Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life And Legacy Of The Byrds’ Gene Clark
If you’re thinking of investing twenty bucks in this exhaustively detailed life story of the Byrds’ doomed singer, spend a few minutes in the bookstore reading the seven-page introduction. It’ll give you a perfect idea of what the next 325 pages are going to serve forth: the story of a talented but confused guy who spent much of the two decades after he left the group sabotaging himself with drugs and alcohol, finally succumbing to their effects at age 46.
Fascinated? Buy the book. But just be aware that you’ve entered into as grim a story as the 1970s offered, told by an author who’s such a fan that he can forgive nearly anyone nearly anything. This sets up a dissonance that makes the book hard to read, and it goes on and on and on.
Harold Eugene Clarke was one of thirteen children born to a golf course landscaper and his wife in rural Missouri. He escaped via high school rock bands, which led to a discovery of bluegrass and folk music and a chance meeting with the New Christy Minstrels. They picked up the 18-year-old and swept him into the fast-track world of show business.
Realizing there was no future with that group (as all its members were on salary to leader Randy Sparks), and having discovered Los Angeles while traveling with them, he just up and left the Minstrels one day and stayed in L.A. looking for a break, which came in the form of a folk singer from Chicago who liked to play Beatles tunes on his twelve-string. Clark (he’d dropped the “e”) thought this guy, Jim McGuinn, was onto something, and so did another guy who hung out at the Troubadour bar, David Crosby. Just like that, the Byrds were born.
The troubles started immediately, as Crosby saw to it that Clark didn’t get to play guitar in the group. Instead, he stood up front, banging a tambourine and singing lead or co-lead with McGuinn. In a way, it was a good deal: Clark was an extremely good-looking frontman. But, as Einarson shows in minute detail, the Byrds’ dynamic wasn’t suited to stability. So whether it was his fear of flying or just a desire to get away from the bickering, the fact was that Clark walked away.
And he did so with no plans for the next step — no lawyer covering his ass, no record contract. It was 1966, there are 25 years left to the story, and it goes like this: Gene gets into a musical situation with other talented musicians. One thing or another keeps it from succeeding, so Gene starts drinking, and when he starts drinking, he gets crazy. When he gets crazy he does bad things to people, and the bigger the person, the worse thing he does. But he’s Gene Clark, and someone always wants a piece of that, so he gets into another musical situation…
It goes on like this for 200 pages, much of which is barely-edited interview material from people who all get to the “if only…” point in their stories. Einarson stays as neutral as can be, and the lack of an authorial voice here just makes the story more painful. The whole thing reaches a ghastly climax with the discovery of Clark’s body after yet another drinking binge, with wave after wave of “friends” looting the house while his corpse lies in a pool of vomit on the floor awaiting the EMS truck.
Probably the best thing I can say about Mr. Tambourine Man is that it almost accidentally gives a starkly realistic portrait of the Los Angeles music business in the 1970s by giving voice to people who were deeply involved in it. To call many of them weasels is unnecessarily derogatory to our four-footed friends. If you’re considering a career as an alcoholic and poly-drug abuser, you might also want to read this story. One thing’s for sure: It ain’t pretty. One might even ask if, at this length, it was even necessary.