Former Byrd Gene Clark died in 1991, but a cache of new material has surfaced that will raise the prolific songwriter’s profile. Richie Unterberger interviews Clark biographer Jon Einarson about this rare, new material on the verge of its June 2018 release.
For a guy who started his career as the main songwriter in one of the top rock bands of the 1960s, Gene Clark had a frustratingly fitful launch as a solo artist. Hardly anyone heard the first album he issued after leaving the Byrds, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, which was released in early 1967. Similar in some ways to the folk-rock of the Byrds’ early albums, but not as strong or diverse, it sold so poorly that he was without a recording contract by the middle of that year.
The Byrds-like “So You Say You Lost Your Baby” from Clark’s debut solo album with the Gosdin Brothers:
The Beatles-like “Elevator Operator” off the same album:
By the time his next LP appeared in late 1968, he wasn’t even a solo artist, teaming with Doug Dillard for the far more country-oriented The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark. By the end of the ‘60s, there was almost the sense that his solo career had been swallowed by his new band, though he’d get back to making true singer-songwriter records soon enough.
Clark was a prolific composer, even back in the days before the Byrds had a recording contract, as many fine demos later released on that band’s Preflyte confirm.
Gene Clark’s “Here Without You” on the Byrds’ Preflyte sessions:
There was always the sense that something was missing from his early discography, especially when Byrds and Clark biographers revealed that Gene had written as many as a few hundred unreleased songs in the last half of the ‘60s. Fans naturally wondered where all of that material went, or at least if there were surviving unissued tapes of some of them. Maybe they’d shed light on missing links between Gene Clark, pensive bittersweet folk-rocker, and Gene Clark, early country-rocker.
Omnivore’s new collection Gene Clark Sings For You isn’t exactly a lost album, but it’s probably about as close as we’ll come to closing that gap. The bulk of it is taken from an eight-song acetate of the same name, comprised of sessions that took place near the end of 1967, after Clark had been dropped by Columbia. Five more tracks from a different acetate recorded around the same time, as well as an additional unreleased demo from the era, add up to a full CD of vintage 1967 Clark. Collectors and folk-rock fanatics will be thrilled to finally have the opportunity to hear these rarities, never previously listened to by anyone save a very few. But how does it stack up to his other work, and what does it tell us about his musical direction as his post-Byrds flight was in danger of getting canceled?
Omnivore’s “trailer” for the release of Sings For You and Rose Garden’s debut album:
Like many and maybe most “lost” albums, Sings For You doesn’t deliver what you might wish for in your imagination. The good news for devotees of the “classic” Byrds folk-rock is that it’s far closer in sound to Gene’s first LP than to Dillard & Clark’s country-rock-with-the-accent-on-country. The bad news, or at least cautionary warning, is that it’s rather crudely executed, though not so much by Gene as by the erratic backup musicians and arrangements he employed.
And the songs, truth to tell, are mostly not up to the level of his first official album, let alone Byrds classics like “I Knew I’d Want You” or “Set You Free This Time.” He’s not so much forging a new direction as casting about for a direction, or mining his old one. It’s as if the genius for melancholic folk-rock’s still there, but kind of fighting to express itself as it’s fogged by underproduction, and not-quite-killer tunes.
Some of the songs on Sings For You aren’t too memorable, and so lyrically obscure and sprawling that they don’t make the beeline to the heart that his best compositions could. In common with many demo-like batches, there’s also some sameness to the material and approaches that demands a good number of plays before the cuts stick out from each other. That said, however, after such repeated listening—if quite a bit more than some listeners might want to invest—the tunes do grow on you, as does insight into what seems to be a rather fragile, uncertain state of mind when Clark did these sessions.
A good number of the tracks are handicapped by rather slapdash backing, by musicians whose identities are unknown, with the exception of pianist Alex del Zoppo (from Los Angeles group Sweetwater). In particular, the drumming is so indelicately over-busy that whoever’s in the seat makes oft-criticized Byrds stickman Michael Clarke seem like a virtuoso. Odd embellishments by calliope and Chamberlin strings (a keyboard similar to the Mellotron) add dabs of eeriness, but also a sense of mild experimentation without a firm goal in mind.
But there are substantial positives to these songs, most notably a yearning, questing undercurrent that runs through almost all the words and melodies, even if you’re rarely sure exactly what Gene’s on about. There are, of course, meditations on mysterious women who seem to be floating out of reach (“On Her Own”). Certainly there aren’t many celebrations of romances going well, if seldom falling into gloomy despondency (albeit “Yesterday, Am I Right” comes close, with its wail “what good is my life without you near”).
