Gene Clark was the first Byrd to fly the coop, long before the band became a byword for ever-changing line ups. Back then he was considered the primary songwriter and front man of the band by many eclipsing the ringing Rickenbacker and nasal tones of Roger McGuinn and the caped (eventual super star) Davis Crosby. He was well placed to take pole position in the late sixties singer songwriter grand prix and got off to a flying start on his collaboration with the Gosdin Brothers and then revved up a pace with The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, perhaps the best of the early country rock albums. Critically acclaimed the albums were commercial failures and Clark never again troubled the headlines despite the spectacular albums he released in the seventies, White Light (aka Gene Clark) and No Other. Even a much anticipated Byrds reunion album turned out to be a damp squib although general opinion is that Clark once again overshadowed his companions with his contributions. Although he continued to record (with and without fellow ex Byrds) Clark’s hard drinking took its toll and he died of a heart attacked aged only 46 in 1991.
Clark’s first album as a solo artist was White Light, released in 1971. A printing error left the title off of the cover art, another example of the bad luck that dogged his career. Composed after he left the pressure pot of L.A. for the serenity of Mendocino it featured another significant pairing (following that with Doug Dillard), this time with guitarist Jesse Ed Davis who produced the album. An introspective, poetic singer songwriter styled album it is perhaps the highlight of Clark’s work but once again it sank almost without a trace (apart from in Holland where it was voted album of the year). To listen to White Light today it has one failing, that it is firmly rooted in its time with the burbling bass of Chris Ethridge in particular sounding somewhat dated on the more upbeat songs such as the title track. However some of it is timeless with the soul tinged organ ballad Because of You standing out while the simple acoustic guitar arrangements of With Tomorrow and For a Spanish Guitar allow Clark to do what he does best as his mournful voice rings clear and uncluttered and his lyrics rival Dylan, stripped of symbols and allusion.
News that Omnnivore recordings were releasing Here Tonight, a collection of demos for the White Light album created a frisson of delight amongst the myriad Gene Clark sites on the old interweb thing and now that it’s arrived we can confidently state that the anticipation is matched by the delivery. Naked and unadorned, Clark sings and accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica allowing the essential beauty of the songs to shine through. Six of these songs appeared on the original release of White Light while two others turned up as bonus tracks on the 2002 CD reissue. The title song eventually saw the light of day with Clark backed by The Flying Burrito Brothers on the Dutch Roadmaster album and three of the songs are previously unreleased in any form. While the guitar work is fairly rudimentary, the harmonica Dylanesque, the voice and lyrics are mesmerising. Those steeped in Clark lore will spend hours comparing these songs to the final versions but anyone with an ear for good music should be able to engage with and be bewitched by Clark’s intimate version of Cosmic American music.
Of the songs that made it on to the album Because of You is the only one to suffer in comparison missing the superb arrangement of the official release. For a Spanish Guitar stands up on its own two feet and remains one of Clark’s masterpieces while The Virgin is stripped of its poppy arrangement allowing the Dylan like lyrics to come to the fore. White Light itself is taken at a brisk pace but again benefits from the stripped down sound. Here Tonight remains a beautiful song, proof, if needed, that solo or with a band he was up there in the pantheon and here one is reminded of his authorship of the magnificent Train Leaves Here This Morning which was covered so successfully by the Eagles.
Of the unreleased songs Please Mr. Freud is a (very) Dylan like dream song, Jimmy Christ is a short vignette that recalls Townes Van Zandt and Clark’s own The American Dreamer. For No One is the major find however as Clark picks gently at his guitar on what is presumably an unfinished song and his melancholic voice rises eventually with a brief two verses that encapsulate his poetic style, somewhat like a Zen version of Tennyson or Byron. Lovely.
Overall this album is a must have for any Gene Clark completist but it does stand up on its own. After listening to it several times there was a thought that if Clark had gone on the road and continued in this vein he would have rivalled Townes Van Zandt as the last doomed troubadour and be mentioned as such as opposed to being known as the Byrd who couldn’t fly.