For the Byrd: Remembering the Sad and Incredible Life of Gene Clark

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If you’re searching for the perfect example of a cultish (and long-dead) singer-songwriter, Gene Clark likely won’t be the first name that comes to mind. His story is tragic but not like Nick Drake’s story is tragic. He wrote sad songs but not like how Townes Van Zandt wrote sad songs. He was a pioneer of mixing rock with country, but Gram Parsons is already the guy most associated with that. He had a lot of famous friends, but Harry Nilsson’s Rolodex was more impressive

Old photos, captured during a flash of mid-’60s pop stardom when Clark briefly fronted the Byrds, show him almost too handsome to credibly play the antihero. He looks instead like a chastened former high school quarterback, all angular facial lines and perfectly mussed-up hair and mournful eyes. Some musicians are so singular they can only hope to ever be understood by a select number of people. Clark at first glance seems like he had it all and somehow screwed it all up.

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris WalterChris Walter/WireImage

This assessment is uncharitable but not altogether inaccurate. Clark’s career, which launched in 1965 with the Byrds and ended in 1991 when he was found dead in his L.A. area home at the age of 46, is a series of short-lived peaks and long-suffering valleys. Lately, Clark’s legacy has been on an unexpected high. Earlier this year, members of Fleet Foxes, Beach House, and Grizzly Bear did a short tour playing songs from Clark’s lush and introspective 1974 LP No Other, which is sort of the downbeat Nixon-era answer to Pet Sounds. Clark also received the documentary treatment in 2014 courtesy of The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark, which was made in spite of a dearth of available Clark footage, a byproduct of his crippling stage fright. (All the better to enhance his enigmatic persona.) And just last week, in time for what would have been his 70th birthday, one of Clark’s best albums, 1977’s Two Sides to Every Story, was reissued after long being out of print.

What is the cause of this Gene Clark revival? Maybe it was just Clark’s turn after indie musicians and music nerds exhausted the other icons of doomed ’60s and ’70s singer-songwriterdom. Clark has plenty of material for that crowd — his discography is composed exclusively of underappreciated masterpieces and “lost” albums. Of all the hard-luck sad bastards who have been granted a romanticized afterlife, I can’t think of a musician more snakebitten than Clark. He had the looks and talent to match the success of peers like David Crosby and Neil Young, but was hampered by manic depression, alcoholism, and plain old bad fortune. Few had more to gain, or farther to fall, than Clark, and he wound up losing far more than he ever gained.

Cruel ironies abound in Clark’s career. In 1966, he exited the Byrds, then one of the most popular bands in the world, because he was terrified of flying; shortly after, the group scored one of its biggest hits, “Eight Miles High,” which he cowrote. A few years later, Clark teamed up with banjo player Doug Dillard and recorded a brilliant LP, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, that influenced the mellow, country-inflected L.A. rock sound of the ’70s. But when Dillard & Clark debuted at the Troubadour, the Sunset Strip club where future stars like Don Henley and Glenn Frey first hatched plans for world domination, Clark was too drunk to perform competently, and the group quickly fell apart.

Later, one of Clark’s sidemen, Bernie Leadon, joined the Eagles, and a Dillard & Clark song, “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” ended up on the Eagles’ self-titled 1972 debut. That same year, Clark commenced work on a new album called Roadmaster with a promising set of songs and a relatively healthy and sober outlook. Unfortunately, this project was derailed spectacularly by another’s near-comical maleficence: The producer decided it was wise to invite Sly Stone to the studio when Clark was out of town, and Sly arrived with an entourage of 40 people and an RV full of cocaine. They proceeded to max out the record company’s production tab in a manner of days, ordering thousands of dollars’ worth of food from a neighboring restaurant. Work on Roadmaster was halted, and the tracks were dumped unceremoniously on a record released only in the Netherlands. (Roadmaster was later given a wider reissue.)

