One can only hope Gene Clark, peering in from eternity, is chuckling knowingly at the delays and complications that surrounded the release of this all-too-short retrospective. The final postponement, Polydor’s dissolution of the U.S. A&M label, makes this one an import. It’s all too reminiscent of a career dotted with unfinished projects, unrecorded songs and entire albums consigned to the vaults or released outside his home country.
As early as 1972, Clark told an interviewer, “I’m getting used to this backlog of material. It must mean something; maybe it’s all going to happen next year, and you’ll hear it all.” Even to this day, we haven’t. But Flying High, compiled and annotated by musician/writer Sid Griffin, does fill in some gaps, combining lost or rarely heard tracks with album selections spanning Clark’s 1964-66 tenure with the Byrds up through work recorded not long before his death in 1991.
It has become something of a cliché to attach terms such as “underrated” or “ignored” to Gene Clark. A small but fiercely loyal following marvels at the artist’s chronic inability to parlay his talents and ex-Byrd credibility into a hitmaking solo career. Clark seemed to have it all. His husky voice and impassioned phrasing lent a weary, late-night urgency to everything he sang. He wrote many more songs than he could find time to record, but he appreciated other songwriters enough to pepper his output with many well-chosen covers.
Without fail, though, his albums were greeted by lukewarm sales. This may partly be explained by Clark’s personal quirks: an underdeveloped capacity for self-promotion, a fear of air travel that resulted in very limited touring, substance problems (particularly alcohol), and simple bad luck.
Clark’s 1966 departure from the Byrds and his first solo album (misleadingly titled Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers) were among the first dominoes to fall in a series of recordings and band formations that would shape Los Angeles country rock. Griffin notes that in 1967, Gene Clark & the Group and Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band were the only acts to be heard “playing electric country rock with a young rocker’s attitude.”
Bragging rights aside, Clark’s low-key injection of country music into that first album, although startling in the pre-Nashville Skyline era, was far from the full-blown pledge of allegiance to Nudie suits and pedal steels that Parsons’ work would soon proclaim. The much-covered “Tried So Hard”, with its shuffle beat and tasty Clarence White lead guitar, is a sure-enough country track, but it takes its place alongside songs that demonstrate Clark’s contradictory aptitudes as a master of the pop hook and a creator of rich, sometimes metaphysical, images.
The principal lyricist of “Eight Miles High” and writer of lines evoking “moon trolls” and “tabernacle hillsides” would seem an odd fit as a country writer — a Matisse in a genre that usually favors Frederic Remington. But by the time of his pairing with banjo master Doug Dillard, Clark had begun to reconcile his varied songwriting instincts into a more unified style that worked well within the bluegrass and country-rock framework.
The outer zones of his imagery gave way to a studied vagueness of story, yet a richness of ambient detail. Lines such as “Night before last walkin’, facin’ four rooms worth of floor” (from “The Radio Song”), and songs such as “In A Misty Morning” and “Polly” (which Willie Nelson ought to cover someday), reveal his mastery at writing songs that were really more moods than stories.
Of the unreleased material included here, three 1968 tracks from an aborted attempt at second album are the most revealing. In a radical shift away from the elaborate production of the first album, we hear Clark in a stripped-down, almost garage-band setting, with one foot in country music (an original, “That’s Alright By Me”, and a straightforward treatment of Dylan’s “I Pity The Poor Immigrant”) and the other in B-movie psychedelia (“Los Angeles”).
Among the other rarities, the real gem is the Dillard & Clark white elephant “Why Not Your Baby?” With its banjo-driven, string-laced arrangement, there was no way in blue blazes that this pure-pop-cum-bluegrass single would find its way into any 1968 radio format. It’s the kind of syrupy romanticism that Clark was neither immune to nor afraid of, but you’ll probably find yourself playing it repeatedly, even if you don’t admit it to your best friends.
Two CDs is an awkward length for a retrospective — too long for a casual “Best Of” package, too short for a comprehensive box-set treatment. One wishes A&M had popped for three, and dipped into other labels’ vaults for outtakes. (Depending on what you count, Clark recorded for about seven labels.) Several phases of Clark’s career are ignored. His contributions to Asylum’s 1972 Byrds reunion effort were among the best tracks on that album. Likewise, his stint with McGuinn, Clark & Hillman could have produced some worthy selections, including “Backstage Passes”, a surprisingly likable flirtation with disco.
The final decade of his life is also underrepresented. Granted, Clark’s later released output was meager, but his pairing with Carla Olson for two albums (the second a live, posthumously released set) deserved better shrift than the two songs included here. The absence of any live tracks is regrettable, as is the omission of any song demos. One of the truly riveting moments of the Echoes reissue was Clark’s guitar-vocal treatment of “So You Say You Lost Your Baby”, false start and all. Surely more material of this type exists.
Although far from the definitive set fans might have hoped for, it is good to have this much and this wide a range of Gene Clark material in one place. As always, Sid Griffin’s notes put his subject’s work into a perspective that befits his contributions. A bonus is fellow Byrd (and player on many Clark sessions) Chris Hillman’s brief, but heartfelt, note on Clark the artist and colleague.