The Sometimes Forgotten Byrd to Be Honored on Both Coasts
Gene Clark is finally getting his due.
For decades, Roger McGuinn received most of the credit for the Byrds’ impact on rock and roll, tied in with psychedelic, country, and folk music. McGuinn was the unquestioned leader, and there’s no reason to denigrate his incredible contributions and his longevity with the pioneering ’60s band with the beautiful vocal harmonies.
David Crosby, Gram Parsons, and Clarence White also were hailed for their contributions to the Byrds, who hit the ground running when they took Bob Dylan’s folk anthem, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and made it electric on the title cut of their sensational debut album. Parsons, though, was only in the Byrds for one album — their sixth record, Sweetheart of the Rodeo — and White officially joined the group after Parsons departed, though his incredible session work on guitar was on earlier Byrds albums.
Too forgotten in a group that oozed with talent and chops were original members Gene Clark and Chris Hillman.
Hillman’s musical resume before, during and after the Byrds may be second to none — the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers; the Golden Gate Boys; the Hillmen; the Flying Burrito Brothers; Stephen Stills’ Manassas; the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band; McGuinn, Clark and Hillman; the Desert Rose Band; Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen; and a long career solo and with Herb Pedersen. Yet today it’s somewhat mind-boggling that many still don’t know the name of this great musician who continues to perform memorable show after memorable show.
For decades, Clark and his music were also under the radar, despite his golden voice and the tender, insightful, poetic songs he wrote. Next week, in New York and Los Angeles, he will be celebrated — 26 years after his death from heart failure at age 46, an end that came five months after the Byrds were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
On Feb. 22 in Manhattan’s Cutting Room, numerous musicians, including the Kennedys, Marshall Crenshaw, Amy Rigby, the Smithereens’ Jim Babjack, Cait O’Riordan, and Lee Ranaldo, will take the stage for The Songs of Gene Clark: A 50th Anniversary Celebration. On Feb. 25 at the South Pasadena Library, an event of the same name will feature Carla Olson, who recorded albums with Clark; former Byrd John York who also played bass in Clark’s post-Byrds band; Peter Lewis, a founding member of Moby Grape, and Clark’s son, Kai Clark.
The shows follow on the heels of Sierra Records’ wonderful new Gene Clark album, The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982. The album has many highlights, particularly 1972 songs with Clark’s original vocals that had been scrubbed when the tunes appeared on Terry Melcher’s 1974 solo album and Clark’s final recording session in 1982 with Hillman, Pedersen, Al Perkins, and Byrds drummer Michael Clarke.
On its website only, Sierra Records is also selling an Ultimate Limited Edition Set of the album that contains vinyl records, an SACD, a DVD, a digital download card, and two bonus CDs with six more unreleased songs.
The idea for the celebratory shows began with Ingrid Neimanis, a big fan of Gene Clark and the organizer of a campaign to induct him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“Ingrid contacted me and suggested the idea of doing a New York show in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers,” says Edward Rogers, the co-producer of the Cutting Room show. “I went to my music associate, Don Piper, who was very enthusiastic about the project. We did a proposal to the Cutting Room and were immediately offered a date. I was surprised how many people knew and appreciated Gene’s songwriting and music.”
Rogers and guitarist/producer/songwriter Don Piper, who is the musical director of the New York show, put together a backing band and a long lineup of singers and musicians.
“We chose the band and performers because we felt they were fans of Gene Clark’s — both as a solo artist and with the Byrds — and would do justice to his music,” Rogers says. “We hope to introduce his songs to a new audience, and, at the same time, please the most diehard fan.”
Like most people, Rogers says he came to know Clark’s music because of the Byrds. Clark wrote or co-wrote five of the 12 songs — more than any other member — on the Byrds’ groundbreaking Mr. Tambourine Man album.
“I loved his version of ‘Feel A Whole Lot Better,’ but I was much more aware of Roger McGuinn’s presence because of his 12-string guitar, songwriting and fashionable granny glasses,” Rogers says. “Younger Than Yesterday is still one of my favorite Byrds albums, but Gene had already left the band. In the ’90s, an underappreciated cult band called Velvet Crush did a great cover version of ‘Why Not Your Baby Anymore,’ a song of Gene’s I had never heard that subsequently renewed my interest in his solo work. I discovered a vast catalog of amazing songs and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more well known as a solo artist.”
Kai Clark, who lives about a three-hour drive northeast of San Francisco in Alta, California, is really looking forward to performing at the show in South Pasadena.
“It is so great to see my father finally getting the credit he so well deserved,” Clark tells me. “I think there is still a big, bright future for my father and his legacy. His music only seems to be growing, still on the cutting edge of anything out there in music. My family and I are excited to see these shows coming together and want to thank all who have made this a possibility. And I am super stoked to get to play with some people who shared the stage and some good memories with my father. It’s an honor to play this show.”
New Gene Clark Album
Kai Clark is also enjoying the new Sierra Records release.
“I think it’s quite amazing,” he says. “It’s like a time capsule for me. And I’m sure Gene Clark fans will agree, it covers my father from the beginning to near the end of his career. His voice is amazing in every song. It gives us a glimpse of my father’s songwriting ability long before most anyone knew of his songwriting talents.”
The album spans nearly 20 years, and Clark’s warm, expressive voice — which I think may be the most beautiful voice in rock-and-roll history — changes through the years. The 1964 sessions on the album threw me, because, at first, I had a hard time believing it was Gene. His voice is strong, but — forgive me if I am tossing out a foolish comparison — sounds like a warmer, fuller version of Phil Ochs.
