TJ East: This Byrd Done Flown Again


TJ East: This Byrd Done Flown Again


Americana is a strange beast, an ideal more than a genre, claimed by diverse camps in a crazy quilt of alternate visions. Yet it’s a potent ideal full of mystery, animated at its flux core by a few transcendent spirits – perhaps none so rarefied as Gene Clark (1944-1991).

Gene Clark owns my heart, his minor-key poetry wrapped ‘round it hard and fast, happy or sad. Amongst the final lines of American Gods and rustic folk heroes of the 20th century, he sits at the pinnacle alongside Miz Fannie Lou Hamer, the Black Panther of Montgomery County, Mississippi, and The Band’s Levon Helm. If you’ve never heard the onetime Byrds bard sing “So You Say You Lost Your Baby,” “One In A Hundred” or his epic lovelorn hymn “No Other” you may not ken his haunting pull upon one’s private imaginary. Although Gene Clark was apparently perpetually a soul apart since his 1944 landing in Tipton, Missouri, a holy specter of Turtle Island even at the heights of his mid-60s fame as the premier voice and songwriter for The Byrds, it may be difficult to ken his traces as a sonic eminence for all times in this era of everything pop, every creation commodified before it is hardly birthed, and consumed without care. However, some things are still sacred and ought to be eternally preserved – among them the oeuvre of this master artist so sadly underrated by the public before his passing. An often peerless catalog now extended by the first official disc reissue of Clark’s long out-of-print 1977 album Two Sides To Every Story out on High Moon.

Gene Clark 'Two Sides To Every Story' LPThe album’s release dovetails with what would have been Clark’s 70th birthday on November 16th. The singer-songwriter’s son Kai, a fine artist in his turn and loving curator of his father’s legacy, has put together a concert of celebration on that date at the Hotel Café in West Hollywood. Assembled to perform will be Clark collaborators like his 1980s duet partner Carla Olson and devotees of the next wave who orbit the Cosmic California scene including The Mother Hips and some members from Los Angeles psych-surf-twang luminaries Beachwood Sparks.

A Spark for true, that last band’s Brent Rademaker, whose new project GospelbeacH shall be making its fitting debut at Kai Clark’s event, had this to say from his home in Los Angeles about being introduced to the man’s music: “I was given the American Dreamer compilation by Rex of the Summer Hits, and was shocked as a burgeoning Byrds fan to realize it was Gene not McGuinn not Crosby that was the real force behind the original songs. “Something’s Wrong” is my favorite song and his first LP with the Gosdin Brothers is my fave.”

“GospelbeacH musically and spiritually owes a great debt to Gene Clark as he’s a pioneer of American music. The band started when original Beachwood Sparks drummer Tommo Sanford and I started writing songs — it was so fun that we invited the amazing Neal Casal over and things just clicked. Since then, Kip Boardman has signed on as a singing bassman, and we’ve had some incredible contributions from Ben Knight of Beachwood Sparks and The Tyde. We’ve signed on for an LP release with Alive Records whom I met from the Bomp! days, and having our debut show be the Gene Clark tribute performing “Tried So Hard” and all — I can’t think of a better place to begin “a whole lot better!!”

While Gene Clark’s cult has never diminished since his swift ascent as a Byrd and a steady trail of post-punk groups of my generation that crossed over to (outlaw) country have paid him homage through covers or embedded record-geek sub-references, Shuffle-world has not necessarily focused a trip wave on his “American Beatles” nor his solo work over the past decade plus (although, yes, no mainstream Sixties documentary is complete without “Turn, Turn, Turn” in its diegesis). Thus it is a marvel that the last year and-some has yielded the Omnivore Recordings collection Here Tonight: The White Light Demos; a fine documentary by Jack & Paul Kendall on Clark, The Byrd Who Flew Alone (Four Suns Productions, 2013); a brief tour of his 1974 masterpiece LP No Other – which I was fortunate enough to witness at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg this past winter — featuring Iain Matthews (of Fairport Convention & Matthews’ Southern Comfort fame) and a gathering of such post-millennial indie darlings as Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, and Beach House. All this long season of recognizing the glory of Clark’s catalogue & contributions anew has now culminated in the overdue resurrection of Two Sides To Every Story, produced by No Other helmsman Thomas Jefferson Kaye leading a crack grouping of some of ‘70s LA’s premier players now indelibly boldfaced amongst the cognoscenti (although Gene’s Silverados are missed): Al Perkins, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Jim Fielder, Emmylou Harris.

A critic’s roll call have panned rockabilly retread “Marylou” as execrable, yet these ears hear it as less a mar on Clark’s last major recording than a track that should’ve been perfectly aimed at the roller boogie in the Black Bottom where we actually absorbed and reformed music in the child’s starry gaze. Indeed, “Marylou” and the loose funk of his second take on Dillard & Clark classic “Kansas City Southern,” the album’s lead single, demonstrate that 10 years on from the supposed height of his career – from the raga rock of “Eight Miles High” to presaging the coming Urban Cowboy thang – Clark remained ahead of his time, brave enough in that harrowing season of his pain and discontent to step farther out in his creativity than the bloated elite many of his veteran friends and foes had become by that era of LA Easy Rock. The rest of Two Sides To Every Story, featuring his classics “Past Addresses,” “Sister Moon,” the gorgeous, sea-girt “Silent Crusade,” and traditional standard “In The Pines,” is even more daring for the period when Back To the Land had mostly been eschewed for slick cosmopolitanism hewing as it does to downhome and natural verities that the cesspool of Nixon’s Reich diminished on the eve of America’s Bicentennial year when Clark began composing. Matching the undecipherable wild edge in his songs derived from his Indian heritage – and in this subterranean wave of Native Americana’s rising it would be gratifying to see indigenous artists fruitfully interact with his body of work — the Cowboy Constant is the key to Clark’s creation, placing him in a league of his own, and this album burnishes those linkages keenly by completing the trifecta with No Other and White Light.

As a country & western artist heavily influenced by Gene Clark in a very private way, often walking the streets of High Harlem in a fugue bounded by his Voice, striving (perhaps in vain) to divine the heart of such standout songs he penned like Dillard & Clark’s haunting “With Care From Someone” and “The Strength of Strings,” I can sincerely concur with Mr. Rademaker’s perspective on the sonic mage and his Myth: “Gene Clark represents a version of the American Dream that I can relate to…moving to Hollywood from the Midwest and making a living in the music business but remaining very real and true to his self along the way.

Like many of us musicians, he had his battles and at the time of his passing it may have seemed tragic. But now we’ve come to celebrate his life as a great American artist…and it’s all there in his music…he really left us some treasure!”

It had always been my greatest regret that he walked on so shortly after my coming-of-age arrival in New York City, obliterating a chance to see him perform and so it’s intriguing that now at such a distance, in the onset of middle-age, Clark’s music is even more a necessity than ever. A body of shadows, heartache, riddles and cosmic love which deepens and illuminates with each turn of the season.  |  |  Buy  |  Highmoon Records fb

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