Saturday, September 1, 2012

Some Misunderstanding, Gene Clark (1974)

But I know if you sell your soul to brighten your role
You might be disappointed in the lights

This morning on NPR there was an interview with Adam Brent Houghtaling, the author of "This Will End in Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music." Believing that it's completely acceptable to feel sadness and to inhabit it, accompanied by the healing assistance of music, Houghtaling has assembled an intriguing compendium of melancholy songs and the artists who brought them to us.

I looked at the book's table of contents on Amazon, and found it odd that twice in one week I was staring at the name Gene Clark, with a list of miserable songs that includes the startling Some Misunderstanding. The first time happened when a fellow music aficionado, Henry Scott-Irvine, posted a video on Facebook featuring Clark and the Textones' Carla Olson singing 1987's Gypsy Rider.

One of 13 children raised in Missouri and a former New Christy Minstrel - it's hard to imagine the time in our history when this sort of music resonated (Clark is at the far left in this) - Gene Clark left that "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" prepster scene when his world, like everyone else's, was upended by the arrival of the Beatles. The commercial folk scene's days were seriously numbered when the mop-topped Lads from Liverpool emerged on this side of the pond. 

Upon arrival in L.A., the harmonic convergence of Clark's talents with that of two other folk refugees, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and David Crosby, led to the formation of the Byrds, with Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke soon following. Their first producer/manager Jim Dickson insisted that, rather than being mere Beatles mimics, they needed to set themselves slightly apart by injecting a more singer-songwriter ethos into the mix. This is what led to the plan in 1965 to electrify Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, using session musicians from The Wrecking Crew, an idea none of them took much pleasure in at first. Only McGuinn played his 12-string Rickenbacker.

I pretty much lost track of Clark when he departed the Byrds after an eventful but stormy two years - the lush harmonies they served up vocally and instrumentally bore no resemblance to how they got along under the pressures of the music business. At heart a singer-songwriter, he had absolutely no appetite for the band's infighting or for being an American rock and roll star on a par with the Beatles, which led to other problems, and he never found the niche that he could comfortably occupy while making the music that he loved.

Over the following 20 or so years Gene Clark turned out music as a solo artist and in collaboration with others that I am only just now discovering, some of it quite miserable but also beautiful. I found an ebook about him, Remembering Gene Clark, that is jam-packed with details of his story and the reminiscences of others, that is very interesting reading.

Unfortunately, his health and mental health became a shambles from multiple issues and worsened by drug and alcohol abuse that he could never overcome. He died in 1991 at the age of 46. As Chris Hillman said in John Einarson's "Mr. Tambourine Man: the Life and Legacy of the Byrds' Gene Clark," the business "... was not supposed to be for him. It killed him, it really killed him ... a sweet soul was just stomped on. It's a brutal place for many people, Hollywood. It really sees them coming."

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