The Byrd Who Flew Alone
“Ultimately, Gene Clark’s story is a tragedy overshadowed by the triumph of his writing.”
Reviewed by Brian Wise.
The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs & Tragedies of Gene Clark (Four Sun Productions)
In her introduction to the latest Poe Ballantine book, Cheryl Strayed writes about the ‘secret society of people who ‘love’ his writing. Tom Robbins notes in the dust jacket blurb that Ballantine is ‘the most ‘soulful, insightful, funny and altogether luminous ‘under-known’ writer in America.’ These comments seemed particularly pertinent when I was considering the legacy of Gene Clark after watching Jack and Paul Kendall’s The Byrd Who Flew Alone.
Of course, we all have favourite artists who remain much less successful than we think they should be with albums that fail to reach the wider audience we think they deserve. (Insert your own list here). Often, we are so sure of our opinion that we ascribe lack of success to the bad taste of either an ignorant general public or ill-informed radio programmers. The truth is that things are often more complicated. Clark’s life proves this.
Listening back to Gene Clark’s brilliant 1974 album No Other it is difficult to understand why it was neither a greater critical nor commercial success at the time. [The album’s title is inscribed on his gravestone]. Released on David Geffen’s Asylum label, produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye on a lavish (over)budget, with an incredible team of musicians, the album failed to even crack the Top 100. In retrospect that just seems ridiculous.
Despite having at least a few songs that could have been radio hits, as well as others that have gone onto to assure the album’s classic status, No Other has remained a generally under-rated gem. Long Ryder and Byrds’ aficionado Sid Griffin, who appears in the film, describes the album as a classic and nearly 40 years after its release it still sounds amazing. However, it didn’t help Clark stay with Asylum (which generally nurtured artists much longer).
The Byrd Who Flew Alone goes some way to explaining why No Other and its creator have never got the recognition they deserve. Unfortunately, sometimes the explanation has more to do with Clark and a lot less to do with the machinations of the music industry than you might have thought.
Clark was in The Byrds during the band’s most commercially successful era and he also wrote some of their biggest hits such as ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’ and ‘Eight Miles High.’ Yet he left the band after an anxiety attack as they were about to go on tour, literally walking off the tour airplane as it was about to leave. As Chris Hillman explains it, no one even knew Clark was afraid of flying until that fateful day when he departed.
“Take a group of young men,” says fellow-Byrd, David Crosby, “give them some money, introduce them to drugs… I don’t think there was anything wrong with the fact that we all of a sudden got laid a lot. But the money and the drugs. . . that’ll do it every time.”
Crosby is one of Clark’s many colleagues to contribute to the analysis of his psyche and, while he, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman praise their colleague, their continued survival and success is a counterpoint to Clark’s disintegration. While Clark was perhaps the most talented of them all, especially when it came to song writing, this tale cautions that talent is not enough alone to ensure either success or longevity.
Clark had already enjoyed success – and turned his back on it – when he joined The Byrds. He was a teenager when he joined The New Christy Minstrels, who would have been right at home in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. (In fact the group formed in 1961, at the height of the ‘folk scare’ and the year in which the film is set).
Frustrated at not being able to get his songs recorded by the group, Clark left and headed for Los Angeles where he met Roger McGuinn at The Troubadour and joined The Byrds. He was a star all over again. The song writing royalties helped him to upgrade his image with sports cars while the others could only look on with some envy.
But eventually Clark also tired of The Byrds and his fear of flying afforded him the excuse to leave. As McGuinn says, ‘From innocent country boy to road weary and just tired of it all.’ He also baulked at the personal price of fame.
However, Clark embarked on some exciting projects. His first solo album was with the Gosdin Brothers and then he recorded the The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark with Doug Dillard. Some will claim here that it was Clark, not Gram Parsons, who pioneered what was to become known as ‘country rock’ – and you could put a fair argument forward based on several of Clark’s albums including this one. (Its follow up was altogether different and less successful). It is ironic that Sweetheart of The Rodeo is now so acclaimed because it came after Clark had already blazed the trail.
Brief reunions with other Byrds members continued to prove the strength of Clark’s song writing but not of his character. He struggled with drugs and alcohol but, seemingly, no more than many others at the time. Clark enjoyed more royalties when Tom Petty covered ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’ but also spent them just as quick. (Later, he teamed up with Carla Olson, who appears in the film, for some very worthwhile recordings that are still worth checking out).
Ultimately, Gene Clark’s story is a tragedy but I think that is overshadowed by the triumph of his writing. No Other remains a masterpiece and many of Clark’s other songs (even apart from those he wrote for The Byrds) live on. (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s hugely successful 2007 album Raising Sand contained two Clark compositions).