Archive for May, 2008

24
May
08

In memorium: Gene Clark

Today, May 24th, is an important one in the history of rock ‘n roll. Not only is today Bob Dylan’s birthday, but it is also the day of the passing of someone who was often compared to him, Gene Clark.

Gene who, you ask? It is amazing to me how obscure this immensely talented songwriter has become. He is, perhaps, the greatest songwriter no one has ever heard of.

You have, of course, heard him sing. When you listen to The Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, the voice you’re hearing is Gene Clark, double tracked. Oh, you say, HIM! Sure, I know him. That was his name?

Gene Clark’s all too short life ended on May 24th, 1991, from a bleeding ulcer brought on by a lifetime of alcohol abuse. During his life he was overshadowed by bandmates David Crosby and Roger McGuinn. But in a 27 year career, first with The Byrds, and later as a solo artist, he gifted the world with some of it’s finest songs.

His best songs were marked by a mournful beauty. Here is a list of some of my favorites. For those of you with an iTunes account, every one of them is well worth the price of the download.

To begin with some of his work with The Byrds:

“Feel a Whole Lot Better”: Easily his most famous song. Gene didn’t write love songs, he wrote breakup songs, and no one did it better. David Crosby once quipped that every time Clark broke up with a girlfriend The Byrds got a new song out of it. Ironically, it was Tom Petty’s cover of this song in 1989, and the subsequent royalties it generated for Clark, that ultimately led to an acceleration in his bad habits which contributed to his untimely death.

The World Turns All Around Her: An early, far more obscure Byrds tune. What makes this song interesting is how Clark deftly changes keys, entering into a moody, almost modal minor key by the third line. One of his early gems.

My Love Don’t Care About Time: A classic. One of the hallmarks of the Byrds style at that time was their strong vocals. Unlike many rock ‘n roll bands, these guys could sing, and they harmonized like a church choir. It’s all here: interesting lyrics (he was often compared to Dylan as a lyricist), gorgeous instrumentals, and very strong vocals. One blogger has called it “the perfect song”.

“Set You Free This Time”: One of my all time favorites. By the time he wrote this, he was already showing signs of moving beyond the archetypal Byrds sound, and creating something uniquely his. Once again demonstrating that the comparison to Dylan was justified, the biting lyrics provide an interesting twist on the classic breakup song.

“Changing Heart”: The Byrds did a reunion album in 1973. While most critics found the album disappointing, they agreed that Clark’s two songs, “Full Circle”, and “Changing Heart”, were easily the album’s high points. “Changing Heart” is a catchy, rock/country fusion number that shows Clark’s melodic gifts at their best.

His solo career was marked by critical acclaim, but not a whole lot of commercial success, largely due to his reluctance to tour due to a fear of flying. Here are some of my favorites:

“Lady of the North”: The solo album “No Other” was neither a critical nor a commercial success. This had a crushing effect on him, as he (rightly, as it turned out) regarded it as his magnum opus. Ironically, nowadays it is regarded as a lost masterpiece. “Lady of the North”, while perhaps a little over produced, is still one of his finest songs, with its soaring vocals and poetic lyrics. On his gravestone, the words “No Other” form his only epitaph.

“Gypsy Rider”: Late in life he teamed with Carla Olson to record an album entitled “So Rebellious a Lover”, which turned out to be his best selling album. He had also recorded this song several years earlier a a demo (released posthumously on the “Gypsy Angel” album), and the two versions played side by side offer a striking comparison of his voice in his earlier and later years. By the time he recorded this version, the years of self abuse had had their effect. But in some ways, his voice is actually better, at least for this song. It is deeper, rougher, and tinged with the world weary melancholy that was at the core of his soul. Olson’s harmonies are haunting in this version.

“Kathleen”: In 2001, Evangeline Records released a collection of demo’s on an album entitled “Gypsy Angel”. While inconsistent, as one might expect a collection of demo’s to be, there are two truly standout songs here. “Kathleen”, while yet another song about lost love, is unique in Clark’s output in that it is told from a third person perspective. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad about a woman who waits for her husband to return from sea. The starkly simple arrangement of Clark’s voice, guitar and harmonica perfectly convey the woman’s anguish and sorrow. Probably my favorite Clark song.

“Your Fire Burning”: Fair warning: the recording quality is not great on this, as it, too, was a demo from “Gypsy Angel”. Clearly this was a work in progress, as it does tend to meander a bit. No doubt Clark would have cleaned it up had he lived. But for all that, Clark’s uniquely mournful and melancholy style is on full display in this song. Knowing what we know about his life and death, when he sings the lyrics, “I can never replace/The time that I didn’t know/You were trying to love/Someone out of control”, it is almost too painful to listen to.

Every one of these songs, and many others as well, is worth a 99 cent download. He deserves to be more well recognized. Someday, I hope he will be.