So I ask Kai Clark about this.
“Obviously, Gene was influenced by artists such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers and all the artists he was hearing on the radio as a young man,” Kai says. “His voice emanates this on the early tracks.
“My father’s voice is quite unique, and, if you hear his voice, you instantly know it is Gene Clark singing. I only hear one significant change in his singing style on these recordings. There was a period between 1969 and 1970 where many artists were trying to emulate Bob Dylan, and this is obvious in several tracks on the album. The 1980s were a tough time for my father. I think he was trying to find his place at the end of a disco era and a beginning of a new era for music. I think it was great to see McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman come together again. But I think all of them were already on different paths in their careers.”
How should Gene Clark, who was born in Tipton, Missouri, the third of 13 children, be regarded in the history of music?
“My father’s place in the history of music is pivotal and extremely important — not only what he accomplished for music and songwriting in the Byrds,” Kai Clark says. “Everything he accomplished and produced before and after the Byrds was beyond what most of us can comprehend. He was always pushing the boundaries of what songwriting and music were — even during the ’60s, when music was already being pushed into new territories. He was taking it even further. His place in music history is well deserved.”
Kai Clark says it’s not easy to identify his favorite Gene Clark songs.
“That’s a tough question,” he says. “I love so many of his songs, and, even as his son, it seems I am still discovering new songs every day that are just showing up more than a quarter century after his passing. I think my favorites are the ones that I can play and relate to as a singer and a musician. ‘Gypsy Rider’ and ‘Silver Raven’ are all-time favorites. Also, ‘So You Say You Lost Your Baby,’ ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,’ ‘Kansas City Southern,’ and a lot of the Dillard and Clark material. It’s too hard to narrow down to any one single favorite. I keep finding new favorites.”
He can identify his favorite album, though.
“I would have to say No Other. It just stands out on its own in so many ways. I think the album combines sounds and genres that were way ahead of its time.”
For decades, my all-time Top 5 albums — by all artists — have always included Gene Clark’s Roadmaster. To me, no folk-rock or country-rock album comes close to its sheer beauty. The songs are wistful, the melodies are brilliant, and the harmonies are beyond sublime.
Eight of the songs were recorded by Clark in 1972 for his final record for A&M Records, but the sessions were slow and expenses were mounting. He abandoned the project and left the songs in a vault. Clark’s manager Jim Dickson later added three other unreleased songs, and the record was initially released only in Europe in 1973. Players on the album include David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, Michael Clarke, Rick Roberts, Bernie Leadon, Clarence White, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Spooner Oldham, and Byron Berline.
Why the title Roadmaster, I ask Kai Clark?
“I am not sure,” he responds. “I think maybe it had something to do with my father’s love of automobiles and driving, but I can’t say for sure. Some of the covers for that album show him leaning out the window of his Ferrari.”
The theme of this Best I’ve Ever Seen column is to identify which concerts most impressed and influenced today’s artists, so I ask Kai whether Gene ever mentioned any such shows.
“My father never mentioned attending any concert to me,” Kai says. “He often mentioned concerts he had played with various artists but never one that he just attended. My mother always said he was very peculiar about listening or appreciating others artists’ music. She told me there were years that he never listened to anyone’s music but his own. I am sure he was influenced by many artists of his era, but I never got the chance to discuss that with him. He passed away when I was just 17.”
The best concert Kai attended was a Rolling Stones show with Pearl Jam at the Oakland Coliseum in 1997. The Stones “were still kicking ass and playing with the most current artists of their time as though they were just discovered the year before. That’s something I won’t forget.”
Kai says he can’t recall a concert that influenced him most; it was rather an album that was influential.
“I grew up in Mendocino (California), and it was far for me to go see any concerts as a young man with no gas money or a car. I had one copy of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?. I would listen to it over and over and over. I just fell in love with it, and it really inspired me to learn how to play and sing better.”
Music means a lot to Kai, but so do his wife, Amber, his three children, and his passion for the culinary arts.
“I love playing music,” he says. “If it is feasible and affordable, I play all the shows I can, though they do not really pay the bills for me. I think I have the skills and the experience, but an offer never came for me to do extensive touring. I play a lot of tributes and shows that are celebrating my dad or other artists of his era, such as Gram Parsons.
“When we are not doing shows, we are raising our three children on 20 acres in the Sierra Mountains between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. I am a trained culinary professional who graduated from California Culinary Academy/Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco in 2004. We are looking to open a restaurant called the Byrd House in the next year that will be decorated with my father’s memorabilia. We will also celebrate the Byrds’ legacy with memorabilia from the band, and we hope to feature great musical acts at our establishment.”
Kai says he has two favorite memories of his dad.
“One of my favorite memories is when he played Harrah’s Lake Tahoe in the early ’80s, and I saw the show and stayed with him. We went fishing together on the lake and spent a lot of fun time together. That had to be the first show I saw of his. He had this great sense of humor, and I remember my brother and I were laughing the whole time.
“I also have a great memory when I was living with him in the late ’80s in Sherman Oaks, California. There was a big earthquake, and I was literally thrown out of bed. It was just me and him late at night. We were so startled and shaken by the quake that we sat up in the kitchen all night. He told me a lot about his childhood, and all he had been through. It felt like we were two old friends talking. I think that was the best night I ever spent with him.”