Friday, November 29, 2013

Gene Clark

I was probably only eight years old, but very aware, when I first heard that song blasting out of my dad's car radio. Under one of those loud-mouthed 60s DJs I could hear in rapid succession:

that guitar riff,
the 12-string doubling it,
and that voice singing The reason why...

That song was "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," written and sung by Gene Clark, and recorded by The Byrds. It changed me.

After quickly finding the 45 at the local department store for $.78, I wore it out on my little red record player, while figuring out how to bounce my finger up and down on the guitar fingerboard to play that riff.

Fast-forward to 1984: It's August and I'm at A&M Studios in Hollywood on the old Charlie Chaplin lot with The Long Ryders, recording our first album. I'm a long way from my boyhood home in Elkhart, Indiana. My wife of eight months is very pregnant 60 miles away in Ventura, where her brother is taking his last breaths due to liver failure, having drank himself into an early grave at age 33.

The studio door opens and in walks the man, Gene Clark. Hungover, smiling, gracious, tall, sculpted like a cigar store Indian, carrying quiet dignity through it all.

Gene was to sing on "Ivory Tower," a song on The Long Ryders' first LP Native Sons. Even though I'd joined the band mere months ago, a day like this may not have seemed unusual, but for all of my memories of my younger self sitting by my record player listening to Byrds records.

We all gathered in the control booth with our producer Henry Lewy, listening to Gene sing. There was that beautiful voice I heard so many years ago. But now it was tired and damaged by too much that still rode with him, whether he wanted it to or not. Somebody compared his earliest attempts at getting a take to the vocalisms of Wild Man Fischer. Gene's vocal, doubling a previously-recorded one by Stephen McCarthy, had to be recorded over and over again, but finally we got something that truly added to the song. That quality I recognized years ago was still intact.

That same month, The Long Ryders were opening for Roger McGuinn, playing two acoustic sets at McCabe's in Santa Monica. Still being part star-struck kid and part archivist, I brought my trusty tape recorder, and sat out in the audience after our first set to hear and record Roger. Sitting directly in front of me in the audience were Gene with Carla Olson, a true and dear woman I'd already known for many years from my days working at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. On that tape you can hear Gene and Carla singing along from their chairs, and later in the set Gene got up on stage and sang "Chimes of Freedom" and "Bells of Rhymney" with Roger. Gene also joined us backstage before one of our sets, and the picture above shows us on that hot California August evening, all smiles, setlists in hand.

A little later, The Long Ryders were booked to open for Gene's electric band Firebyrd at the Country Club in Reseda, CA. We arrived early in order to do our soundcheck. It is customary for an opening band to wait until the headliner is done with their soundcheck before setting up their equipment for theirs. Gene hadn't arrived, so wait we did. Minutes became hours. Drummer Greg Sowders and I became dutifully impatient and decided to look for Gene. Instinct told us to check the bar across the street. Sure enough, there was Gene with Michael Clarke, his current and past drummer from The Byrds, laughing, drinking, lit up like Christmas trees. Gene greeted us warmly when he saw us. We immediately forgot about trying to hurry him to the soundcheck. Instead, we joined Gene and Michael at the bar for quite a while, until the other two Long Ryders caught up with all of us, on a similar "where are those guys" mission. In good time, we had many laughs, soundcheck was done, and the show went on.

Two and a half years passed. The Long Ryders toured Europe and the States extensively, got signed to Island Records, had a top 40 hit in the UK, saw the press love us, hate us and love us again, and my beautiful baby daughter soon had a handsome baby brother to play with. Everything seemed on its way straight up, and nearly every day continued to be an amazing time in my life. I was home in Burbank in early 1987 between tours when I got a call: "Gene and Carla are doing a show at a venue called At My Place in Santa Monica in March, would you like to play standup bass for them?" The gig was great, doing material from Gene and Carla's new LP So Rebellious a Lover, with Skip Edwards from Desert Rose Band and Dwight Yoakam on piano and Michael Huey from The Classics IV on drums. Before the gig, Gene and I spent some time talking. I told him how "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" had such an impact on me, and he related the story of him hearing The Beatles' "She Loves You" on a jukebox in the basement of a gig he was playing with The New Christy Minstrels, and how it changed him forever.

Not so good for me was the rest of 1987. The Long Ryders were suffering from, among other things, a lack of support by our management and out-and-out sabotage by our record label, resulting in our brotherhood showing intense strain in some very uncomfortable ways. The spring 1987 tour of Europe was a nightmare. Despite a major label "deal," we were broke, and I found myself having to find another source of income so that my growing family could eat and have a roof over their heads. In June of 1987, when the other Long Ryders insisted upon doing a U.S. tour that was expected to lose five figures, I announced that I was leaving the band. I recorded and proudly shopped my new material to the sound of crickets. 1988 came, and early that year, I got a call to do another gig with Gene and Carla at Club Lingerie in Hollywood.

We rehearsed before the gig at Gene's house in Sherman Oaks. His old red Firebird was parked out front, and remnants of recent faux Byrds reunion roadwork were scattered about the house: hotel soaps in the bathroom, rock magazines in various languages. For a guy with more than one hit still in heavy rotation on oldies radio, I was struck by how modestly he lived. Gene had once told me, point blank, that he had put at least one million dollars of coke up his nose. He also made it clear that at the present time in his life, he was looking for a way out of all of that.

The rest of the band gathered in his living room, talking about recent gigs. Gene sat back on his couch, strumming his guitar. Someone asked him about a new song, and he started playing one. There was that big, spooky voice on top of his acoustic guitar. Those demons, some of which we'll never know, came out of Gene like a musical Rembrandt, fully formed and made incredibly beautiful. All this was further intensified by the fact that I was hearing it all unfold within the confines of his living room. Was he improvising? It all struck me as tragic that Gene, still prolific in potential, was able to release so few of his songs in his later years, and that the recordings that did surface tended to sound more like squeaky-clean studio projects rather than the enormously arresting sounds that were now filling the room.

Sometime during the course of those rehearsals, I told Gene I'd left The Long Ryders. Rather than the curious or shocked reaction shots I usually got from that announcement, a great sadness immediately filled his face. At once I realized that this brought back the pain of Gene's ill-fated early exit from The Byrds. He had high hopes of realizing new success with new projects, but sadly, that success eluded him, and Hollywood has never treated perceived has-beens with kindness or sympathy. His look made me sad, too. For both of us.

The Club Lingerie gig was short and to the point, and well received. Talking after the show with Gene and his manager Saul Davis, Gene expressed disappointment that David Crosby had not come to the gig, despite him telling Gene that he would be there. It was during that conversation that I learned that Gene was about to have stomach surgery for some lingering problems that were getting worse. He was trying to get clean then. I knew it was going to be rough, having lost my brother-in-law during those first sessions to similar circumstances. Gene was only 43 at the time, but several lifetimes of hard living and pain showed more and more in his tired eyes and walk. He was tired of the politics of the business he had helped define many years ago with the early success of his music, tired of both substances and sobriety, and tired of the fight.

I never saw Gene again after that night. The summer of 1988 came, and I moved my family to my old home in Indiana to seek an easier, calmer, better life. A year later, Tom Petty's version of "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" was released. Since Petty was a still a hit machine, I was happy thinking that Gene could again enjoy some well-deserved extra revenue. I also hoped that he could stay clean enough to use that money for something other than powder and parties, as he had done in years past.

On Bob Dylan's birthday in 1991, they found him. My mother saw the notice in the newspaper, and asked me if the Gene Clark that died was the same Gene Clark that I had worked with. He was only 46, two years younger than I am now. I wasn't surprised, but the sadness is still there.

I've seen a lot written about him, but here's what I can tell you from knowing him personally:
He had a natural gift for creating a song, and a voice that was as distinct as it was deeply moving. Gene stayed honest as a man, sometimes to the point that others would actually try to censor him. In a just world, his castaway songs would've found their full depth on recordings that would live past the expiration date on his tired body.

But he did leave behind a very nice catalog of work, both with The Byrds and solo, and I have my memories of a guy that always treated my band, and me personally, as an equal and a friend. Rest easy, Gene.