playing poppy C&W" is intriguing, the Group [pictured below] was stillborn. Ominously, Clark's new, untested material sailed right over the heads of those in attendance.

Back-to-the-roots country influences were floating in the ether on the West Coast, though. David Jackson, a member of country/rock pioneers Hearts & Flowers and later a Clark collaborator, was among the scene's central players: “It was really a matter of, here is a song right now. You’d go to somebody’s house after a gig and sit around and play until three or four in the morning, maybe pass a joint, maybe drink a beer but that wasn’t the reason everybody was there. The guitars would come out. It was a give and take, like, 'Let’s do this one.' As opposed to 'Let’s make it sound like a cross between Hendrix and Merle Haggard.'”

Eventually, within the incestuous California scene, an identifiable sound began to emerge. Bluegrass rebels the Dillards did the unthinkable, going electric on "Nobody Knows." Chris Hillman's breezy "Time Between" and Buffalo Springfield’s “Go and Say Goodbye” were stepping-stones.

But when Clark, banjoist Douglas Dillard, and guitarists Clarence White and Glen Campbell teamed up on Gene Clark With the Gosdin Brothers, a modernized fusion jelled. Clark, Midwestern farmboy turned pop aristocrat, hardly threw himself full force into the world of steel guitars and Nudie suits, but in amongst the baroque/pop brilliance of “Echoes” and Rubber Soul-isms of “I Found You” are the seeds of country/rock.

White—the brilliant guitarist from the Kentucky Colonels—accentuates Clark’s brooding ballad “The Same One” with splintered bits of almost imperceptible Nashville twang, a sound that shared plenty with Joe South’s playing on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. On “Keep On Pushin',” the Gosdins’ sparkling gospel harmonies and Dillard’s nimble Rickenbacker banjo threaten to turn Sunset Strip in its hipster prime into a backwoods revival meeting. And “Tried So Hard,” Clark’s rustic hangdog vocal finding solace in White’s shuffling rhythms, is nothing less than peerless, heart-on-sleeve country soul.

Clark pondered the record’s place in history in 1972, when a revamped version was released: “It serves as an interesting picture of growth as it was taking place. We were all just a little bit ahead of our time. No country-rock sold well until after 1969. The public was still more ready for ‘Marrakesh Express.’”

“Gene was a country boy,” says McGuinn flatly. “He had a love for that kind of music. Chris [Hillman] was more involved in it, Chris was more instrumental in bringing it to the table, but Gene was right there. I could see that country streak, although he was enamored of the Beatles.”

Clarence White in tow, Clark played a few gigs around LA to support the album. One lucky soul who witnessed a rare appearance at the Ash Grove recalls: “The entire night was three-part harmonies, and it knocked me out. It was also the first time I'd ever seen Clarence with a Telecaster. Prior to that, he'd simply been that amazing flatpicker from the Kentucky Colonels, who played straight bluegrass. They did some Everly Brothers stuff that was stunning.”

Coincidence or synchronicity, LA was soon crawling with longhaired roots-rockers. Gram Parsons' International Submarine Band arrived from New York. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (with Jackson Browne), Hearts and Flowers (featuring Bernie Leadon), the Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt), not to mention Michael Nesmith and Gary Paxton’s stable of insurgent country hopefuls, were gathering steam.

Clark, who abandoned more album projects than many artists undertake, would go through several more ‘60s iterations before rekindling his friendship with Dillard, just back from a touring stint with the Byrds. The pair, joining ranks with Leadon and Jackson of Hearts & Flowers, alighted on the revolutionary idea of mixing country, folk, rock, and, especially, bluegrass, and the Dillard & Clark Expedition was born.

“Gene and Dillard just went all over the place together, every night, every day,” says Expedition bassist David Jackson. “Douglas, being the bluegrass textbook that he is, inundated Gene with everything bluegrass. Gene synthesized that into his style, which had not been bluegrass at all. I thought it really kind of reached a new plateau with the collaboration of Dillard and Clark, in my view, at a poetic level."

The band’s A&M debut, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, appeared in autumn 1968, recording sessions roughly paralleling the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Its startling acoustic mix—featuring mandolin, dobro, banjo, guitar, harpsichord, and plentiful mountain harmonies, anchored by Clark’s silkily soulful baritone—is stunning in both concept and execution. This was music that parted the pop seas: like Dylan’s Basement Tapes, it was such a radical throwback, a deeply American amalgam coalescing at the country's most turbulent, soul-searching time, that it remains a musical island unto itself.

