Gene Clark

Gene ClarkOn this day in 1944, the great singer-songwriter Gene Clark was born. He is best known as a founding member of The Byrds — and by far their best songwriter. There is a reason that the first two Byrds albums are classics and the rest just okay. (I will consider arguments that Younger Than Yesterday is a great album — but you have to explain how it isn’t derivative.) And that reason is Clark who was a prodigious talent.

He only wrote one song on the third album, “Eight Miles High.” It is nominally a collaboration with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, but the song is clearly so much Clark’s that the other two shouldn’t get writing credit. Its cadences are the same as on other Clark songs like “Here Without You.” Of course, that hasn’t stopped Roger McGuinn for taking credit for the song — but only after Clark died.

I found the following great quote from The Byrds’ bass player (and a fine songwriter himself) Chris Hillman about Clark’s position in the band:

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. 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.

“Set You Free This Time” is from The Byrds second album. It stands out as distinct from his other work from this period. It sounds more like a Bobby Russell song! And on the album it sounds more like a Gene Clark solo song. But here he is years later doing the song with his own band:

Like in most bands, there was a power struggle in The Byrds and McGuinn and Crosby won. Clark left and became a solo artist with the great Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. The album didn’t do well. You could say that generally of his solo career, including his small group projects with Doug Dillard and ex-Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. What’s sad is that the albums are all quite good and some of them are amazing. In particular, No Other has become a classic, even though it was entirely ignored at the time. Here is “Silver Raven” from that album:

Before I knew anything about him, I loved Gene Clark for the songs on those first two Byrds albums. It was always clear to me that he was the great talent. But when I later learned more about him, I appreciated him as a person. He’s such a tragic figure. He suffered greatly from anxiety. He hated touring and was afraid of airplane traveling. To deal with these issues by drinking and drugging them away. And it ended up killing him at 46 from a bleeding ulcer. It’s sad, because I think he might well have become a legend on the order of Neil Young. Certainly, his reputation is better today than it ever has been.

Happy birthday Gene Clark!

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