Gene Clark is for the Byrds!

Gene Clark w/ Carla Olsen – In Concert
Collector’s Choice

Roots rock fans should bow down and give thanks to Collector’s Choice for this recent release. Not only will fans of the genre be absolutely thrilled with some previous unreleased live work from former Byrd Gene Clark but having ex-Textone Carla Olsen along for the ride is a double treat. Not only is Olsen a great singer/songwriter in her own right, but her work with Clark in the ’80’s was Clark’s most fruitful partnership since he left the Byrds. Clark seemed to shine whenever Olsen was nearby and both artists always brought their A-games whenever they decided to work together. Thanks to these newly discovered live recordings, we can once again marvel at Clark’s gifts and the fabulous interplay he had with Olsen, and though Clark always faired better as a team player than he did on his own as his history tends to bear out, he was a marvelous artist and one of rock’s best songwriters.

If nothing else, his brief sojourns with The Byrds will bear this out.

While he was only with the band for two brief stretches, Gene Clark will always be best known for being a part of the earliest incarnation of the Byrds (1964-1966) for which he wrote and sang lead on some of the band’s best known songs (“Eight Miles High”, “Feel A Whole Better,” and “Here Without You”. But before his stint with the Byrds, he was a part of folk-pop group The New Christy Minstrels, who scored a few hits on the pop charts in the early ’60’s. Thankfully for fans of country-rock, he eventually became tired of the Minstrels constant touring and quit the band. He met Jim McGuinn (who later changed his name to Roger) and together they formed the Byrds, becoming forerunners of the influential country-rock sound which would eventually influence artists like Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles, among many others. As previously mentioned, Clark’s time in the Byrds was brief with contributing factors such as a fear of flying and growing resentment from the others for his dominant songwriting skills leading to his exit. Clark was immediately signed by Columbia as a solo act but his debut solo album did very little business, due to his teaming with the Gosdin Brothers for an interesting record. Seems the world wasn’t ready for a total rock/country hybrid at that point in time, though the album was brilliant in execution.

Clark’s next project was met with the same indifference as his album with The Gosdins. After the album with Gosdin failed to sell, Columbia had dropped him and he signed with A&M Records. This time, Clark teamed up with Doug Dillard in another attempt to blend country and rock but after two albums, indifference from the public caused the collaboration to disintegrate. It wasn’t until 1971 that Clark’s first solo project was issued. Entitled White Light, it didn’t sell well in America but sold decently overseas, which gave Clark the opportunity to record his next album for the overseas market only. At this point, he left A&M to join back up with the Byrds in time for a reunion album, which unfortunately didn’t stick. New but mostly unappreciated solo albums released on Asylum Records followed in 1974 and 1977. Thanks to an overseas tour on which he found himself playing on a bill with former Byrds Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn, Clark found himself once again in a band with his ex-Byrd-mates. Despite initial anticipation for the project, the album was produced in a way that made them sound unlike anything releated to The Byrds. This, although purposely done to differentiate the new group from its’ members’ pasts, effectively killed the group as fans wanted to hear something close to the Byrds. Thanks to R.E.M. and all the bands in the Paisley Underground scene paying tribute to the Byrds in interviews and in their music, Clark released another solo album in ’84. He then started his collaboration with Olson, which actually became his best success as a solo artist. Unfortunately, at around this same time, Clark became very ill, dealing with ulcers from years of heavy drinking and having a large portion of his stomach and intestines removed. By 1991, and in the mnidst of a second project with Olson, Clark would die from bleeding ulcers.

For someone so talented, that he ended up towards the end of his life more of a footnote than a star is very disheartening. The heart and soul of the early Byrds, Clark had all the talent in the world but let bad business decisions keep him from reaching his full potential, though his beautiful songs have given him a lasting legacy.