"Bernie, Doug, and Gene and I just sort of showed up every day, and started playing," Jackson remembers. "And Gene would be sitting on the couch, not saying much--maybe 'hand me a donut'--he'd have a guitar in his lap . . . he'd have a melody and some chords maybe, and an hour would go by, and I'd have my bass out, and Bernie would be tuned, and maybe he'd have some lines. That's how it would go. The first album was not planned, really."

“Gene responded to the stuff with Douglas and us with his whole heart and soul,” Leadon told Einarson, “because it was embracing the totality of who Gene Clark was, his [Missouri] roots, and [he] got to use his extraordinary lyric and writing ability but without having to try to invent a whole new music, which was what you were sort of expected [to do] in the pop world.”

Once the troupe moved out of the living room and onto the stage, though, trouble lurked. "Gene was not a demonstrative performer," says Jackson. "He was the quintessential singer/songwriter. He didn't ask the audience for anything. He just stood there. In fact, his demeanor was very guarded, and he probably thought that you were not going to like this shit anyway."

Whether it was stage fright, or another combination of demons, the Expedition's public unveiling--at West Hollywood's hippest hangout, Doug Weston's Troubadour, December 1968--was shocking.

"We all went down to the Troubadour that Tuesday at 2 o'clock,” Jackson recalls. “We load in, have a quick soundcheck. About 3:30 I left, went back to take a nap, had something to eat, took a shower. When I got back, the doorman says 'You better go next door to Dan Tana's. Better go get Gene and Doug.' I went 'uh-oh, what's the matter?' He said, "Well, they both dropped acid, and they're sitting in there drinking martinis.'”

"I go, ‘oh my god, okay.’ So I go next door, and sure enough, they are blind! It's indescribable! They're just grinning ear to ear. I just remember a kind of haze occurring, instantly, and going 'we're in serious trouble.'"

With Leadon's help, Jackson managed to wrangle the pair back into the club. And it was packed--fellow musicians, old Byrds freaks, the rock press, movers and shakers of Laurel Canyon's imminent pop royalty.

"So the lights go down, [Troubadour light man] Dickie Davis says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Dillard & Clark!’ When the lights come on, all of us are facing out, but Gene is sitting on his amp, facing the back wall. Somehow we make it through the first song, and Dillard picks up the fiddle for the second song. Somehow or another I guess we got Gene off the amp, and standing in front of the mike. We get to the end of the second song, Doug puts his fiddle down on the floor, jumps up in the air, and lands on the fiddle, breaking it. Don Beck, who is our multi-instrumentalist, and a devout Christian, was playing the mandolin. He just looked up at me, and said, 'Well, that's enough for me,' and he walked off stage, never to return.”

The Expedition would rebound, but irreversible damage had been done. There would be a second, slightly less dazzling album (Through the Morning, Through the Night), and a stunning non-album single (“Why Not Your Baby”), but the group quickly unraveled.

Fiddler Byron Berline, who joined up during the group's latter days, and played with Clark sporadically through the '70s, traces their decline: "The biggest problem with that group was Doug and I were wanting to pick more and I think Gene felt sort of left out. He didn't seem to be happy most of the time but he was very difficult to read at least for me. Around November 1969 we were invited to play on the Hee Haw TV show. This was their first season and a nice break for any group to get on National TV. Gene didn't want to go (because of flying) and eventually left the band right after that."

By the early '70s, Clark abandoned LA for the rustic confines of Mendocino. Country living rejuvenated him, even as he became even more reclusive, resulting in a visionary trilogy: 1971’s White Light, Clark’s meditative requiem for the ‘60s; 1972’s Roadmaster, a feast of existential, cinematic twang, hardly acknowledged to exist in its day; and 1974’s No Other, a Smile for the ‘70s, and a record so daring in its tributaries of gospel, folk, R&B, psychedelia, orchestral pop, and country that one might rightly cite it as a culmination of Gram Parsons’ Cosmic American Music.

