CD Review: Gene Clark – Here Tonight: The White Light Demos (Omnivore, 2013)
Having passed through the New Christy Minstrels, founded and left the Byrds and dissolved a fruitful partnership with Doug Dillard, Gene Clark escaped the burdens of Los Angeles and relocated to a quiet spot on the Northern California coast. Although he owed A&M a pair of albums, Clark was given time to write new song under relatively little pressure. The label’s co-owner, Jerry Moss, eventually persuaded Clark to return to Los Angeles and record, first these demos, and subsequently his second solo album, White Light. The latter, produced by Jesse Ed Davis (who also produced these demos), remains one of the high-points of Clark’s career, but these guitar-harmonica-and-voice demos, released here for the first time, are equally fulfilling.
However direct listeners found White Light, these spare demos are even more so. Stripped to their essence, Clark’s songs explode with creativity, and recorded live in the studio, Clark plays the songs more as expressive notes to himself than as performances for posterity. There’s a delicacy in his vocals and a pensiveness in his approach that would be overwhelmed by a band, and he displays an eagerness to sing these new songs that could only have been captured once. Half of these titles reappeared on the original version of White Light, and two more appeared on the album’s 2002 CD reissue. “Here Tonight” was recorded in alternate form by the Flying Burrito Brothers, and three titles, “For No One,” “Please Mr. Freud” and “Jimmy Christ” were simply left in the vault.
Clark’s performances return to his earliest folk roots, with a heavy Dylan influence apparent in several of the songs. The tempos are often slower and the presentations more gentle than the later band recordings, suggesting that Clark may have gained confidence in performing these works by the time he waxed the album. But from the start, he shows deep confidence in the songs themselves – perhaps even more evident in such a stripped down form, where the words have nowhere to hide. As fine as was the band assembled for White Light, Clark sounds perfectly comfortable exposed as a solo troubadour sharing his wares. The poetic verses of the album’s title track flow more easily as Clark responds only to his own guitar, and the simplicity of “Where My Love Lies Asleep” adds a starkly personal touch.
Though no substitute for the subsequent studio album, these demos are among the purest statement of Clark’s songwriting. These early recordings provide a second angle on a much-loved collection of songs and the singer-songwriter who brought them forth. They bring to mind Robert Gordon’s liner notes from Big Star Live in which he likens archival musical finds to an old photograph of a lover, taken before you met. The picture dates to a period you’ve heard about but didn’t really know, offering nuances on a familiar visage and revealing new details in something so very familiar. So it is with these demos, which stand on their own as a musical experience, but can’t help commenting on the album that’s so very familiar to Clark’s fans.