Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Wanna meet me for Ko-fi?

Hello, fellow Clarkophiles

As you may have noticed, I've introduced something new to the blog: a Ko-fi account.

Ko-fi is a service that will accept small donations (roughly the amount of a coffee—hence the name) on behalf of content-creators like me. It's not a paywall, a scam, or anything other than an inexpensive way to let me know in tangible terms that you care about this blog.

Now, I have mixed emotions about this, since it was never my intention to personally profit off of Gene's work. Over the years, however, as my posts have become more research-heavy and time-consuming, it has become harder to justify the time spent researching and writing posts for The Clarkophile when that time and effort might conceivably be spent taking on paid freelancing opportunities (over and above those in which I'm currently involved).

But I love this blog dearly; in many ways it's a living testament to, and open manifestation of, my love of Gene Clark. I want to keep it going for as long as possible.

As unlikely as it sounds, I've never met another Gene Clark fan in the flesh, face-to-face, and yet I'm delighted to report that, as of today, this blog has had nearly 350,000 page views. I am humbled by that, and I want to thank everyone who has ever clicked on a post.

And so, if you have ever read one of my posts and enjoyed it, maybe learned something new, or came to think of Gene's work in a new way, I would invite you to use the button below to take me out for a virtual cup of coffee.

Thank you.

Tom (The Clarkophile)

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Firebyrd Project Part 4: Conclusion

I'm going to conclude the Firebyrd Project today with a reveal of the material that could potentially be used in the creation of a near-definitive document of the era. What new information I have uncovered related to previously undocumented tracks is included below, and in previous instalments of this series. 

Once again, sincere thanks to Whin Oppice for bringing these two game-changing discoveries to my attention.

I have no doubt that, at some future date, a company will step forward with the necessary resources to take my ideas, build upon my work, and make them a reality. 

Mark my words.  

And now, imagine the following...

Thanks to Indigo Mariana/Neon Brambles for creating the cover mock-up.
Photo by Henry Diltz.

Raven in the Dark: Live, Studio & Demo Recordings from the Firebyrd Era, 1980-1984

CD 1

  1. Mr. Tambourine Man 
  2. Something About You Baby 
  3. Rodeo Rider 
  4. Rain Song 
  5. Vanessa 
  6. If You Could Read My Mind 
  7. I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better 
  8. Made for Love
  9. Blue Raven 
  10. She Loves You
  11. Into the Night
  12. Kansas City Southern
  13. Dixie Flyer
  14. Something About You Baby
  15. Seventh Avenue Train
  16. Silver Raven
  17. Blue Raven
Tracks 1-9 Original Firebyrd release, 1984
Tracks 10-17 Gene Clark & The Firebyrds, Live 1983-1984

CD 2

  1. Over the Mountain 
  2. Strange and Different Way
  3. (Livin' in) Hard Times           
  4. Painted Fire 
  5. I Saw a Dream Come True
  6. Shades of Blue
  7. Crazy Ladies
  8. Midnight Mare
  9. I’ll Change Your Life
  10. If I Don’t Have You
  11. Love is Gonna Come at Last
  12. Young Love 
  13. I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better
  14. You're Gonna Miss That Somebody (aka Rest of Your Life)
  15. Straight From the Heart
  16. Easy Ride 
  17. Love Wins Again
  18. You and I
  19. Raven in the Dark

CD 2 Track-by-track notes

Over the Mountain (chorus only)
Exists as a 52-second snippet of a work in progress. But even as a brief fragment it is a stirring work, possibly envisioned as a No Other-esque epic.  From Gene's dramatic, quasi-operatic singing style and obvious spiritual/religious/metaphorical significance of mountaintops, to the crushing finality of Gene's last strummed chord, I have the distinct sense that this song was intended to be a major work.
The lyrics are difficult to discern, possibly due to Gene's problems with his teeth, but it is, for the most part, a commanding performance. There is a moment at the 0:10 mark at which Gene's voice breaks, yet somehow I can't help but be moved by it. Even when Gene's voice falters, as it does here, it still carries a considerable punch.

I envision 'Over the Mountain'  as a spiritual invocation of sorts, something akin to Brian Wilson's intentions for 'Our Prayer,' the leadoff track from SMiLE.

Strange and Different Way
Songs are open for interpretation, of course, but it's my belief that while 'Strange and Different Way' appears, at first blush, to be another one of Gene's songs of rejection, it's actually dealing with the same kind of metaphysical concerns as those later expressed in 'Pledge To You': intimations that a loving relationship that ends at a partner's death—i.e. final separation in this mortal life—amounts to mere prelude for blissful reconnection in the next:

I want my baby
She told me goodbye
And then she said maybe
We'll meet again on some bright sunshiny day
We'll be together
And we'll see each other
In a strange and different way.

I had a girl
I called her my lady
She meant more than all the world
She called me her baby
We'll meet again on some bright sunshiny day
We'll see each other
And we'll see each other
In a strange and different way.

This is one of the problematic inclusions in the set, as there is no way to determine its provenance.  Another in a seemingly endless series of fascinating mysteries in Gene's career.

(Livin' in) Hard Times
Painted Fire
I Saw a Dream Come True
(See discussion in previous instalments of this series)

The Glass House Tape

December 1980
Recorded with Rick Clark, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Jon Faurot and Garth Beckington
Shades of Blue
Crazy Ladies
Midnight Mare
I'll Change Your Life
If I Don't Have You

One of the most appealing things about this five-song set is its simplicity: acoustic guitars, rich harmonies, with Gene taking the lead on all (and in fine voice, to boot). Like the Sings for You demos, the Glass House tape has acquired a mythical status among fans. It's high time that fans were given an opportunity to dispel the myth and assess the reality. The good news is that it is a much better-sounding recording than SFY, and the writing is, for the most part, top-shelf Clark. One's enjoyment of the material, however, is largely dependent upon one's tolerance for the presence Tommy Kaye, both as writer (e.g. 'Shades of Blue') and vocal arranger.
I don't mind 'Shades of Blue', but by the same token, I don't think it deserved to be recorded on two occasions, the second of which came in the recording made with John Arrias. Of the two, the acoustic Glass House take is the superior cut, if only because it is not lumbered with the Motels/Quarterflash-like production cliches that were by well past their best-before date when Gene recorded it in the 1989-1990 period.  Either Gene liked the song or Kaye somehow convinced him of its merit. Possibly both.

I had always hoped the GH version of 'Crazy Ladies' would prove definitive—and it might very well have been, had it not been for Kaye's heavy-handed vocal embellishments. To this day, the best versions remain the ones recorded by McGuinn, Clark (and Hillman) in the 1977-1978 time frame. 

'I'll Change Your Life' positively soars with Merseybeat ebullience; at some point, it could have (i.e. should have) been translated into a power-pop arrangement. 
'Midnight Mare', co-written with brother Rick Clark, is a bit of an oddity, but enjoyable nonetheless.  The spontaneous outburst of assorted whinnies, hoots and hollers—perhaps jarring upon first listen—are refreshingly spirited, even exhilarating. If the following mathematical equation acoustic guitars + lush harmonies + 1980 leads you to a disappointing answer of Air Supply or the Little River Band, rest assured this stuff is far nowhere near that cynical in execution or intent. 
'If I Don't Have You' is another classic Clark torch song, and would today be recognized as such, had had he had the inclination to record it for Firebyrd. I understand the artistic impulse is to move inexorably forward, never look back, but sometimes I wish someone had grabbed Gene by the lapels and said, "Gene, you must release this song."

