[7 July 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Gene Clark is one of the two or three most underrated pop songwriters of the 1960s generation. A founding member of the Byrds, and the author of virtually all of their original material from 1964-1966 (including “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “Eight Miles High”, “Set You Free This Time”, “She Don’t Care About Time”, and “Here Without You”), he was felled by crippling anxiety and a bottomless taste for the firewater. Although Clark released at least one undisputed masterpiece in his post-Byrds career (and there are fans who would say that that number is closer to three, or even four), his inability to focus on touring, marketing, or anything resembling playing ball with the music industry effectively scuppered his chances of finding stability (or, for that matter, a label).
But let’s talk about that masterpiece for a moment. Known as White Light, but officially self-titled, Clark’s 1971 solo shot remains as indelible today as anything from that After the Goldrush/American Beauty/Grievous Angel era. Spare, largely acoustic, riding Clark’s sleepy delivery and blissfully evocative lyrics, and comprised of many of his greatest songs, White Light is as good as it gets. If this review does anything for you, let’s hope it convinces you to go out and pick up this mostly forgotten desert island shortlister. It sold poorly in its day (and this remains to me inexplicable, beyond the simple fact of Clark’s refusal to advertise and tour in its support), and Clark lost his label for a few years. He also lost his groove for a while, descending into a haze of binge drinking and personal calamities.
After reuniting with the Byrds for a fractious (and fairly inessential) record in 1973, he managed to impress rising impresario David Geffen with his vocal contributions. Geffen signed him to Asylum, the coveted label for rootsy singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, et al), and Clark proceeded to take $100,000 and record the sprawling, vastly overproduced, commercial non-starter that was No Other. Eschewing the raw Americana that had coloured his music for a decade, Clark went for big, lush arrangements, packing each track to the rim with a baroque fear of empty space, and burying everything about the actual songs under the weight of pretension and slick engineering. Now, I appreciate that many people (Clark’s biographer John Einarson included) refer to No Other as Clark’s “masterwork”—it’s just that they’re wrong.
That’s where this live record comes in. Recorded on February 19th, 1975, at Ebbets Field in Denver (which is not a field, by the way—more like an ironically-monikered barroom), this twelve-song set does everything it can to erase the impression that Clark was headed toward studio slickness in the mid-‘70s. Backed by bass and lead guitar, Clark runs through a loose collection of numbers ranging from traditional (“In the Pines”, “Long Black Veil”) to Byrds-era classics (“Set You Free this Time”, “Here Without You”) to his post-Byrds stuff and beyond. The real treasures here (beyond the simple joy of hearing such a mercurial artist in fine form, laughing and engaging with his audience) are the clean, spare, and pitch-perfect renditions of songs from the No Other record. Hearing them like this, stripped of their orchestration, with only simple guitar lines and Appalachian harmonies to lift them up, songs like “Silver Raven” and “No Other” emerge as some of Clark’s best work. It’s a revelation.
Silverado ’75: Live and Unreleased is, then, an indispensable record for fans of Gene Clark. With insightful liner notes from Einarson (a guy I’d like to buy, like, eleven drinks some time), boasting pristine sound quality, and demonstrating the oft-inebriated Clark at his lucid, clear-headed best, this is plainly an essential document. As Duke Bardwell, one half of Clark’s touring band summarizes: “It was the perfect venue for Gene’s poetry. He would always have to drink some before he could go onstage, but as good as it got may have been at Ebbets Field.”
As good as it got for one of the very best. Clark died in 1991, of complications related to his lifelong battle with alcoholism, leaving behind a mere whisper of what he could have offered us, of what he had within him to say. Thankfully, Collector’s Choice is finding and releasing stuff like this, helping us to fill in some of those blank spots.