Framed by Jesse Ed Davis' expressively economical guitar, Mike Utley's ghostly organ, and Clark's lonesome harmonica trills, the campfire songs on White Light slip into consciousness almost unnoticed. Beachside seclusion and a recent exploration of Zen contributed to Clark forging a novel songwriting style, "a form of redemption," explained Serge Denisoff in his Rolling Stone review--one preoccupied by the wayward forces of nature, the obscenity of time, the simple act of being alive, filtered through a poet’s obsession with symbolism.

"There was no panic, no pressure, it was kind of a golden era," says Gary Mallaber, the Steve Miller Band drummer who played on White Light. "We listened, we arranged, we performed until we all felt that was the take. All well before any digital surgery was possible."

Featuring several of Clark’s most intimate love songs--“Because of You,” "With Tomorrow"--and "Spanish Guitar," a remarkable meditation on the nature of creativity,
the keys to White Light's enduring power nonetheless reside in its closing songs: A stately rendition of "Tears of Rage," Bob Dylan's perceptive basement nugget encapsulating the deep emotional undertow of parenthood; and “1975," a frontier tale, urging continued introspection in an era of retrenchment, one of Clark's most beautiful creations. “We always easy understood that/It was no good not to explore,” Clark exhorts, his drifting vocal giving way to a Davis guitar coda of spine-tingling elegance.

“I don't know how to rightly explain this,” Clark later mused about his songwriting, “except that there was philosophy involved. Dylan in a way is a philosopher, he's a thinker, a deep thinker, John [Lennon] too. I consider John Lennon and Bob Dylan two of the best minds that we probably had, or have, in the 20th century. . . . And they weren't what you would call religious guys. They were just really spiritually connected. That vibration came across very strongly from the Beatles to us [the Byrds]."

By 1973, though, Clark's focus was waning, and Roadmaster, a hodgepodge left unfinished, had to sneak out as a Dutch import. It's perfect Clark-ian irony that this most user-friendly, straightforward country/rock effort--with crucial contributions from luminaries like White, Berline, and Hillman--was inaccessible but to a few. Highlights are many, but "One in A Hundred" and "She's the Kind of Girl," featuring all five original Byrds, and "Here Tonight," Clark fronting the Flying Burrito Brothers, are tantalizing glimpses of an alternate universe, wherein Clark righteously reclaims his country/rock legacy.

Yet nothing, from Roadmaster's country/rock formalism to Gene's participation in the ill-fated 1973 Byrds reunion, prepared listeners for what was coming: No Other, Clark's misunderstood magnum opus, a daring repudiation of the stereotypical, dumbed-down breed of singer/songwriters and country/rock effluvium then ascending to superstardom, would hardly transform Clark's fortunes. It would, however, over time, be appreciated for the eccentrically challenging masterpiece it is.

“There were some boundaries being broken on every level,” observes Jackson. “Gene brought a seriousness to this thing that not even Gram brought. There was a nobility to Gene, one that I just kinda took to be a natural part of his personality.”

From its garish cover art (a glammed-up Gene set to spar a few rounds with Marc Bolan) to the spooked-out subterranean gospel of the title song, No Other was like shock treatment. Producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, fresh off playing ringleader for a floating party masquerading as Bob Neuwirth sessions, painted No Other on a grand scale. With its Spectorian wall of sound—a dense mix of keyboards, strings, assorted percussion, chorale vocals, and layer upon layer of gurgling, crying guitars, the record is initially intimidating, but soon enough intuitively, mysteriously moving. Clark, playing the philosopher, the seer, proffers abstract observations on the cyclical nature of life, the inevitableness of change, the immensity of nature, the surrealities of time.

"The whole album was written when I had a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Northern California," said Clark later. "I would just sit in the living room, which had a huge bay window, and stare at the ocean for hours at a time. I would have a pen and paper there, and a guitar or piano, and pretty soon a thought would come and I'd write it down or put it on tape. In most instances, after a day of meditation looking at something which is a very natural force, I'd come up with something."

"Some Misunderstanding," an epic marked by Stephen Bruton's piercing guitar and Clark's pleading "We all need a fix" chorus, is itself an easy target for misunderstanding, especially for anyone looking for druggy '70s decadence. Yet the song, indeed the album, unfolds to reveal a mysticism capable of producing multiple, metaphorical meanings.