-Smith

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21
May
08

I’m not going anywhere

It was all going so well, too. But all of a sudden, my little ship of life sailed into some stormy waters. I won’t bore you with the details. You have your problems; you don’t need to hear about mine.

As usual, the blog got the short end of the stick. Blogslackery is my stock in trade, but this hasn’t been blockslackery, this has been total blog neglect. I get that. I have treated the people who have supported me in a very shabby fashion indeed. Those who take the time to leave comments deserve to have those comments acknowledged, and I have not done that. I have been a bad blogger.

I am (as many of you have probably figured out) manic depressive. I offer this as an explanation, not an excuse. The events going on in my life have been such that I have found it difficult to muster the energy to even get out of bed and live my life, let alone write creatively.

A well intentioned fellow blogger suggested that perhaps a hiatus might be in order. In fact, that’s how this post started. It was going to be my farewell (for now) post. “Dear friends, it is with a heavy heart that I write these lines…..”

And then a thought hit me, out of the blue as it were…

FUCK THAT.

Yes, there are things in my life now that suck. A lot. Yes, I feel like shit and there are days I don’t even want to get out of bed. There are days when I have to force myself to remember that I will not find the answer to my problems at the bottom of a bottle of Bushmill’s.

I will not be silenced by my own demons. I have things to say, and a unique way of saying them. I will write what I want, I will express my opinions, I will be heard.

Depression, you can KISS MY ASS!!

And to those who cared enough to give me some tough love (and you know who you are), I have two things to say:

1) You’re all a pain in the ass.

2) I thank you. With all my heart.

Sorry, kids, you’re stuck with me.

-smith

17
May
08

an apology….

….to the many friends I have been neglecting lately.

I can’t go into details, but there’s a lot of negative things going on with me lately, so the blog, as usual, gets short shrift.  I value all of you, your comments, your emails, and, of course, your own writings.

I beg a little further indulgence.  Hopefully things get back to normal around here.

-smith

15
May
08

Drawn to art

There are three things I have always wanted to do before I die: skydive (at least) once, learn to play Brahms on the piano, and learn to paint. Having recently turned 46, I’m at a stage in my life where I realize that the ride is half over, so if I’m going to do any of these things, it had better be soon.

It is highly unlikely that I will be able to do all three. While I don’t think there’s anyone who loves music more than I, and even pride myself on a rather extensive knowledge of classical music, I have found, through hard experience, that I have no musical talent whatsoever. Frankly, I have a better chance of meeting Brahms than ever playing his music. Some of us are just born to listen.

I intend to take up skydiving just as soon as I can get over my fear of flying. I do fly, when I have to, but I loath the experience. In fact, it’s my very hatred of airplanes that makes me think I can do this: I hate them so much I honestly think I’ll jump out of one just to get away from it.

But for the moment, I’ve decided to try my hand at the third, somewhat more realistic goal: learning to paint.

A good friend of mine introduced me to Edwina, a 70 something art teacher from England. Edwina is, to put it mildly, a hoot. Barely five feet in height, she has so much energy she simply dominates the room with her presence. And she talks exactly like one would expect a 70 year old English art teacher to talk. Combine the voices of Queen Elizabeth and Alfred Hitchcock, and you’ve pretty much got the idea.

Edwina suggested that I start off a little more modestly, using soft pencils, so I could see if I had any aptitude for this before I invested in oil paints, which can be pretty pricey. A $20 investment got me 3 soft lead pencils, an eraser, an easel, and a sketch pad, and I was ready to add second rate artist to second rate poet on my resume of dubious accomplishments.

My first attempt was not what one might describe as an unqualified artistic triumph. If you click the pictures, you’ll get a better view:

Edwina was not impressed. “Oh, NO!” she rebuked me, clearly horrified that she had allowed such an imbecile into her midst. “Young man, you’ve got it all WRONG! You’ve got to go for the SHAPE of the thing! Don’t worry about the details! It’s the SHAPE that matters most at this stage!”

Oh, ok.

I made a few more attempts at the pipe. I could tell that Edwina was finding it something of a challenge to come up with anything positive to say about my efforts. “Ummm, that’s…..a little better.”

As the evening progressed, so did I. After several more attempts, I finally managed to come up with something that looked kinda sorta like a pipe:

Finally by the end of the evening, I actually got Edwina to say, “Now young man, THAT’S more like it! Maybe you have some hidden talent after all!” Yeah, she really talks this way.

And I finally finished up with this:

No, I don’t think I represent much of a threat to the legacies of Mssr’s. Monet and Renoir. But it was fun, and gratifying to learn that after only two hours I could create something with my own hands that somewhat resembled the object I was trying to draw. I needed this.

Now, where’s that parachute?

-Smith




taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
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