As for Olson, her first foray into the public eye was her band The Textones, which she formed with future Go-Go’s member Kathy Valentine in the late ’70’s. The band was more of a regional success than a national one, but their live rep got them a deal with A&M, which released their first album. Despite being a relative unknown, Olson hung around the right people and was able to corral such names as Ry Cooder, Don Henley, and Gene Clark. Though the band did not record again until ’87, Olson kept busy with tons of live shows, turning her band into a well-oiled machine which could survive without regular album releases by being simply incredible live. Her next album was her first duet album with Clark, So Rebellious A Lover, which garnered near unanimous praise and resurrected Clark’s career while advancing Olson’s. Subsequent albums featured Olson both solo and with other duet partners, most notably former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, but her career has slown down somewhat and she has released only a few new albums the past fifteen years.

This album captures Clark and Olson’s live concerts following the biggest success of their careers, the duet album So Rebellious a Lover. Clark’s health problems (thanks to years of abusing alcohol) and longtime fear of flying prevented a full-scale tour in support of the album, but Clark played scattered live dates after its release, and this album gathers recordings from shows Clark gave in late 1988 and early 1990. The first disc showcases seven songs Clark performed on the NPR radio series Mountain Stage. Clark delivers strong and passionate solo acoustic interpretations of five numbers (including a wonderful “Tried So Hard”) and later sits in with the band for two songs, with the musicians lending subtle support. The disc closes out with three rehearsal recordings with Olson taped at Clark’s home. While the sound quality of the recordings are only passable, the pair’s harmonies are strong and the music heartfelt. Disc two is devoted to a concert Clark and Olson played at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica. The show is intimate, with Clark and Olson joined only by the spare accompaniment of guitarist Duane Jarvis and bassist David Provost. Clark is in splendid voice for this show, and he delivers a set that spans the length of his career, from the Byrds to all points beyond. Deferring to Clark for most of the set, Olson is there when the music needs her, and her presence is an immeasurable asset to this performance.

Fans of roots rock are going to love this CD. Full of fire and energy, what has always looked on paper to be an odd pairing has always come up aces whenever they’ve gotten together to record or play live. But again, Clark seems to always come alive when part of a team or group. Olson for her part has always been part of a band, and keeps a band mentality even when her name is up front. Plus, her affection for Clark is obvious. Not in a “she’s in love with him” way but it’s clear she has always loved his early work and is slightly in awe when they play together, though not so much that it mars the proceedings. Remember, when she started performing with Clark in the mid-’80’s he had pretty much been forgotten at that point in his career. She didn’t need him at that point as much as he needed her but you can feel the affection they had for one another. This is a wonderful record. Please check it out.

33 1/3: The Notorious Byrd Brothers by Ric Menck (Continuum Books)

Medium Image

I’ve been particularly looking forward to reading this long-promised contribution to the series of little books about great albums. I adore the record—in fact, it was on my own shortlist of potential subjects, usurped when series editor David Barker encouraged me to poke a nose out of the comfortable sixties psych basement and write about Neutral Milk Hotel instead. If you’ve read more than a couple of 33 1/3 books, you know that they’re all very different, with each writer taking their own path to revealing the mysteries of their chosen favorite LP. As a working musician who once had his creative heart broken when a band on the way up suddenly crashed and burned, Velvet Crush drummer Menck has a rare capacity to recognize the emotional state likely effecting the individual Byrds in the years leading up to Notorious, arguably their best album, and also the most volatile. Coop-flown Byrd Gene Clark was hanging around the studio again, David Crosby left the band before it was completed, and increasingly inadequate drummer Michael Clarke was subject to terrible verbal abuse during the sessions (a brutal excerpt is on the CD reissue). The first half of the book is a mini-Byrds bio, so by the time the members are reaching around producer Gary Usher to rip each others’ bangs off, the reader has an intimate understanding of the tensions in the room, and can marvel all the more at the sonic beauties unfurled in so toxic an environment. The second half of the book is a track-by-track accounting of the album (and related outtakes), with all the geeky session notes a geeky fan could want. But with the biographical material and Menck’s interesting perspective, this one would be enjoyable for Byrds fans or neophytes alike. And drummers will especially appreciate Menck’s observations on this oft neglected part of the rock and roll sound.