Some may be wondering why I haven't included the legendary track 'Communications'. The short answer is that the most recent research undertaken by Rogan in his exhaustive attempt to uncover the truth (see footnotes for the track in Requiem for the Timeless Vol 2) suggests it dates from much later in the decade, towards the end of Gene's life, and was accidentally lumped in with the other five songs from 1980 due to, ironically enough, tape-trading miscommunications.
In truth, it sounds nothing like the other five tracks, and Gene's voice sounds weathered and on-the-edge, emotionally speaking, so I would tend to exclude it from this set.  Should definitive, incontrovertible evidence emerge that it was among the songs recorded for the GHT then of course I would insist on its inclusion.

Love is Gonna Come At Last
Young Love
I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better

In the 1984 period, for unknown reasons, Gene recorded a slew of bizarrely chosen cover songs: 'Living Next Door to Alice', a sappy story-song that became a hit for Smokie in 1976); 'Needles and Pins', written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono, made famous by Jackie DeShannon and the Searchers, but in this case, as astutely noted by Rogan, inexplicably faithful to Smokie's arrangement in the '70s; two well-chosen songs by Badfinger, 'Love is Gonna Come at Last' & 'Baby Blue'; 'Young Love', written by Ric Cartey and Carole Joyner, was a hit for Tab Hunter in the late '50s; 'The Closer You Get' was a hit for Alabama in 1983; and yet another remake of 'I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better'. (Should you wish to hear them, all of Gene's versions can be heard here).

'Baby Blue' is my all-time favourite Badfinger song. And while on paper it makes total sense—pairing the man who wrote some of the sweetest proto-power pop of the 1960s with one of the finest examples of the genre as it matured in the 1970s—Gene misses the mark completely, hence its absence from the set. In truth, it doesn't sound like he knows the song very well to begin with, and the production and backing is coldly antiseptic, devoid of anything even approaching soulful commitment.  On the other hand, 'Love is Gonna Come at Last' fares much better: Gene's voice rises above the robotic backing in a way that undercuts the titular expression of hope with world-weary resignation and an underlying sense of futility.  Check out Gene's guttural reading of the otherwise throwaway bridge in the song, in which he infuses genuine passion (largely missing from the other covers) into the following lines: "I live for tomorrow, what it may bring/I live through the sorrow, live in a dream."
The guitar playing, while hopelessly tied to the usual assortment of '80s pedals and effects, offers another high point to the track.

As Rogan says, 'Young Love' succeeds "in spite of itself." As performed by a man of 40, we understand it is a song sung in reflection of a time long past.  Gene's sincerity prohibits any sleazier interpretation. Unfortunately, the smoky burr that sometimes affected Gene's voice from around this point forward is on full display here, and is somewhat distracting once heard.

If you're keeping score, this is Gene's third re-recording of  'I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better' in as many years. To date, two of the three have been released: the 1982 NyteFlyte version came out on The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982; and of course, there's the ramshackle bar-band-like version on Firebyrd. I have included it in this set because it is, after all, Gene's signature song, and ultimately, it's interesting to compare the three versions. Sadly, while the countrified approach is certainly appreciated, Gene's rough-edged vocal simply doesn't work.  The musicians sound like inveterate rockers doing their best impersonation of country players...with predictable results.

You're Gonna Miss That Somebody (aka Rest of Your Life)

Rogan knocks this song as an unashamed Elvis pastiche, but I think Gene does a masterful job on it. We've heard the tinny version on the dodgy Silvery Moon album, but there exists at least two versions of Gene performing the song accompanying himself on acoustic guitar that are worthy of release.

Straight From the Heart
Easy Ride 
Love Wins Again
You and I
(The BUG demos)

For many years we've been under the impression that there were three songs issued on the BUG demos tape, but recently Whin Oppice disclosed that there was a fourth: a cover of Herb Pedersen's 'Easy Ride', which Gene had previously performed with Flyte at the Palomino engagement in 1982. 
I haven't heard Gene's version in its entirety, but suffice it so say it sounds like a winner: fresh, breezy and instantly likeable. Here is Pedersen's version, dating from the same year Gene recorded it.

Many fans are familiar with the other BUG demos, 'Straight from the Heart', 'You and I' and 'Love Wins Again'. I don't think anyone would be averse to their seeing official release. They are all solid, well-sung Gene Clark originals, and would nicely sit alongside his best song from the decade. In truth, a collection of Gene's 20 best songs from the 1980s—a time during which he was largely forgotten—would demand that critics and fans take another look at his body of work.  

Raven in the Dark 
(discussed in previous instalment)

Thank you to everyone who took the time to assist me in this project.
That's it for me for a while. Taking a break to work on my Bill Rinehart story for Ugly Things magazine. I'll be back sometime in the summer to delve into another aspect of Gene's career. 

Monday, 18 March 2019

The Firebyrd Project Part 3: Project update/Tolls and tales on Gene's road to The Firebyrds

Cassette tape from the Estate of Pat Robinson, 
from which the previously unknown, 
undocumented song 'Raven in the Dark' was discovered.
(From The Collection Of Whin Oppice)

Previously undocumented Firebyrd-era song surfaces

'Raven in the Dark' features Gene Clark's vocal and acoustic guitar

In a surprising and timely development, a previously undocumented Gene Clark composition from the Firebyrd era has been brought to my attention by Clark collector Whin Oppice.

'Raven in the Dark', featuring Gene on acoustic guitar and vocal, clocks in at 4:53, and is said to feature elements of two other Clark songs: the still-unreleased 'Crazy Ladies' (written circa 1977) and 'My Marie', co-written with singer-songwriter Pat Robinson circa 1986.

The song, which appears in the form of a home demo, is included on a tape consisting of 14 songs, presumably copied for Clark collaborator Pat Robinson circa 1984 (see image, above right). The Fuji DR-II tape, entitled "Gene Clark (Songs, Demos & Unreleased)" was among the items acquired by Mr. Oppice in a sale organized by the Mr. Robinson's Estate, after his death on August 16, 2016.

All of the songs on the tape are closely associated with Firebyrd era, including the Byrds' Preflyte version of 'You Showed Me,' which Gene revived with the Firebyrds in 1983 and 1984.

This marks the third occasion on which Gene name-checked the ominous black bird in one of his songs (the others of course, being 'Silver Raven' from 1974, and its Firebyrd-era sequel, 'Blue Raven', from 1984).

Because the title, 'Raven in the Dark' (with its image of a dark bird/Byrd flying unseen) constitutes such a perfect metaphor for Gene's experiences in the early '80s, I've decided that it will be incorporated into the ultimate title of the Firebyrd Project.

The remainder of the material on the tape is familiar/documented material, either from official or unofficial sources:
  • Tracks 1-3: NyteFlyte demos (since released on The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982)
  • Tracks 4-6: BUG demos (unreleased, 1984)
  • Track 7: Preflyte 
  • Track 8: This Byrd Has Flown
  • Track 9: Firebyrd
  • Track 10: Not sure which version this is, but various ones have surfaced over the years
  • Track 12-13: Firebyrd
  • Track 14 (reverse side of J-card): 'Rodeo Rider' (Firebyrd)
Sincere thanks to Whin, both for bringing this song to my attention and for sharing the J-card image.

Ahead of the reveal of my choices for bonus material in my imaginary 2-CD package, I have decided to write a brief overview of Gene's history as a live performer from 1965 to 1984. I felt that this would help establish context for what he was up against during this period of transition.

    The Reverse Arc of Fame: Tolls and tales on Gene's road to The Firebyrds

    Firebyrds Promo pic, circa 1984: L to R: Michael Clarke
    Matt Andes, Gene, Peter Oliva, Michael Hardwick
    One sometimes sees the pursuit of fame characterized as a long trip down a dark road, or maybe a difficult ascent to an ultimate peak.  These terms serve both as evidence of the time invested in the endeavour (sometimes known as paying one's dues), and the struggles encountered along the journey to the top—or, as John Lennon once described it to his fellow Beatles—"the toppermost of the poppermost."

