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.