Monday, 16 January 2012

Gene Clark: No Other

The Byrds, hailed in the beginning as the American Beatles, turned out to be as fractious and egotistical as their UK counterparts were tight, gang-like and grounded. Possibly for this reason, the Byrd deemed to be the heart, the driving force of their rich music, has shifted over the years: initially it was Roger McGuinn, architect of their jet-age jangle, and it stayed this way during the group's lifetime; the spotlight shifted to the smug hippydom of David Crosby in the Seventies afterburn; and then on to Gram Parsons, somehow deemed the most 'authentic' Byrd in the country rock-obsessed Eighties.

Sweet Gene Clark. How sad and typical of his ill luck that he died in 1991, just as the consensus swung his way.

He had been the most handsome Byrd and their finest and most prolific songwriter, but on stage he was sidelined as tambourine player, a proto-Davy Jones. Fear of flying meant he would leave and rejoin the group on several occasions - it also hindered the promotion of any subsequent Clark projects. For decades, ludicrously, he remained a well-kept muso/fanboy secret.

No Other, a dark, baroque album is central to Gene Clark's critical rebirth. The artwork is a giveaway, a collage of Twenties glories with Anita Loos and other sexy flapper chums at its heart. Hollywood Babylon revisited. On the back, rugged Gene appears in mascara and billowing drag. He looks quite terrifying. Drawing parallels between the decadence of the Twenties and the coke-addled extravagance of the mid-Seventies, Clark fashioned a suite of songs that was a pure, personalised Americana, a distillation of all he had seen and learnt from his childhood in Missouri and his adult years in LA. Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks had talked of their aborted Smile album being "a Gothic American trip"; likewise, Clark's fellow country rock traveller Gram Parsons once expressed a dream of creating Cosmic American Music. No Other was the real thing.

Aside from his mastery of melancholy, there had been few clues in Gene Clark's back pages that he would deliver something this wild and dark - his last fully realised album had been the beautiful but spartan White Light in 1971. The turning point was meeting the producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, a Steely Dan acolyte and one-time colleague of the wunderkind producer Curt Boettcher. Their shared love of Zen Buddhism, booze and drugs took them to the Village Recorder studios in west LA in March 1974 with $100,000 from Asylum Records burning a hole in Kaye's pocket.

He had just massively overspent on a Bobby Neuwirth album and now saw No Other as "my Brian Wilson extravaganza". As for Clark, the record was "all about soul searching". Eight songs in six months suggest that there was plenty of that.

Life's Greatest Fool is a misleading opener, being an exercise in fine country rock with only the gospel harmonies and cautionary philosophy there to cause a stir. The gothic undertow of Silver Raven, all "darkened waters" and "troubled sky", veers into Johnny Cash territory. The title track is where things take a wholly different turn, a hypnotic almost funky piece which occupies the same niggling darkness as David Bowie's Golden Years. Apparently it took a week before the musicians got their first take and you can sense the numbness, the intoxication.

Strength of Strings is the album's centrepiece. The brief Clark set himself was to convey the subconscious way in which music is created, how it can be so magical, spiritual, overwhelming. No less. He pulls it off with a slow-burning intro of near-oriental harmonies, almost treading on Crosby, Stills and Nash's toes, while Kaye adds layers of ghostly church voices until the whole thing explodes with Clark's tearful tones - "In my life the piano sings, brings me words that are not the strength of strings." Side 2's opener, From a Silver Phial, is almost light relief, though its lyric - criss-crossing between the tale of a cocaine casualty and a sensual master-servant saga from the old South (or is it Hollywood?) - is as much the opaque heart of No Other's mystique as Strength Of Strings' grandeur.

The eight-minute Some Misunderstanding came to Clark in a dream which he dictated to his wife in the middle of the night. Its vagueness is its beauty, beginning as a meditation on how to take a relationship forward then ruminating on the recent death of Gram Parsons - "We all need a fix, but at times like this, doesn't it feel good to stay alive?" It soars and floats over pedal-steel and organ interplay (the cream of LA session players, anyone you care to name) and hangs eerily in the air, unresolved. Passing through The True One, another country-rock interlude, we reach the climactic Lady of the North, "like silver on the ocean shore". Clark sounds awed, lovestruck, and never sang better, reaching from rumbling baritone to near-falsetto (think of the middle eight of Elvis's Any Day Now and you're close). Dense and hypnotic, his voice weaves in and out of the piano, cello and electric violin - when the shimmering coda arrives it is pure release.

Over the years No Other has been lauded by some but frequently criticised for over-ambition (David Geffen at Asylum concurred and put no promo effort in - it consequently sold zip). This is conservatism on a par with Mike Love's criticism of Pet Sounds. Recorded in a stultifying era of newly-minted and consequently too-cosy singer-songwriters, the result of Gene Clark's search for America's dark heart seems all the more impressive. And it sounds deeper and stronger with each passing year. What a terrible pity he isn't around to receive his standing ovation.

3 comments:

  1. Also worth a listen is Gypsy Angel:The Gene Clark Demo's 1983-1990. Ignore the sleeve (Looks like something a pub singer knocked up on his PC at home)and buy if just to hear the dark, three-in-the-morning whiskey croak of 'Dark of my Moon'. Heartbreakingly honest, intimate and raw.

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  2. So many Clarks, no enough releases...we need the demos he was hawking about in 1967 after his first solo album. Someone, please!

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