    In the late 1970s/early 1980s—at a time when an evening spent catching live bands was considered a viable form of entertainment—venues held sway as a proving ground for aspiring groups to establish their credibility.  Being in a bar band was a little like being being stuck in rock purgatory: no guarantee of deliverance. An implied, ever-present danger existed that a band might become forever locked between two states: i.e. what one was (unknown amateurs) and what one aspired to be (famous). As John Entwistle mused in The Who's sardonic 'Success Story':
    Saturday night, I got a gig with the band
    Playing the electric guitar
    Someday I'm gonna make it
    Gonna be a super duper star
    Get a big flashy car
    And a house for my mum
    The big break better happen soon
    'Cause I'm pushing twenty-one

    Thus, over the decades, in what seems like a biblically inspired image, the most sacred of rock archetypes emerged: the godlike Brian Epstein saviour figure. How many bands, I wonder, were motivated by that one story? How many believed that if they worked hard enough, they too would ascend the arc of fame in that same way? How many bands believed that their saviour would emerge from the haze of cigarette smoke; one who stood apart from the sweaty, dancing melee, and felt compelled to use his tremendous clout to transform their lives?

    You never know who may be listening to you

    This archetype I've described above was so deeply set in our collective consciousness that it was used by Paul McCartney in the song 'Take It Away' (see video below) from the 1982 album Tug of War.  In it, the mysterious Epstein-like figure is referred to as "some important impresario" in a manner that both romanticizes and reinforces the rising arc of fame I'm describing herein.

    If you've ever read a biography of a successful rock band, invariably there's a chapter that focuses on the group's early days, playing the clubs and bars.  It was a right of passage that could foment the seeds of a band's success, or hasten its erosion and demise. Tales of the road—the excesses, the bad food, coffee runs in winter, the triumphs, the indignities, the hilarious situations, the ribald stories of sexual conquest—are the sorts of things that build character, solidify friendships and engender a sense of camaraderie within groups (the Beatles' adventures in Hamburg being the most celebrated, romantic and hilarious...the image of a cap-wearing John Lennon reading a newspaper in his underwear
    never fails to get a laugh out of me). The degree of fondness by which the lean times are recalled, however,
    often depends on whether these hardships eventually led to widespread success.

    Not everyone gets to look back at their salad days and smile.  Not everyone makes it to the toppermost of the poppermost.  In 1982, Paul McCartney could afford that (some would say smug) look back at his past hardships.
    Video below: You may recall the star-studded video of 'Take It Away' (from the Tug of War album) featuring former Beatles producer George Martin, a very badly permed Ringo Starr (!!!) and actor John Hurt in the role of the "important impresario"

    And that infrastructure is largely dependent upon belief in the idea that fame comes in the form of a rising arc: humble beginnings--> dreams of stardom-->early trials lead to success-->struggle, nagging self-doubt, unforeseen circumstances-->influential patron voices faith-->deliverance and stardom. The concept of the rising arc of fame existed for the Beatles in their early days, and to my knowledge, continues in various forms to this day (e.g. bedroom performances of cover songs posted on YouTube going viral, etc.).

    But for others (including Gene), the rising arc within the classic rags-to-riches narrative—in which hard work, perseverance, and raw talent leads up the path to the top of the mountain—was cruelly inverted. In truth, Gene was plucked from relative obscurity to join the New Christy Minstrels; the Byrds had a hit record less than a year after forming.  Compared to what he would face in later years, Gene Clark crested the arc of fame without breaking a sweat. Yes, the band toured—but only after they were stars. There was no trial by fire on the club circuit. For Gene Clark, the traditional arc of fame did not apply.  The lean times, the times of struggle, came long after he had already achieved world-wide fame and fortune.

    Compared to what he would face in later years, Gene Clark crested the arc of fame without breaking a sweat. 

    A nameless face in somebody else's show 

    The Byrds hit the big time without ever having to pack up their gear and leave the L.A. area. They had no experiences comparable to those faced by the Beatles in Hamburg. That's not a knock at them; it is simply the way things worked out: right place, right time, right connections. In any event, knowing what we know now, it's difficult to imagine those five guys—Clark, McGuinn, Hillman, Crosby and Clarke—embarking upon, much less less surviving, a rigorous travel schedule and years of struggle, without the benefit of a number-one record behind them. As noted by authors before me (and Gene himself in the perceptive kiss-off line from 'Echoes'), the Byrds were five individuals with vastly different personalities, temperaments and backgrounds; what hardships they did experience became, in their hands, another opportunity to promote further discord and alienation. Concepts of loyalty and camaraderie were virtually unheard of within their ranks (Clark and Clarke being the most notable exception). Theirs was a marriage of convenience.  Whenever the Byrds faced adversity, it was usually exacerbated from within.  If a gleefully detonated explosion amidships wasn't perpetrated with the intention of scuppering the ship on which the Byrds had sailed to success, it was surely to test its seaworthiness (I think Rogan's description of the chaotic video shoot for 'Set You Free This Time' is the perfect example of this).

    The Byrds flew to London after reaching the toppermost of the poppermost.
    Photograph: Victor Blackman/Getty Images

    In any event, the most immediate result of Gene's departure was the immediate cessation of all Byrds-related pressure (touring-related or otherwise). From that point forward it's worth noting that, while he did perform live on occasion (with the Gene Clark Group, in either of its incarnations) during the first couple of years of his solo career, Gene's earnings from his Byrds days enabled him to sidestep the stresses inherent with life on the road (except for a few notable occasions with his partner in crime, Doug Dillard).  At that particular point, there was no immediate financial need for him to eke out a living as a live performer, so it's not surprising that he did not spend months or even years on the road like some of his contemporaries. And after Columbia unceremoniously dropped him in 1967, he had no label support anyway.

    Surprisingly, this trend continued into the early 1970s—even in the face of the heavily hyped Asylum Byrds reunion.  It's really quite astonishing to think that during the course of his much-ballyhooed machinations to reunite the original five, David Geffen failed to include a specific touring requirement in the band's contract, if only as insurance on his investment in the event the album was a failure. Surely this was de rigueur, even in 1973? Just over a decade later, in 1984, the Jacksons embarked upon a successful tour in support of the critically ravaged Victory album.  One would assume that all concerned knew going in that the potential impact of bad reviews upon sales would be lessened by dint of their full commitment to promotion and live appearances. When the Byrds album faced reviews that were, generally speaking, lukewarm at best (prior to its becoming a staple of used record shops), no tour materialized, and the "band" went their separate ways.  Presumably, Gene was well paid for this experience (and rightly so); a feat managed without having to reactivate any of the touring-related stresses that contributed to his departure in early 1966.  It also kick-started a series of events that would bring about his magnum opus, No Other. In that respect, the Asylum Byrds album was an unqualified success for Gene.

