Of all the musicians who’ve fallen through the cracks over the years, few, if any, ever fell as far or as often as Gene Clark. During a career that spanned more than 25 years, Clark flirted with success often, only to find obscurity each and every time.
Clark was a founding member and the original lead singer for the Byrds, one of the seminal groups in rock history, and was the primary songwriter on their first two albums. Clark left after the Byrds’ second album, mostly but not entirely due to anxiety over flying and touring. Following the Byrds, he embarked on an enigmatic solo career marked by critical acclaim and artistic achievement, but no commercial success whatsoever.
In the end, Gene Clark may have been incapable of handling success, and subconsciously kept it at arm’s length. He experienced stardom with the Byrds and handled it poorly. His reluctance to play the music-business game of touring and promotion always caused problems with the record companies. His self-destructive nature and alcoholism dogged him throughout his career.
Earlier this fall, Four Suns Productions released an exceptional biographical documentary about Gene Clark called The Byrd Who Flew Alone. Produced by Paul Kendall with editorial assistance from sons Dan and Jack Kendall, The Byrd Who Flew Alone covers the essentials of Clark’s life and career. Despite a dearth of video footage, the Kendalls adroitly tell Clark’s story through photos, audio clips, and voluminous interviews with friends, family members, and musical collaborators, including extensive conversations with the three surviving original Byrds.
There are few nits to pick with this otherwise standout film, but here are three. First of all, little is made of the constant and bruising ego clashes within the original Byrds, especially the alleged bullying of Clark by David Crosby. Second, little is said about Asylum Records president David Geffen’s angry reaction upon hearing No Other, Clark’s 1974 masterpiece. Reportedly irate that an album that cost $100,000 to produce yielded just eight songs, Geffen refused to back the album financially after its release, a devastating blow from which Clark may never have recovered.
Last and certainly not least, a little more in-depth discussion about the music itself would have been nice. Clark was an enigma, an artist who repeatedly created masterworks that failed, but we get far more here about the failures than we do about the masterworks.
That’s not much to quibble about. The Byrd Who Flew Alone is must viewing for Byrds fans, and it’s essential for Gene Clark fans.
The Byrd Who Flew Alone has limited commercial availability — it’s not available through Amazon, for instance — but can be ordered directly through Four Suns Productions. It’s well worth the approximately $28 asking price.
Watching The Byrd Who Flew Alone and pondering Clark’s career brings to mind an occasional debate over which former Byrd was better, Gene Clark or Gram Parsons. (In truth, Parsons was never really a Byrd but only a hired hand; as David Crosby so eloquently put it, there were only ever five Byrds.)
On the surface, comparing Clark and Parsons is an apples-and-oranges discussion. Where the two can be compared, however, Clark generally comes out comfortably ahead. Clark was by far the better singer. Parsons could deliver a great vocal performance when he was straight and sober, but he was seldom either. When he was tanked, his voice, thin and wavery to start with, often stretched to its breaking point. Clark’s voice was expressive, rich and full at all times, and he delivered countless mesmerizing vocal performances throughout his career.
Clark also was the better songwriter. Parsons wrote several great songs, but almost everything he wrote was a collaboration and he contributed less than he’s often given credit for on some of his best songs. Clark mostly wrote alone and was unbelievably prolific and poetic. His trademark mix of major and minor chords was usually the perfect vehicle for his eloquent and often spellbinding lyrics.
While both were self-destructive, Clark was more dependable than Parsons, a better bandmate, and is remembered much more fondly by those he worked with, and especially by those who worked with both. Parsons’ trust-fund background left him financially secure but also erratic, irresponsible and unaccountable. His work ethic was poor and he frequently let down those who depended on him the most, right up until his untimely death from a drug overdose in 1973. Clark, despite the commercial setbacks and alcohol issues, always soldiered on and continued to make quality music through the late 1980s.
This is not intended as an exercise in Parsons bashing. He created some brilliant music. He recorded some great tracks with the Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (buy the Byrds box sets to hear them all). His early work with Chris Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers resulted in one of the first classic country-rock albums, The Gilded Palace Of Sin. His first solo album GP, is outstanding but suffers from weak vocals that undermine an impressive songlist. He corrects that on his posthumous follow-up, Grievous Angel, which includes some of his best vocal performances.
At their best, though, it’s not really close. Clark was more focused and consistent than Parsons as well as the better singer and songwriter. It shows in their recorded output. Clark’s No Other is the best record ever released by anyone credited with being a former Byrd. White Light, released in 1971, isn’t far behind. His first album with Doug Dillard, 1968’s The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, was an earlier and better country-rock classic than The Gilded Palace Of Sin. His 1987 duets collection with Carla Olson, So Rebellious A Lover, is an overlooked gem.
Despite all of the above, 40 years after his death, Gram Parsons has proven to be far more influential than Gene Clark. Why? Several reasons, but none more important than Emmylou Harris. She was Parsons’ duet partner on both GP and Grievous Angel. That partnership launched her magnificent solo career in the mid-1970s. An iconic artist and a Country Music Hall of Famer, she’s beaten the drum for Parsons for four decades, and it’s paid off in a substantial and often noisy cult following.
Parsons’ influence is very real, yet you can’t be influential if no one ever hears your music. Harris made sure that people knew of Gram Parsons, and the world is better off as a result. It would be nice to see how influential Gene Clark could have become with a high-profile advocate as devoted to the cause as Emmylou Harris. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.