Some items show sides of the man to which we’re not accustomed. He strains to hit some really high notes in “Past My Door.”
An acetate of “Past Your Door,” said to be on Gene Clark’s “lost” album:
“Down on the Pier” can’t help but recall Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around” with its waltzing rhythm and vaguely surrealistic ruminations, and a melody similar enough to merit veto had it been considered for official release. The country-rock he’d already investigated in compositions like “Tried So Hard” (from his first solo LP) is heard just once, in one of the better cuts, “7:30 Mode,” whose six-minute string of images and punctuations of bluesy harmonica also bear a heavy Dylan influence.
Of the six tracks not sourced from the Sings For You acetate, the four solo acoustic performances also have mild to definite traces of Dylan (especially “On Tenth Street”) and a bit of a generic Clark troubadour feel. Not all of them are previously unavailable in any form. Gene gifted a couple, “Till Today” and “Long Time,” to L.A. band the Rose Garden for use on their 1968 album, now reissued by Omnivore with numerous bonus cuts.
Considerably superior are the two full-band tracks that weren’t placed on the original Sings for You acetate. Blues-rock wasn’t Clark or the Byrds’ forte, but “Big City Girl” has a fairly convincing, jagged bluesy strut, as well as lyrics intimating things aren’t really going to work out with this independent-minded woman—a theme recurring in several of Gene’s songs from the period. The forceful “Doctor Doctor” almost verges on folk-rock/power pop, with haunting moaning vocal harmonies, a bashing chorus, cool curling guitar licks, and a more assured production than the other efforts on this collection. It’s the highlight of this interesting but erratic anthology, and maybe the only track that sounds like it could have been released in 1967 without getting re-recorded in a more polished state.
What was Clark’s intention in recording this material, and what sort of disc might it have generated had it been treated as the basis of a second official solo LP back in 1967? We can only speculate, but it might have been meant to get a record contract and/or to circulate to other artists in hopes of securing cover versions, accounting in part for its somewhat undercooked feel. As it happens Dylan’s Basement Tapes—also recorded in 1967—were first heard when the cream of them were circulated within the industry in hopes of generating covers, though it’s often theorized there were other reasons for Dylan and the Band recording so much unreleased work at the time.
The music on Gene Clark Sings for You is not destined to attain the mythic status of The Basement Tapes. If the purpose was to attract cover versions (and thus some publishing income and recognition for the composer), it seldom did so. Certainly, some label should have signed Clark on the basis of this material (and, more likely, his previous work with the Byrds and his first solo LP). The record that might have been built around these songs could have been intriguing, and certainly carries great historical interest. But it wouldn’t have been very commercial, or representative of Gene’s best talents. All of which ensured the consignment of these acetates to limbo until Omnivore cleaned them up for official release a good half century later.
Some more rare Clark from 1967, by the way, can be heard on 2017’s The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982 (with two tracks from a Leon Russell-arranged session with Hugh Masekela); the recent Record Store Day release Back Street Mirror (which is already hard to find); and the expanded version of the Rose Garden album, which has a rehearsal of “Till Today” in which Clark participated. That expanded Rose Garden CD (A Trip Through the Garden: The Rose Garden Collection) adds no less than sixteen bonus cuts to their sole LP, including five live tracks and a cover of the Buffalo Springfield outtake “Down to the Wire.” Known by most listeners solely for their late-’67 hit “Next Plane to London,” the Rose Garden’s output was pleasant if light folk-rock with plenty of male-female vocal interaction, and occasionally quite derivative of their biggest heroes, the Byrds.
An unusually upbeat Gene Clark “Don’t Let it Fall Through” from The Lost Studio Sessions:
John Einarson, author of the fine biography Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds’ Gene Clark (Backbeat Books), wrote the liner notes for Omnivore’s Gene Clark Sings for You and the same label’s expanded Rose Garden album. I asked him about the material as it was on the verge of its June 2018 release.
PKM: The existence of Gene Clark Sings For You has been known for quite some time. What finally got the tracks on track for official release?
JE: Several indie record labels have considered issuing the Gene Clark Sings For You tracks over the last ten years or so. However, finding a decent acetate was the problem. The one that has been used to dub copies for a select few collectors and fans wasn’t suitable for reproduction given that it had a considerable amount of surface noise. However, Omnivore Records was privy to a much better quality acetate (a handful of the original acetates were produced back in 1967) that they then had digitally processed meticulously to eliminate any sound deficiencies, with the result that their version sounds as close to master tape quality as possible. The sound quality is superb. The advantage Omnivore brought to the process was the ability and resources to create an almost pristine, or as close to pristine as we’re ever going to get, version of the original tracks.
PKM: You’ve explained, in your liner notes and elsewhere, that Sings For You isn’t really a proper “missing” Gene Clark album. At the same time, it’s more developed than many demos—not just Clark’s, but demos in general by major artists during that time. What do you think Gene’s purpose was in putting it together? If this was primarily to offer songs to other artists, why do you think he might not have been prioritizing them for himself?
JE: These tracks were recorded during 1967 as demos after Gene had been dropped by Columbia Records in June 1967, with the intent of using them to both land a new recording contract with another label and to hustle songs to other artists to cover. They do not come from one session but several. It’s entirely possible that had these tracks been successful in landing Gene a recording contract that he might then have used them as a basis for an album, recording them with more professional backing musicians and a producer. It’s all speculative.
PKM: Generally, how do you think it fits into Clark’s career? It’s not exactly the missing link between his first and second official non-Byrds albums—it’s closer in sound and songwriting to the first.
JE: Gene’s debut solo album represented what I consider a style and sound that was already out of date by the time of its release. The arrangements were still kind of folk-rock-pop, more representative of the Sunset Strip circa 1966, not early 1967 when the album was released. The songs were Beatles- and Byrds-influenced with some country music textures. The one anomaly was “Echoes,” which is simply brilliant as poetry in a baroque music context. Gene’s lyrics and poetry are both expressive and impressive throughout that first album, but the Dylan influence was not yet as developed as it would appear on the Sings For You tracks. What you have on Sings For You is a bit more in line with “Echoes.” Unlike Dylan, however, Gene’s poetry was more accessible in meaning and context than Dylan’s from that same period. Gene was developing into a gifted wordsmith without the often bewildering poetry of Dylan.
When we next hear Gene again it’s some eighteen months later on the “newgrass” country of The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, where his lyrical approach is far more direct. The only glimpses we have of his post-Sings For You/pre-Dillard & Clark recordings are the trio of tracks issued on the 1998 A&M two-CD compilation Flying High: “Los Angeles,” Dylan’s “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” and “That’s Alright By Me” (an update of the 1967 Sings For You demo), recorded with Larry (Laramy) Smith and former members of his band the Fugitives. These three tracks, from this short-lived association dating from May-June 1968, have more in common with the rough-hewn Sings For You tracks than Dillard & Clark, and perhaps give us a slight glimpse into what the Sings For You tracks could have sounded like had they been polished in a proper recording context. But by summer 1968 Gene had moved away from that sound and style to the hip bluegrass-country style of Dillard & Clark.
PKM: It’s a little odd that the backup musicians can be a little sloppy, particularly the drumming. Do you have any thoughts as to why the arrangements were used as they were?
JE: I fully agree that the backing support is weak and plodding at times, most notably the drumming. There appear to be no surviving studio logs or tape boxes identifying the musicians, and I wasn’t able to locate any musicians’ union logs from that period for Gene. Some of the Sings For You tracks almost sound hasty in execution, with the accompanying players still hesitant and uncertain of the arrangements. My guess is that these sessions were arranged by Gene’s manager/producer Jim Dickson in an effort to lay down the tracks quickly and cheaply since they were only demos. Dickson did reveal that Gene was so prolific during this period that they could barely keep up with getting them recorded. Again, these tracks were never intended for the general public, only for music business ears.
PKM: While fans will be eager to hear the eight songs from the original Sings For You, they’ll be especially amazed that five others from a different acetate are included. A very few people have heard Sings For You; practically no one’s heard the five songs from the acetate, though you wrote about them in your biography. How was this acetate discovered/located, and what was involved in getting that material cleared for official release?
JE: These six additional tracks (the five-song acetate plus the rehearsal version of “Till Today”) come from Rose Garden guitarist John Noreen’s personal archives. Back in 1967 Gene gave John the five-song acetate included in the Omnivore Gene Clark Sings For You CD along with tapes of other demoed songs (which weren’t salvageable) with the suggestion that the band might want to record some of them. Gene also gave the band some sheet music of unreleased songs which are reproduced in the liner booklet. Gene kind of took the band under his wing (at one point he considered managing them). Besides giving them songs, two of which were covered on their 1968 album recorded in the fall of 1967, he attended rehearsals (in John Noreen’s bedroom at his parents’ house) and also dropped in on their recording sessions (as did Neil Young on occasion) to assist the group.
During research for my biography of Gene Clark, I interviewed John Noreen. He mentioned the actetate given to him by Gene and played me the tracks. No one other than the five members of the Rose Garden and myself had heard these tracks. When I was contacted by Cheryl Pawelski regarding Omnivore issuing the Sings For You tracks I told her about this additional acetate. She followed up with John Noreen, who agreed to allow Omnivore to include these ultra-rare tracks. The Gene Clark Estate gave their approval after previewing the recordings. These additional tracks, hidden away for some fifty years, are a real treasure added to an already impressive package. It’s fortunate that John Noreen is, by his own admission, a pack rat who has kept an extensive archives all these years.
PKM: What do you think Gene’s purpose was in putting the five-song acetate together? How does it fit into his early progression as a solo artist, and what might have gone into the arrangements, which again (on the cuts with backing) have some rudimentary drumming?
JE: Listening to the John Noreen acetate it’s clear that the tracks originate from the same period, and quite possibly the same sessions, as the Sings For You tracks. The songwriting is impressive while the backing is underdeveloped. The addition of these tracks serves to further illustrate Gene Clark circa 1967, a hitherto mysterious period in his career.
PKM: Quite a bit of other unreleased Gene Clark material has come out since your book was published in 2005, some on last year’s Lost Studio Sessions on Sierra. Do you think there’s much if anything else that survives from the late ‘60s that hasn’t come out?
JE: There are odd acetates of individual songs here and there dating from the 1960s in private hands, but not enough to make an entire album’s worth, I believe. The Gene Clark Estate has been very careful in what they allow to be released. Their overriding goal is to preserve the integrity of Gene Clark’s reputation and music. The recent spate of archival releases have all been undertaken with that goal in mind.
But the reality is that these releases are very much a labor of love. They are hardly money-makers given the limited fan base that exists for Gene’s music. It’s costly to clean up these tracks and prepare attractive and informative booklets. The financial return is minimal. I go back to something Gene’s close friend and musical partner John York once said to me: “I’m not sure that Gene would want everything he left in the studio to come out.”
Fortunately the Estate continues to be vigilant on that front, despite a couple of iffy compilations released over the years. That said, I’m not sure we’ll see many more archival releases unless the few 1968 tracks recorded with Laramy Smith and the Fugitives, or the rough tracks recorded in the summer of 1966 by Gene Clark & the Group (Chip Douglas, Joel Larson and Bill Rhinehart), long believed to have been thrown out, were suddenly discovered.
PKM: Quite a bit of extra material was added to the Rose Garden album, and the unreleased versions of “Till Today” will be of particular interest to Clark fans. So will “Down to the Wire,” as that predates the release of the Buffalo Springfield outtake (and obscure band Yellow Hand’s 1970 version) by quite a bit. How was the extra Rose Garden material discovered, and what if any significance do you think Gene’s association with the Rose Garden had for his own career?
JE: Rose Garden founding member, guitarist John Noreen, wisely kept everything dating back to the group’s early rehearsals, which were all recorded in his bedroom in his parents’ house in the San Fernando Valley, to demo recordings and live performances. There was a wealth of material to choose from for an expanded CD of the Rose Garden. And it’s all great stuff, worthy of release. On the live tracks you can really hear just how much the band was influenced and inspired by the Byrds.
Of particular note from the unreleased demos is the group’s take on Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield-era 1967 recording “Down to the Wire.” No one in the Rose Garden recalled playing on the backing track although [bassist] Bill Fleming and [vocalist] Diana De Rose vaguely remembered singing on it. On closer listening I realized that the backing track was, in fact, the original Springfield demo recording featuring Neil Young and Stephen Stills on guitars and Dr. John, Mac Rebannack, on keyboards. Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, who managed both the Springfield and the Rose Garden, simply gave the backing track to the latter to lay down vocals on. Quite amazing. What is further obvious from all these bonus tracks is that the Rose Garden could have had a future beyond their lone hit single and album. It’s sad that they broke up.
This short video asks the question “What Happened to Gene Clark?” and features an interview with Clark.