Gene Clark: Byrds treasure

By Lee Zimmerman

An enigmatic figure who remains highly influential even now, well over a quarter century after his death, Gene Clark is credited by many as helping to lay the foundation for folk music’s crossover to pop, and later, for rock’s crossover to country. Originally a member of the New Christy Minstrels, at least for a brief time, and later — and more significantly — the chief songwriter, singer and frontman for The Byrds, he galvanized the rock world by contributing a number of songs to the latter’s jangly, folk-laden catalog, allowing them to ascend the charts and eventually scale the upper tiers of musical immortality.

Although he soon assumed the role of The Byrds’ prerequisite sex symbol thanks to his dashing good looks, Clark was a reticent rock star at best. A fear of fright, abject insecurity and his own inner demons led him to leave the band while still in their prime, although he briefly returned in later after David Crosby’s acrimonious departure and, after that, for an ill-fated reunion in the early ‘70s. There were subsequent one-off reunions with former bandmates Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman at various intervals over the next 10 years, including a one-off McGuinn, Clark and Hillman regrouping, which he subsequently quit after it had barely gotten off the ground. However it was his post-Byrds efforts with the Gosdin Brothers, the Dillards, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and, eventually, his own individual career that found him rebounding and reviving his reputation as one of the great singers and songwriters of his time.

Over the years, there have been various reissues of his seminal solo albums, each boasting unreleased material, as well as any number of live recordings that have surfaced in both bootleg and legitimate forms. Omnivore and High Moon Records have been the most prodigious in giving release to Clark’s heretofore hidden gems, but it was Sierra Records’ 2016 release of The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982, that yielded the most revelatory unheard recordings of Clark’s career, most of them in the form of demos bearing only solo guitar accompaniment.

Now Omnivore will up the ante with the album titled Gene Clark Sings for You, — the content has long been rumored to exist, but has never been exhumed until now. The songs, cut in 1967 and hidden away in the Liberty Records vaults, represent a remarkable find — eight Clark compositions that have never seen the light of day and five additional tracks that were designated for a band called The Rose Garden and recorded around the same time. One of those songs, “Till Today,” eventually found release on the Rose Garden’s eponymous 1968 album, which is also being rereleased by Omnivore to mark the 50th anniversary of group’s sole outing.

John Einarson, author of Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds’ Gene Clark, contributes the album’s liner notes, and sums the album up by saying, “For longtime Gene Clark fans and aficionados, the tracks on this remarkable archival CD are the stuff of legend.”

Kai Clark, Gene’s son, shared some reflections of his own, offering us his insights about his father’s music and his early evolution.

“The first recording that he ever made was called ‘Blue Ribbons,’” Kai Clark replied when asked about Clark’s seminal influences. “His voice was quite like Elvis on that recording. I think he was influenced by the radio at the time, and the people who were pushing the boundaries of songwriting in the mid-to late ‘50s. Most of the music of that time was led by vocal talent, and I think that is what led him to train his voice and concentrate on that aspect of his talent.”

Kai Clark is similarly assured when addressing the effect his father’s music had on others. “I think he was always pushing the boundaries of music, and I don’t think a lot of people understood what he was trying to do at the time,” he reflects. “But now I feel like so many years later, many people look to Gene Clark as someone who changed the face of music as far as songwriting goes. His use of the minor key and his singing style and production techniques were quite unique. The influence was obvious upon people like Tom Petty, the Eagles, and so many others.”

Goldmine then asked him share an idea of what the album Gene Clark Sings For You  has to offer. “I think the Gene Clark Sings For You recordings reflect his amazing ability to write genius music at any given time throughout his career,” he says. “The sound quality is amazing. His voice during this time sounds especially good. I think anybody who knows Gene Clark, and even those who are just discovering him, or even those who don’t know him at all as an artist or musician, will be very impressed. It’s like discovering treasure that’s been buried for years and years and it’s just now being brought to the light and to our ears for the first time.”

All in all, a treasure worth waiting for.

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