    He's been the first, he's been the last 

    Above: In 1975, a decade after he had first
    attained worldwide fame and fortune
    with the Byrds, Gene was forced to hit
    the road like other struggling musicians:
    packed tight in a broken-down Dodge van,
    without the assistance of a label, or a hit record,
    to help him along. He would face
    a similar predicament only
    a few years later, in the Firebyrd era.
    But in 1974, the commercial failure of No Other changed everything.  It is astonishing to think that at a time when he had just created what is today widely regarded as his masterpiece, Gene was essentially forced into earning a subsistence-level living by packing up his gear, getting behind the wheel, and taking himself and the Silverados out on the road. And so while contemporaries like CSNY played to vast crowds in stadiums, and Dylan and The Band stormed across North America in triumph, Gene laid aside his pride and did his time on the road. [Note: In 2014, I wrote about Gene's post-No Other road experiences in a piece that was included with the downloadable bonus tracks for High Moon's re-release of Two Sides To Every Story. It includes quotes from interviews I did with Silverados bassist Duke Bardwell, drummer Marc S. Singer, and bassist for KC Southern Band and later the Firebyrds, Peter Oliva. You can download it here: Backwoods Gothic: Survival in the Rock 'n' Roll Wilderness]

    From limos and planes to small talk, cheap beer and wine

    By virtue of his performances alone, one senses that Gene's back-to-basics tour of colleges and auditoriums with Roger in 1977 and 1978 hit the right balance between the stresses and pleasures of touring. Recorded evidence proves Gene was a consummate professional, who added as much passion to Roger's material as to his own. The audiences are respectful, attentive, appreciative, seemingly aware of the legacies and ongoing relevance of the two men. Two guitars, two stools and two voices was all it took, and the results were uniformly sublime. It seems to me that Gene was happiest when performing his songs in an atmosphere of simplicity. The formation of McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, and the subsequent release of their eponymously titled album, however, catapulted Gene back into the limelight, and the torrent of activity appeared to undermine Gene's sense of balance: out were the two simple stools, in came a drum riser, bright lights, the Albert Brothers, Miami, a hectic PR schedule, endless TV appearances, limos, planes—and the coup de grâce: a large-scale tour.
    Back to basics with McGuinn-Clark (1977-1978):
    two stools, two guitars, two voices.

    (Living in) Hard Times: Bar Band on the Run (1984)

    Focusing on possible live bonus material for the Firebyrd Project

    Sadly, to my knowledge, there is no professionally recorded audio of Gene Clark's appearances, either solo or with the Firebyrds, in the designated period (approximately 1980-1984). Anyone thinking of undertaking this project needs to be aware of that fact from the get-go.  Release-quality board tapes do exist, but they're a poor substitute for multitrack recordings, being flat, sterile representations that cannot benefit from a proper mixdown.

    I Saw a Dream Come True
    (Living in) Hard Times
    In terms of our chronology, it appears that Gene's final, full-concert appearance with McGuinn, Clark & Hillman took place on or around October 12, 1979, in Alliance, Ohio¹At this show he performed two new songs, 'I Saw a Dream Come True' (a 1984 version of which appears on the downloadable bonus tracks included with the above-mentioned Two Sides release) and '(Living in) Hard Times', which appears on the fan-created 7-disc "box set" bootleg. Based on the quality of the songs, and their appearance in the chronology at a truly pivotal moment (i.e. marking the end of the MC&H era), both of these songs should be considered for the Firebyrd Project—but not necessarily these versions. To wit, I have concerns about these specific performances: I have not heard the October 12, 1979 version of the former, so I can't safely vouch for it. I have, however, heard the performance of the latter, and while I like the song, I have reservations about the quality of the source tape (unofficial, of course) that appears to make Gene's voice wobble as if struggling for notes. This might conceivably be due to a technical issue, either at the event (e.g. poor monitors, Gene was routinely used as the soundman's guinea pig) or in the copying/ transference/degradation of the recording.  That's for engineers to work out, unless a better-quality tape should emerge.
    Recommendation: If it is determined the wobbliness is due to an erratic performance on Gene's part, I would suggest a thorough search be undertaken for a nicer home-demo recording, or something along those lines.

    Gene reemerged with Jesse Ed Davis at McCabe's Guitar Shop on April 19, 1980, to perform before what was, by the sounds of it, a small handful of people. At this show he performed a lovely version of 'I Saw a Dream Come True'.  I invite you to check out this version, posted below by longtime Gene Clark fan Howard "Skip" Way:

    Gene is in good humour here—somewhat surprising, given the recent unpleasantness of having been phased out of McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (the City album, credited to “Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, featuring Gene Clark” had been released in January 1980).  He’s also in fine voice, with Jesse Ed providing tasteful, sympathetic backing throughout. Knowing what we know now, it is unbearably bittersweet to hear these two old friends, once kings of L.A. music scene, reviving past glories while facing the beginning of a brand new decade that would prove so difficult for both.

    Painted Fire
    While most of the set is made up of surefire winners and no-brainers (i.e. a logical mix of Gene’s better known songs with songs the two recorded together during the White Light and No Other eras), it’s nice to hear the two buddies revive ‘Stand By Me’, an outtake from sessions for the former. One can imagine the memories it conjured for Gene and Jesse a decade later. Some of the songs in this audience recording are marred by coughing, talking and other incidental sounds. The only new material in the set comes in the form of the lesser of his two parting gifts to Messrs. McGuinn and Hillman, 'Painted Fire' (the other being the superior ‘Won’t Let You Down'). I like this song much more than I used to, and I believe it's all down to the uncluttered instrumentation and Gene's gutsy performance of it here.  The City version is pure jive, by comparison.

    The more intimate venue may have indicated a backslide in terms of his career prospects, but Gene sounds unfettered and present. It stands as a refreshing counterpoint to the hokey piano-tinkling studio version produced by MC&H.

    If You Could Read My Mind
    She Darked the Sun
    By the tail end of 1983, Gene found himself in what had to have been a wearying position, one that was remarkably similar to the one he faced in 1975. With 1982's NyteFlyte project shelved after an unfocused stand at the Palomino (albeit one that produced a breathtaking version of 'If You Could Read My Mind') and the completion of five Jim Dickson-produced demos (recently released on The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982) that failed to draw attention from labels, Gene was forced to reassess his prospects as a recording artist.

    The sporadic recording sessions for Firebyrd hadn't yielded a finished product (or label interest), and Gene needed to earn a living.  In the wake of punk and new wave, it was probably wise for him to adopt a straight-ahead, no-nonsense rock band approach to touring. Eschewing the kind of rollicking bluegrass he'd played in '75, and (wisely) dumping any of the slick-but-forgettable MOR material he'd played in McGuinn, Clark and Hillman days from 1979, Gene opted for a basic unit: bass, guitars and drums (limited keyboard/occasional pedal steel by Mike Hardwick, until his eventual departure).

    Listening to tapes of various shows, and taking in the various lineup changes (it's unbelievable to think so much upheaval took place in 1983-1984 period), a clear downward arc takes shape in my mind. The first shows, while occasionally sloppy and frenetic, are listenable, pleasurable; Gene seems filled with enthusiasm for his new album, while the band creates a holy bar-band racket behind him (it is interesting to hear Gene and Michael playing songs for which they share a history, for example, 'She Darked the Sun', in an arrangement similar to the one recorded with the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1970, also included on The Lost Studio Sessions).  Upon reflection, I've decided that I was a little hard on Michael Clarke in my previous post.  Beyond his technical shortcomings, Michael brought a considerable amount of raw physical power to the table, a quality that's often lacking in more professionally trained drummers. Visceral power always works well in a bar-band atmosphere.  That's not a back-handed compliment, it's the truth.

    Blue Raven
    Dixie Flyer
    Gene seems excited about the new material (e.g. 'Blue Raven', 'Dixie Flyer') and makes multiple references to a "new album". At a January 16, 1984 show at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, Gene introduces 'Tommy Kaye's 'Dixie Flyer' as "a brand new song off a brand new album"; during the introduction of 'Blue Raven' he says, "Here's another brand new song. Got a new album coming out in a couple of days," after which he pauses, and then, appearing to mock his own statement, adds, "Couple of days?  Yeah, right..." (The sarcasm may indicate Gene's frustration with finding a suitable label, but in any event, Firebyrd would be released in March of 1984). Interestingly, 'Dixie Flyer' did not figure in the final track list. Maybe he came to resent the amount of subpar material Tommy Kaye was foisting on him?  Who knows. But it seems worthwhile to note that Tommy's considerable influence upon Gene, apart from his ill-fated reappearance during the sessions with John Arrias later on, began to wane after his involvement with the Firebyrd L.P. Personally, I've never considered Tommy a major talent. Apart from No Other, I'm unable to name any other song or album on which his touch was instrumental in the creation of a truly great work. In many respects, I think Gene's insistence upon his involvement in Two Sides To Every Story was a major misstep.

    However, in regards to 'Dixie Flyer,' I'm of the belief that a live version of the song should be considered for inclusion in the set over the studio take released on This Byrd Has Flown. This is purely out of a sense of preserving historical accuracy—in that Gene kept it in the set until the final shows in January 1985—not from any personal fondness for the song.  Plus in these live versions, Gene's voice and personality are clearly and keenly felt, which is a refreshing change from the rather soulless studio version, which stands as ample evidence of Tommy's schlockier predilections.

    You know, I knew a fellow a few years ago.  I met him actually in 1965 in London, England, at a club called Blaises. I was playing there [August 6th, 1965—Clarkophile] with my old pal back here on the drums. And there were these two guys that came into the audience. And they both had on suede leather-kinda Levi's jackets and sunglasses and it sorta looked like John Lennon and George Harrison to me, you know. And that's who it was. And so afterwards, John had came upstairs, and he says, "I want to talk to you." And he handed me one bottle of wine. And he says, "Come on, we got some talkin' to do." And we spent a lot of time together up there. I really loved that guy. And I'd like to dedicate this song to everybody, and to John Lennon, because he wrote this song.

    —Gene Clark, February 3, 1984, Shirley MA, introduction to 'She Loves You'

    She Loves You
    Into the Night

    The spectre of John Lennon’s assassination hangs over Gene’s work in the 1980-1984 period. By all accounts, Lennon's murder hit him extremely hard and catapulted him into bouts of depression and deepening substance abuse. In the above-transcribed introduction to 'She Loves You' in 1984, Gene still sounds shaken and sombre. And there's something more than a little sad about hearing him say "I really loved that guy" to a roomful of buzzing barroom patrons.

    As we shall see in Part 4 of the Firebyrd Project, the Glass House tape, recorded in December 1980, features a soaring homage to 1964-era Fabs in the form of 'I'll Change Your Life'. Less easily identified and articulated, however, is the spooky aura that surrounds these songs.  It is a spookiness that I felt even before I found out they had been recorded in that awful month, that seemed to last a year.

    Just as he had incorporated an early Beatles number into his tour with the Silverados circa 1975 ('I’ll Be Back'), Gene worked up a breezy take of the Fabs' 'She Loves You'.  I find it very moving that on the two occasions in which Gene was forced to swallow his pride and head out on small-scale club-circuit tours ('74-'75/'83-'84), he reached back to the music that had initially transformed his life, as if drawing upon some sacred wellspring for sustenance and renewal. Consider this: at the same February 3rd, 1984 show from which the above Lennon anecdote was taken, Gene starts to introduce the next song, 'Vanessa': "I've always liked bad-girl songs," he says.  But he suddenly cuts himself off, presumably after getting a signal from a band member.
    "Oh, wait a minute.  Do we have to change a string?" he says. "Go ahead and change a string."
    But apparently, the changing of the string was taking longer than expected.
    "Well, this is a contest to see how fast this guy can change his string," Gene says, forcing himself to chuckle.

    You can sense that he's becoming uncomfortable.

    "You know what..." he begins to say, but does not complete the thought.  Instead, he pauses, and says simply, resolutely, "Okay,"—to a bandmate, the audience, or to himself.
    At that moment, Gene begins to strum chords and rhythm that might easily have been the intro to 'Tried So Hard'.
    "In the meantime, I'll play a li'l country song," he says.

    But he is not playing 'Tried So Hard'.

    The song is Lennon's 'I'll Cry Instead' from A Hard Day's Night.  Of the numbers played that night, this impromptu cover (never repeated) comes well before his introduction to 'She Loves You' and the heartfelt story about being upstairs at Blaises when John Lennon handed him one bottle of wine and said, "Come on, we've got some talking to do."

    Obviously John Lennon was on his mind that evening.

    'She Loves You' should be included in the set.  It's a mature, clever arrangement, one that maintains the energy of the original while not sounding at all juvenile when sung by a man fast approaching 40. By eliminating the accented stops, the song seems to glide through one's consciousness and take on new significance.
    'Into the Night', another cover (written by Liz Anderson and Jeff Rollings) comes across like a rather shameless knockoff of Quarterflash (or something as objectionable).  Somehow Gene makes it work².

    "Well, now, the problem is the Firebyrds have all just quit now...  Naw, I'm gonna do about two or three songs here with this little Ovation guitar..."  
    Gene Clark, Continental Club, Austin, Texas,
    January 16, 1984

    As 1984 wore on, attrition took its toll, as members came and went and performances became less professional.  It must have been hard to sustain any level of camaraderie with so many hired guns passing through the ranks (Peter Oliva and Michael Clarke appear to have served longest at his side, but gone were the Andes brothers, Matt and Mark; Trace Harrill,  Michael Hardwick...and other names that I've lost track of at the moment).

    Elsewhere, Gene's voice, after bearing the brunt of singing virtually every song night after night in front of a loud rock band, begins to falter. To me, he sounds exhausted and quite naturally less committed to the performance, going through the motions, in pure survival mode: get there, get onstage, get off. When one hears audience tapes of Gene's heart-rending solo performances of classics like 'Here Without You' and 'Silver Raven'—not to the rapt attention and heartfelt appreciation he deserved, mind you, but to the hootin' and hollerin' of beer-swilling denizens of joints named Woody's Roadhouse and Jumbo's, it's hard not to be gutted by the pathos. At a show in early 1984, a guy in the audience yells out "Lou Reed! Sweet Jane!" In the YouTube clip of 'She Loves You' posted above, the band is introduced as the "Thunderbyrds"—which, quite understandably, draws Gene's ire.

    After all he had accomplished, Gene Clark did not deserve this kind of ignorance.  These aren't examples of dues-paying; these are examples of a genius being cruelly disrespected.

    Sadly, in listening to these shows, one does not get the sense that Gene and his band were gaining any noticeable momentum. The performances from the late '83/early '84 period are, on the whole (based on the ones I've heard) tight and hard-hitting. But there's no evidence of buzz, that any momentum is being gained with these trips down the bar-band road³. And we already know that no Brian Epstein figure would magically emerge to pluck them from the bar circuit and lift them onto top-40 radio. Indeed, a disturbing trend seems to emerge.  For the average Byrds fan (not to be confused with a Gene Clark fan), 'Vanessa' seems to have been the tune you tolerated while waiting to hear a rousing version of  'So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star' (ironically, a song that Gene neither wrote, nor played on, but saw fit to put into the set).  And judging by his next career decision—to embark upon the "20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds" tours—Gene appears to have made that same observation.

    For the time being, Woody's Roadhouse was as good as it was going to get.  The Firebyrds were now consigned to bar-band purgatory: set upon a treadmill that would never get better or easier, and could scarcely become worse, for as long as Gene decided to continue.

    At some point, Gene had to have wondered why he was subjecting himself to this kind of humiliation. Bars are proving grounds. What did Gene Clark have left to prove? Inevitably, those aspects of Gene's music that made him a bona fide artist, poet, and star of distinction, were forfeited. Thus, any regard for nuance, subtlety, intonation, dynamics and enunciation—the very things that made Gene's music so deeply personal, yet simultaneously reflective of universal conditions of loneliness, despair and doomed love; the things that made it feel like he was speaking directly to (or for) you—were lost in the din of clinking glasses and scattered hoots.

    Also lost in this environment: the fact that the still-mighty Gene Clark—a founding member of the Byrds, a guiding hand in the development of significant sub-genres like psychedelia, country-rock, folk-rock, and power-pop; an esteemed writer whose visionary poetry graced dozens of timeless classics in the '60s and '70s; a man who had met and earned the respect of peers like the Beatles—had been relegated to the role of coaxing drunken barroom patrons out of their chairs. "You know, there is a dance floor out here..."

    ¹According to MC&H drummer Scott Kirkpatrick, Gene did not make the trip to Europe in February 1980 for a scheduled tour (but reportedly "sat in" with them upon their return, at the Roxy, in March, 1980).

    ²Based on the uniformly high quality of the arrangements/performances as heard from various shows, plus the fact that both songs were recorded in the studio (though never finished), one has to wonder if 'She Loves You'/'Into the Night' is another example of a stalled/aborted/unreleased 45 in Gene's career.

    ³John Pattison of Toronto shares his recollections of seeing Gene and the Firebyrds at the Brunswick House in February, 1984. [Edited for clarity.]
    "It was the ground floor of the Brunswick House.  Couldn't have been more than 50-75 people there. It was very downmarket surroundings for such a legend. Funny thing is, I knew he was an important legend even at that time and was astonished at the humble surroundings. I was in awe of what he did with the Byrds (still am) and to this day I am in awe when I'm in the same room as an original Byrd (have met all 5).
    John Pattison saw Gene and the Firebyrds on the ground floor
    of the Brunswick House, at the corner of Bloor St. W.
    and Brunswick Ave., Toronto, ON, in February 1984.

    "The Brunswick at that time was maybe a bit of an odd place for Gene. I believe they had a live music policy but it was a place where university students drank at long tables with jugs of beer. I recall the vibe of the night was as if it was an oldies band, playing some old hits. Not taken the same as if it was the Horseshoe [Tavern, a more celebrated venue, which featured up-and-coming acts]. 
    I do distinctly remember thinking that the circumstances were below Gene's stature but I was happy to see him, of course. It felt as if the audience didn't really, for the most part, grasp that this man had made a huge contribution to music. I almost wanted to say to the crowd, "Do you know who this guy is?"
    Hard to believe that 19 years earlier he had been at the top of the pop world and hanging out with Lennon/McCartney.  To be fair that was at a time when the Byrds were too recent to be the legends they are now. 
    I was a big Byrds fan but found few fellow fans at that time. The room was small and Gene was only about 20 ft away from me. I don't recall what they played other than the Byrds hits.  For sure there were songs I did not recognize. Would love to see an old set list now. I don't remember totally but I was not acquainted with Gene's solo stuff except for Dillard and Clark. I only knew the five Byrds records. He definitely played some Byrds stuff from after the time he left the band.  He played "So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" for sure. It was kind of a drunken boisterous crowd. When I saw him in '86 at the Diamond it was much more fitting of where he should be and he had some high level people with him, e.g. Blondie Chaplin on lead guitar etc."

    Monday, 11 March 2019

    She was 'She's the Kind of Girl' and more

    Caroline Margaret Gower (Scarfe)

    July 8, 1966—March 11, 2009

    Longtime readers of this blog know that I am usually averse to using it for personal purposes.  From the get-go, I wanted it to be squarely focused not on me, but on Gene's words and music.  However, today I am partially suspending that rule, in respectful observance of the 10th anniversary of the passing of someone very dear to me. Her name was Caroline.  In truth, it is only a partial suspension, insofar as music was an integral part of my friendship with her.  From Marvin Gaye to the Beach Boys, Van Morrison and Cat Stevens, music was tied to the inner workings of our story.  It formed the soundtrack to our private mythology.

    And a significant part of that mythology involved Gene Clark; in particular the song 'She's the Kind of Girl,' written in 1970.  Of all the songs Gene wrote, this one was, for me, unique vis-à-vis Caroline.  Indeed, the song so closely mirrored my personal experience of love and loss—line by line, note for note, emotion for emotion—that I've occasionally comforted myself with the admittedly silly (and self-piteously narcissistic) notion that Gene's precognitive songwriting ability was all part of some metaphysical rom-com in which I co-starred.

    I met Caroline in 1987, the same year that I stumbled across a copy of Edsel's reissue of Roadmaster and began my first trips into Gene's post-Byrds oeuvre. In that respect, it seems fitting that the song that (to this day) instantly conjures images of her—those impossibly luminous blue eyes, her soft voice and comforting presence—would be the first song off that album.

    Our time together would bring the greatest period of happiness in my life.  She was the first person outside of my family who believed I could become a writer. More than that, she knew it, even as I sputtered in endless self-doubt. And I, in turn, loved her deeply, hopelessly, unwaveringly, sometimes even foolishly, in the way that naive, idealistic young men sometimes do.

    In one of those strange ironies that occurs when two people meet, I felt the greatest peace when in her presence, and yet Caroline herself always seemed preoccupied, beset by some dark worry that existed somewhere just beyond her grasp or immediate understanding.  She would twitch and blush with rabbity self-consciousness in a manner that was as concerning as it was endearing and comical—and it was this complex restlessness that fired my desire to bring to her life, if I could, the calm she brought to mine.

    As unlikely as it seems in these days of desperate self-promotion and unchecked sociopathy, scarcely a trace of her exists online, apart from her obituary, and a couple of references I've made to her on this blog. You will not find a picture of her, nor any faint traces of a presence on social media. From what I'm given to understand from her sister (someone I consider a dear friend, in spite of time and distance) this was by design.

    But Caroline existed. She mattered.

    Even if I amounted to nothing more than a mere blip in her life, she remains a towering epoch in mine.

    Although I had no contact with her in the last 14 years of her life, I would often think of her, and would comfort myself with the thought that she was happy and had found peace.

    One day in June of 2009, while bored at work, I googled her name. It was then that I found her obituary. She had passed away suddenly at the age of 42, only three months earlier, leaving a loving husband and a daughter.

    Later that evening after I got home from work, alone in my basement office, ridden with shock and sorrow, I wept uncontrollably, just as I’d done when she first “slipped through (my) hands.”

    To this day, I cannot hear the opening lines of 'She's the Kind of Girl' without getting misty-eyed, thinking of her beautiful blue eyes, her gentle manner and ineffable grace. I offer it today in her memory.

    She's the Kind of Girl  (Gene Clark)

    She's the kind of girl
    Together like a rhyme
    The kind everybody wants to know
    She can fool you with her way
    Leave you with nothing much to say
    And you try not to hang around
    But you really don't want to see her go away.
    She's the kind of girl
    Marigold and thyme
    Sunshine and flowers in her hair
    Simple ways she don't complain
    She likes to move
    She won't explain
    And you wonder in the night
    If everything was right with you
    She might remain.
    Doesn't everybody want to hear
    Doesn't everybody want to know
    What it is to be so near
    Then watch it go.

    She's the kind of girl
    Really has to see
    What it is that's on your mind
    She takes the time and understands
    She makes no judgments, no demands
    But she makes you feel the fool
    When you wonder how she slipped
    Right through your hands.

    Saturday, 9 February 2019

    The Firebyrd Project: Part 2—Collecting the shards of a smashed glass house

    (For background on this series, please see previous post.)
     (RGB stock image)

    The remnants of a smashed glass house

    As stated in the previous post, the Firebyrd Project is very much a (theoretical) work-in-progress, so while I'm not ready to present a final track list, the general concept is coming together.  More on that in a moment.

    With respect to the relevant material, I think it's fair to say that, for the most part, none of my selections will come as a surprise to those who know what Gene was up to in the early '80s.
    Each track that I will be presenting has been well documented elsewhere. My job, admittedly self-appointed though it may be, boils down to researching the best sources of extant material, selecting the best tracks, then trimming and prioritizing the remaining contenders, after which I'll begin the head-scratching task of organizing and reorganizing the material into a cohesive, statement-making package.

    At this point I must stress that when the big reveal comes, it will come in a written form only; because this is a purely hypothetical exercise; no downloads will be available on this site.

    It's a lot of material to wade through, on top of which there is a frustrating lack of easily accessed documentation regarding specific dates, personnel, studios, engineers and other such details—you know, the kind of stuff that excites music obsessives like me. Don't believe me? Okay, quickly now: where and when was 'Strange and Different Way' recorded? Who sang harmony vocal? I'll wait...

    One of the most compelling parts of tracing the scattered remains of Gene's recorded work is that a lot of it will remain a mystery.

    By the same token, one of the most frustrating aspects of tracing the scattered remains of Gene's recorded work is that a lot of it will remain a mystery.

    Perhaps it's because the legendary unreleased "Glass House tape" will figure prominently in the discussion to come, but in the past few weeks the image has taken on greater significance.  This entire project feels akin to gathering and organizing the remnants of a smashed and abandoned glass house: some of the pieces can be found, yes, but they are difficult to place. Yet I cherish even the most damaged and flawed, because each one provides clues in piecing together the larger story about the man who once lived there. Some of the pieces have shattered like crystal; their significance lost.

    It is the sharp pieces that prove most edifying.  They cut deepest.

    Dispelling self-created myths  

    I know this will sound quaint, but in the past I've comforted myself with the baseless notion that Gene's works were being curated like any other priceless pieces of art.  At some point after he died, I developed an image in my head of a well-maintained, indestructible vault in which Gene's treasures were being kept for posterity. The reality, however, as I've come to learn in the last decade or so, is much harder to bear.

    There is no impeccably maintained archive or impenetrable fireproof vault.  There is only us.  Make no mistake: with each day that passes, we are losing some of these "buried treasures," as Kai Clark referred to them in an interview with Neon Brambles in the August 2018 issue of the Echoes newsletter.  They are vulnerable. They are being lost to art's most merciless foes: time and indifference.  I'm not making this stuff up, I know whereof I speak. In a very real sense, we, as fans, are the last line of defence in the preservation of Gene's music.  If we don't document this stuff, who will?

    And so my humble little project here constitutes a sincere attempt to gather, arrange, and reconstruct these scattered shards of glass into something meaningful.  Our perception will never be as clear as the one gained from gazing into a freshly Windexed glass window into our imaginary glass home, but if successful, we may be able to at least reassemble the pieces in a way that affords us a clearer vision of Gene Clark's artistry.

    It’s like he was leaving a trail of buried treasures that we keep finding and digging up. I think there is still so much more out there that we still have to discover and I can't wait to see what's next. The name Gene Clark is definitely growing, even so many years after he has left us. 
    — Kai Clark 
    Looking for a clearer image of Gene's work. (RGB stock image)

    Reassembling the shards

    Each day I find myself actively considering, selecting and eliminating tracks, immersing myself in the period, contacting people who worked with Gene during this time, hoping to gain firsthand knowledge or even hearsay recollections about unreleased songs, master tapes and so forth. Depending on the leads (or lack thereof) that turn up — something that is, in itself, dependent upon the willingness of certain individuals people to speak with me (or, alas, not)  reworking the song order and actively considering different groupings (should it be arranged chronologically, thematically, randomly?).

    But at this point I think I'm prepared to share the breakdown of the package as it stands today:

    Provisional title: The Firebyrd Project

    • 2 CD set 

    In my view, it's necessary to make this a two-disc package, both to present a more fulsome picture of what he was doing during this somewhat murky period than afforded by the original Firebyrd L.P., and to make a grand statement about Gene's artistic worth.
    CD 1: Original Firebyrd L.P. + Firebyrd Live
    CD 2: Bonus tracks, recorded 1980-1984

    CD 1

    • Original Firebyrd (Remixed and remastered, subject to availability of tapes)

    If the multitracks still exist (which I admit is doubtful at this late date), I'd like to see the original album undergo a tasteful, judicious remix. The purpose would be to try to give the album a little more bite, perhaps lessen the elements that contribute to its flaccid, sterile sound. Who knows, we might uncover some mixed-out parts that could toughen the sound, create a more compelling atmosphere.
    I don't think the 80's vibe should be turfed indiscriminately because that would perpetuate a lie; it was an album of the early 80's and should reflect that.  However, it should be possible to retain the decade-defining attributes of the record, yet still tease out a more muscular, emotionally compelling, mix.

    What to do about This Byrd Has Flown? 
    This Byrd Has Flown (1995) constitutes
    a noble attempt to redress Firebyrd's
    shortcomings, but missed the mark
    by adding tracks that neither enhanced
    the album, nor Gene's reputation.

    At this point I have removed the three tracks added to the 1995 release of This Byrd Had Flown—a project that, as I said, in some ways stands as a noble precursor to what I'm trying to accomplish here. Significantly, the tracks in question, 'C'est La Bonne Rue', 'Dixie Flyer' and 'All I Want', did not appear as bonus tracks, but were deliberately inserted within the existing Firebyrd running order.
    At the time, the appearance of three previously unreleased Gene Clark songs was big news, and was a major draw for me. The selected tracks are problematic, for a variety of reasons.

    'Cest La Bonne Rue (Thomas Jefferson Kaye/Tom Slocum)
    According to the album notes, the song was written around 1975.  Gene's involvement here is slim to none, in my estimation.  If one compares Gene's version to the one released on the posthumous collection of Tommy Kaye's material, Not Alone, the backing tracks are quite obviously the same for both (although Kaye's seems to run faster).  Sometimes I think I can hear Gene's voice in the mix, singing a low part that's absent from Kaye's version, other times I'm convinced he wasn't there at all.  Bottom line is, if he is present on this recording, it's so vague as to be virtually inconsequential.  It does not meet the sniff test for being included on an album credited to Gene Clark.

    Dixie Flyer (Thomas Jefferson Kaye/David Warner Brown)
    So, more Tommy Kaye material here, the first recording of which I believe graced the 1979 self-titled album by Mistress—an album produced by Kaye and released on RSO, featuring musicians from the Two Sides To Every Story era and other members of Gene's inner circle (Gary Legon, Doug Dillard, Rick Clark, Mike Utley). 

    Gene's version is not currently available on YouTube (although a very rough "rehearsal" version can be found here), but in reality, it suffers from the same problem as 'C'est La Bonne Rue': Gene's presence is not felt to a degree that warrants its inclusion.  You can drive yourself crazy trying to pinpoint Gene's voice. Perhaps if the compilers had mixed out the other voices and featured Gene as lead vocalist it might've made sense, but I regret to say it's not an especially good song in the first place. Now, I'm aware of the fact that Gene played it with the Firebyrds in 1984, so maybe one of those versions might be suitable for the Firebyrd Project, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

    Here is the 1979 version by Mistress, featuring Rick Clark!

    All I Want (Tom Slocum/Shannon O'Neill/Gene Clark)

    Of the three bonus tracks, 'All I Want' is the obvious winner; a track that, in spite of it's offensive lyrical misstep (the infamous "bitches" line), moved me to write about it in an earlier blogpost. But it is not a product of the Firebyrd era at all, being recorded on and off in the 1987-1990 time frame. 