Clark’s most celebrated album, 1974’s No Other, was similarly derided, then discarded by Clark’s benefactors. Signed by the top mogul of SoCal pop, David Geffen, on the strength of his songs for the ill-fated 1973 Byrds reunion album, Clark finally had at his disposal world-class musicians and a big budget topping out at $100,000. Clark and his producer, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, responded by swinging for the fences, creating dreamy, wide-screen soundscapes that stretched on for several minutes per track. Geffen, in turn, was pissed that No Other had only eight songs. “Make a proper fucking album!” Geffen screamed.1 Geffen subsequently released No Other with no promotional support, and cut Clark loose.

Clark, once again, had lost. Perhaps No Other’s opener, “Life’s Greatest Fool,” was prophetic, though Clark played the unlucky fool in nearly all of his songs. Loss was his great theme. For the Byrds, he wrote breathtaking ballads about abandonment (“Here Without You”) and nobly walking away from those he would inevitably disappoint (“Set You Free This Time”). As Clark grew older, and his despair over the turns his life had taken deepened, romantic desolation gave way to spiritual yearning — on sweepingly meditative numbers like “Out on the Side,” “Full Circle Song,” and “Silver Raven,” he sounds like a man whose dignity derives from holding it together amid the wreckage of his life as he calmly addresses the heavens, looking for answers.

Clark was weary but not exactly angry, at least not on his albums. He appeared to be seeking relief in the one place in his life that hadn’t been corrupted. Clark was a romantic at heart, and sentimental about the act of creating something luminous. My favorite Gene Clark song, and possibly the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard by anybody, is “For a Spanish Guitar,” from 1971’s Gene Clark, a.k.a. White Light, where he sings with heartbreaking purity about the restorative power of music in the face of constant hardship. Clark’s resolve in that regard held more or less firm for another 20 years.

Two Sides to Every Story was made in the aftermath of No Other and the troubling repercussions the album’s failure had on Clark’s life. Forced to tour in order to support his wife and two sons, Clark played countless dives with a two-man backing band called the Silverados, self-medicating every night with speed and booze. The chemicals exacerbated Clark’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder, causing him to act erratically at home and eventually prompting his wife, Carlie, to take their boys to Hawaii (because she knew Clark wouldn’t fly) and file for divorce. Clark’s home life wound up being the album’s primary inspiration, starting with the cover, where Clark — his once-handsome face wrapped in a thick, autumnal beard — sits at a picnic table outside his Northern California home, joined only by one of his kids’ forgotten toys.

Even without knowing the backstory, it’s clear just from the songs that Two Sides to Every Story is a breakup album. Eschewing the elaborate production of No Other, and adhering to a more traditional country sound than the stark White Light, Clark’s sensibility on Story’s best tunes — “Lonely Saturday,” “Sister Moon,” and “Past Addresses”  is one part George Jones and one part Blood on the Tracks. Clark presents himself as a man reduced to staring at the clock, poring over his past and trying to erase time. “Thursday night at six o’clock / I stepped into a world / of living all alone,” he sings on “Lonely Saturday.” You get the feeling that it was perpetually Thursday night at six o’clock in Gene Clark’s world.

When Clark tries to be funny, like in “Home Run King,” it comes out bitter, a delusion of long-lost grandeur with the self-hatred baked in. “You either just a newspaper boy or you’re either Babe Ruth,” he sings, not at all sounding like the Babe. The folk standard “In the Pines,” an all-time favorite of sad boys from Kurt Cobain on down, is more Clark’s speed. He gives it an incongruously jaunty arrangement, but he’s otherwise in a familiar place: deep in the weeds, where the sun never shines. 

After unsuccessfully shopping Two Sides to Every Story around town — Clark had burned nearly every bridge in the music business by then2 — Clark had a brief high when the biggest label of the late ’70s, RSO, agreed to release it. Then the prolonged valley: Two Sides was a nonstarter commercially, and Clark never had a major-label deal again. He put out more music in the ’80s, but Clark had aged far beyond his years. In 1988, painful ulcers required surgery that removed a large portion of his stomach and intestines. He could no longer drink without killing himself. But when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in early 1991, Clark decided to go on one last bender.

When Clark’s bass player, Jon Faurot, found the body, Clark was curled up in a fetal position on the living room floor. It was a Friday. He saved himself from another lonely Saturday.

Filed Under: Music, Gene Clark, The Byrds, David Geffen, L.A., No Other

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden