[30 May 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In 1970, Gene Clark left Los Angeles. This was four years after he left the Byrds, two years after beginning the Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark with Doug Dillard, and one year before he would record and release his solo record, White Light. Clark left LA disillusioned, but not in the post-Altamont way you’d expect in 1970. Clark claimed to be tired of the “star-making machine” but he was probably just tired of the way it had misshapenly made his star. His years with the Byrds were fruitful ones, and they garnered him attention, though that attention was problematic in several ways. For one, it made for some serious clashing with his bandmates, but it was an attention always in the shadow of Bob Dylan: the band’s first hit was “Mr. Tambourine Man”. The band, especially in the early days, recorded plenty of Dylan songs, and the link was one they couldn’t shake, or maybe didn’t want to. Clark’s own songs, through careful study or osmosis or both, resembled Dylan’s. They were never quite as verbose or strange, but they did seem geared toward some weird America simmering under the surface. Under, perhaps, those LA streets he grew so embittered by.
So if the purity of his artistic integrity was part of what drove him out of LA to the open spaces of California near Mendocino, there was probably also a bit of ego there. His disillusionment wasn’t the collective kind we talk about when we talk about 1970; it was personal and true, but also complicated. However, it did lead us to another complicated moment, Gene Clark’s first true solo record (excluding here his 1967 record with the Gosdin Brothers). White Light is an album now oft-lauded but then commercially ignored. It was the culmination of Clark’s musical moves since the Byrds. His work with Doug Dillard helped distinguish himself from Dylan’s influence, and those songs sounded more like they existed on a new ground, a ground Clark knew well.
White Light, though, was Clark fully at home, literally and figuratively. In writing these songs in the new wide-open spaces he lived in, with new wife Carlie McCumming, Clark was finally fully and wholly himself. The album is a personal, stripped-down one, one that has intricate layers but never feels overstuffed. Twanging guitars and harmonica, and the dust of acoustic strumming, and Clark’s pristine voice swirl around each other, but they also all get wide birth, taking time to spread out, much in the way the land around Clark might have. Sure, there’s still a hint of Dylan there—in the strange details of “The Virgins” and, of course, his version of “Tears of Rage”—but these moments felt more like Clark twisting Dylan’s inscrutable genius into something more personal, more approachable, more, well, him.
Now Omnivore Recordings have given us the demos to the album on the new collection Here Tonight: The White Light Demos. It’s a set that does exactly what you expect a demo collection to do, and yet gives you an impact you might not expect. These are just Clark and his guitar and harmonica, and you get to hear the energy of early takes of “White Light” and “The Virgin” and even a brief, fledgling take on “With Tomorrow”. Clark’s voice is as beautiful here as it is on the record, and there’s not a scuff or scratch to be heard on these recordings. They could be, in fact, their own proper album. The demos also don’t deviate all that much from the studio version of White Light, at least they don’t seem to at first. It’s tough to get much leaner than the album versions of these songs, so these demos don’t seem all that spare in comparison.
However, if both collections are intimate, they get at different intimacies. The studio version is an approximation of intimacy, an image of the feeling that began the songs. It’s a brilliant image, not one to be undersold, but Here Tonight does something different. Unlike so many home recordings, which sound like claustrophobic communiqué between the player and their recorder of choice, these songs actually convey the relationship between Clark and the new space around him. You can hear it around the echoing harmonica on “White Light” or in the stretched keening of his voice on “Opening Day” (originally a bonus track on the 2002 reissue of White Light). These are a document of an artist in his element, and the results are as beautiful as we expect them to be, but striking in their poignancy, in how they make the familiar ring new, and perhaps more true, than the version we know already.
The previously unissued tracks here add to our understanding of Clark at the time, though they succeed to varying degrees. “For No One” is the best of the bunch: a quiet, bittersweet tune that smooths out Clark’s usually sharp harmonica playing and lets Clark play with a gentle and affecting falsetto. It’s a song that takes full advantage of the space Clark is working with, but other unreleased tracks “Please Mr. Freud” and the brief “Jimmy Christ” feel a bit out of his wheelhouse, a few last attempts to shake off ill-fitting, Dylan-esque eccentricities. “Here Tonight”, once recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers, is a much better reveal for Gene Clark as an artist, luxuriating in his songs, stretching his legs as he admits “I don’t want to be anywhere but right here tonight.”
Gene Clark found himself with this record, though not enough people found him. The record didn’t sell well, and his joy and comfort wouldn’t last. He would later return to LA, and tour, and his marriage would crumble; he got tied up in alcohol and drugs and died in 1991. But White Light was and is a crystallizing moment for him, for the songwriter’s songwriter. It’s an album that earned its acclaim over time. Here Tonight: The White Light Demos doesn’t help us re-see that album, but rather it reimagines the player himself, a man who—for a short time in his tumultuous artistic life—finally struck that balance between comfort and creativity. This is the bittersweet sound of someone who found, however briefly, home.