    • Firebyrd Live

    The addition of live component is a mainstay of archival releases, which can be a good thing if the recordings are in some way illuminating. Based on my research, I'm prepared to say there is a surfeit of extant, early generation material (sourced from board tapes) that could potentially serve as an energetic counterpoint to what I would characterize as comparatively listless studio counterparts. 
    I've noticed that the pairing of Michael Clarke and Peter Oliva in the rhythm section was a major factors in giving the songs some extra punch.

    Some thoughts on Michael Clarke
    The Notorious Firebyrd Brothers, 1984

    By 1984, Michael Clarke's drumming had undergone dramatic changes since those heady days at World Pacific. The results are both positive and negative. Of the positive changes, evidently years of playing with a successful band like Firefall had forced him to adopt a more disciplined, conventional style (i.e. radio-friendly).  To his credit, Michael rose to the challenge.  His skills were sharp and direct on the Firefall albums, and led to a run of hit singles, three of which made Billboard's top 20: 'You Are The Woman' peaked at #9 on in late 1976; 'Just Remember I Love You' peaked at #11 a year later, as did 'Strange Way' in 1978. Astonishingly, of all the original Byrds, it was Clarke who managed to perform on the most hits in the latter half of the 1970s.

    The irony in all of this is that by the time he hooked up with Gene as a member of the Firebyrds, Michael's playing, while still muscular and solid, had become rather unimaginative, even perfunctory. Michael's finest moments in the Byrds came when his unconventional, wide-eyed-and-whatever-dude style collided with challenging, era-defining material, to give us some of the most thrilling drumming of the 1960's ('Eight Miles High', 'Turn! Turn! Turn!', 'The Bells of Rhymney', etc.). That is no small achievement.
    By 1984, however, Michael's selection of fills, and placement in the song, are characterized by sameyness and predictability.  This might've fit the bill in the bar, but when scrutinized with a sober ear, seems a little monotonous to me. Luckily, Peter Oliva's bass playing—punchy, precise, soulful and solid—keeps things interesting. His familiarity with Gene, both as a friend and musician, comes through clearly, both in his playing and Gene's stage banter. From the recordings I've heard, Peter's steady, precise hand has a way of enlivening Michael's curiously safe reliance on basic rudiments (see clip below). My eventual selections will reflect consideration of these factors.

    Next time: A discussion of songs that can be considered for Disc 1. 

    Tuesday, 22 January 2019

    The Firebyrd Project: Part 1—Reclaiming and Reimagining Gene Clark’s troubled half decade, 1980-1985

    The Firebyrd Project: 

    Part 1:

    Reclaiming and Reimagining Gene Clark’s troubled half decade, 1980-1985 

    Another Self Portrait presented an opportunity for fans to reassess an unpopular period of Bob Dylan’s career.  Is it possible to do the same with Firebyrd, the black sheep of Gene Clark’s catalogue? Let's find out.

    Refuelling Firebyrd: A Feasibility Study

    Purpose of the Firebyrd project

    The inspiration for this project
    came with an article I contributed
    to the January 2019 Echoes newsletter,
    which can be downloaded here.
    The foundation of this project was laid in a piece I contributed to the January 2019 issue of Echoes, the Gene Clark newsletter, produced by my friend Neon Brambles (see pic at right, link in caption).  In it, I lamented the pathetic way in which the Firebyrd recordings have been treated since the day of the album's release in 1984. From the unforgivable spelling errors in the original notes (see below) to the cheesy cover art that uncomfortably, inexplicably aligned itself with McGuinn’s Thunderbyrd, to the almost comical series of mistitled reissues that followed in the years after Gene's death (Fire Byrd/FyreBird, etc.) it is sometimes hard to argue with the common perception of the work as bargain-basement dreck.  However, I think it’s time to do a major overhaul of the period and restore Gene’s good name. This is by no means an original idea on my part. Edsel's This Byrd Has Flown (1995) stands as an admirable attempt to reintroduce/repackage the familiar Firebyrd material (remastered sound, new title, full notes, plus three previously unreleased tracks) in a respectful way.  It was not perfect, but I think they had the right idea. In a forthcoming entry I'll review TBHF in greater detail, but for now I'll give you a capsule review: it was a good idea, poorly executed.

    Frankly, I am dreading the day we will hear about yet another pointless reissue of the album from unscrupulous hacks.  In this series I am going to present ideas for what I hope will be a classy, dignified alternative, one that that may one day be of use to some decent, reputable reissue company that, like me—and doubtless whoever else may be reading this now—demands respect for Gene’s work and his legacy.
    Above & below: The original CD release of Firebyrd (1984) set a woefully low bar, that subsequent releases somehow managed to drop even lower.  Note the misspelled surnames (Pederson instead of Pedersen; Ticknor instead of Tickner) and casual, careless inaccuracies with song titles (hint: tracks 1 & 7), not to mention the inexplicable placement of the album title in quotation marks—and written as two separate words!—the entire presentation felt amateurish. 

    Ultimately, the goal here is to present a well-researched, ready-made, completely do-able archival project.  Pros and cons of the material will be weighed, taking into consideration things like:
    • Quality and usability of source material (Audience tapes/demos/soundboard/outtakes/private collections)
    • Extant vs. rumoured material 
    • Comparisons of performance (e.g. live versions of, let's say, 'Blue Raven' from different shows).
    After that comes the selection process, deciding what songs would be suitable for inclusion, complete with detailed reasons, culminating in a posting of the final track list.

    But it’s not a done deal in my mind.  I must confess that this is not my favourite period of Gene’s career.  I have problems with some of the artistic choices he was making at this time, both in terms of the material he recorded, and how he performed the material in a live setting, with the ever-revolving-door cast of Firebyrds.

    So essentially that gives us five years of recordings to wade through, appraise and ultimately assemble into a cohesive statement that will complement the original 11-track Firebyrd album.
    In truth, I’m wondering if I’ll be able to change my own mind by the time I post the final track list of this fantasy collection, let alone present a convincing case to a boutique reissue label. This is a work in progress, so I’m entering into it with an open mind and I hope I can get you to follow along with me—although I’m telling you right now that nothing will ever make me like ‘Vanessa’.

    How do we define the Firebyrd period?

    For purposes of this project, I will not consider the inclusion of any recordings made with Carla Olson.  In my view this period directly abuts the conclusion of the Firebyrd era. Similarly, no McGuinn, Clark & Hillman recordings are eligible, as this constitutes the period immediately prior to the commencement of the Firebyrd period.

    Obviously there may be some overlap, and I accept that you, as fans, may have your own interpretations of the period(s) discussed and the music that emerged therefrom, but this is the structure I’ve chosen to impose, as it makes it easier to organize.

    With that said, it seems reasonable and wholly appropriate to set the start date of the Firebyrd era at 1980, just after the release of the City album by McGuinn-Hillman, featuring (the ever-marginalized and departed soon thereafter) Gene Clark.
    The symbolic end to the period comes with the fateful January 1985 meeting of Gene and Carla at a Firebyrds show at Madame Wong’s West.  Fans who’ve seen Carla’s Facebook feed have doubtless seen the picture taken at the moment of their meeting. The very next month would find Gene embarking on his next, far more dubious, exercise in treading water: the 20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds tour, thus nailing the door on the Firebyrds era for good.

    Part 2 will feature a breakdown of the possible additions to the Firebyrd material, and I'll also tackle the tricky question of what to do about the three songs that were added to Firebyrd when it was retitled and released as This Byrd Has Flown in 1995.

    A note on sources: Johnny Rogan’s Requiem for the Timeless has been an invaluable resource in establishing the time line and compiling a list of period-specific material.  I’d like to thank Johnny for taking the time to answer my personal inquiries about the period in question.  He has provided me with some helpful insight about many of Gene’s unreleased recordings from the era.