"My feeling about ["Some Misunderstanding"]," explained Clark in 1977, "was if you fix yourself in such a pattern that you haven't got any channels of release or escape to go out, look, think about it and come back in . . . the thing about Zen and the form of music is that Zen to me is only a tuning, but it is a spiritualism."

Bruton [at left], a Texan who'd recently backed Dylan, was one of an army of guitarists handpicked to play on No Other: "Gene was really talented. He was a kind of a loner guy. He had a cool voice, but it was also kind of a fragile voice, he was a fragile guy. I was really knocked out when he said they were looking for me for the sessions. I played with Gene several different times. It was always pretty wild. We were pretty crazy. So I never was sure what was used and what wasn't."

Asylum's David Geffen, who had been so taken by Clark’s songs on the Byrds' reunion album, would damn No Other to obscurity. Upset that his $100,000 budget netted eight measly songs, he cut its promotion (curiously, No Other never even received a review from the-then bible of rock—Rolling Stone). A follow-up was shelved, and despite some fine work to come, Clark's career began its inevitable slide from grace.

Clark's little-documented mid-‘70s Silverados tour (from which a live album is planned for summer 2008) is among many lost chapters chapter in the Clark saga. Einarson asserts that the band "took songs from Gene’s existing catalog, including numbers from No Other, and redefined them in Appalachian triad harmonies and country-flavored arrangements," echoes of Dillard & Clark.

A simple, back-to-basics alliance with McGuinn circa '77 also held promise. “We were real good friends," reports McGuinn. "That gets lost in all this bickering, and all these bios and things. I loved the guy. We had a great time on the road together, and we had a real good chemistry musically. It was really special, and then it turned into McGuinn, Clark and Hillman, which was something else entirely."

Surprisingly, despite Clark's wilderness years, his last LP--1987's So Rebellious A Lover-- sent a jolt through LA's burgeoning cowpunk scene--from Green on Red to the Long Ryders--an echo traceable back to country/rock's nascent beginnings. In perfect keeping with a common Gene Clark theme, he'd come full circle.

"That album came about as a result of singalong sessions Gene and I had at his house," Gene's partner Carla Olson recalls. "It all just evolved naturally. It was that sparse acoustic approach that we sought to duplicate in the studio. Atmospheric, western [featuring steel guitar wizard Ed Black], stark and voices voices voices. People tell me to this day," she says, “that it inspired the alt-country generation.”

Record sales tell nothing of Gene Clark's story. But his influence, subtle, even imperceptible, permeates down through the years--No Other impinging on Primal Scream's watershed Screamadelica, Robert Plant/Alison Krauss covering the Expedition on their new Raising Sand. “Gene was a star," McGuinn asserts. "For whatever level of acceptance he had going in the commercial market, Gene was a star.”

My heartfelt thanks in preparation for this piece to Roger McGuinn, David Jackson, Carla Olson, Gary Mallaber, Byron Berline, John Einarson, and Michael Bonner. And, to Stephen Bruton, one of the greats.
Stay tuned: Pop Culture Press's annotated Gene Clark Top 25 Countdown is coming soon!


Steve Robinson said...

Beautifully written, Luke. There are so many Gene songs I've never heard; this makes me want to go and search them out.
Steve R.

CraigS said...

I saw Gene Clark in I believe 1983 at Madame Wong's in LA. The Paisley Underground was in full scene and from the Pandoras to the Unclaimed they were all playing. the crowd was pretty psyched to have a hallowed members of The Byrds playing upstairs. I think like myself, a kid of 19, we aere all expecting "Riot on the Sunset Strip" instead a middle aged guy doing to what my untrained ears considered middle-of-the-Road Country-Lite. To this day I don't know if it was him or me ( most likely both) but it did not connect. I love his stuff now though!!!

CraigS said...

I saw Gene Clark in I believe 1983 at Madame Wong's in LA. The Paisley Underground was in full scene and from the Pandoras to the Unclaimed they were all playing. the crowd was pretty psyched to have a hallowed members of The Byrds playing upstairs. I think like myself, a kid of 19, we aere all expecting "Riot on the Sunset Strip" instead a middle aged guy doing to what my untrained ears considered middle-of-the-Road Country-Lite. To this day I don't know if it was him or me ( most likely both) but it did not connect. I love his stuff now though!!!