"Kathleen" from Gypsy Angel

"Kathleen" written by Gene Clark
from Gypsy Angel (2001)

When Gypsy Angel was quietly released in 2001 on the small British Evangeline label, Gene Clark’s reputation and place in rock history had, for better or worse, already been sealed: he was the principal writer of "Eight Miles High"; a member of the original Byrds line-up who had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1991, less than six months before his death at the still-young age of 46; he was the once-handsome Byrd who sang centre-stage with the "Prince Valiant" haircut whose features had, through decades of substance abuse, deteriorated into the haunted, deathly stare of a man thirty years his senior; and he was the 21-year-old young man whose abrupt, seemingly bizarre volte face from the limelight in early 1966 led to an erratic solo career marred by an ultimately lethal combination of underachievement, booze and pure bad luck. (1)
So the appearance of twelve rough acoustic demo recordings (circa 1983-1990)--the vast majority of which were titles which had never graced an official album released during Clark’s lifetime--seemed an unlikely place to find songs of distinction, or anything which might have the effect of posthumously elevating Clark’s stature.
Predictably, some of the songs on Gypsy Angel--"Mississippi Detention Camp," "Rock of Ages," and "Freedom Walk," for example--are lengthy, occasionally meandering, woodshedding workouts; Gene is clearly working on the fly, simultaneously experimenting and documenting his song ideas. (2)
But the third song, "Kathleen," is unlike anything else in the Clark canon: a cinematic character study of loneliness, despair and lost-at-sea love set in Ireland, all from the perspective of a female. To anyone familiar with Clark’s work, songs about loneliness, despair and lost love are nothing new; it’s really business as usual. (One is reminded of Byrds manager Jim Dickson’s comment that David Crosby-- the mischievous pragmatist in stark contrast to Clark’s chivalric Straight Man--would make comments to the effect of "Well, as soon as he [Clark] breaks up with her we’ll get another song.") Rarely, however, did he venture into story-type songs without inserting himself into the action in the first person.

In "Kathleen," Clark’s omniscient narration has the effect of making Kathleen’s loneliness more palpable: she is, in fact, the only flesh-and-blood character in the lyric. The unnamed sailor-husband—one presumes he is left unnamed to keep the focus on Kathleen—has not been seen "for many years," so it’s difficult for the listener to identify with him. The only other character mentioned in the lyric is the personified Spirit of the Wind, whom Kathleen begs to rescue her husband from "the cruel stormy sea." Clark’s voice, always stirring, provides an excellent example of what I like to call his "quasi-operatic" style, in which his stentorian vibrato frames words with an unabashed flair for the dramatic, wrenching every last morsel of feeling from the lyric before finally moving on.
But at the 4:14 mark the unthinkable happens: Gene’s rugged voice, perhaps exhausted from gigging, drinking and chain smoking, wavers while singing the word "safely" in the song's climactic final line: "Send him safely home from sea/So that love on this isle can bloom again/for Kathleen."
It’s a moment that for any lesser talent would have meant hitting the rewind button on the tape machine and starting afresh, but Clark’s soulfulness carried the day. In quivering on the word "safely" at the final moments of the song--as Kathleen begs the Spirit of the Wind one last time-- the vocal gaffe from our omniscient narrator-singer creates the impression that he, as narrator, is overcome with emotion, which in turn intensifies the suspicion that we, as listeners, have been courting all along: that her husband will not be coming back from sea, but that Kathleen herself remains unaware of this, buoyed by unwavering faithfulness and devotion.
Our narrator may be wavering; Kathleen will not.
Such pathos can ruin a song if laid on too thickly, but it is done with such effortlessness and grace on this occasion that if someone were to ask me for an example of Clark’s genius with lyrics and vocal delivery of same, I would point them in this direction.

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Generally, for hard core fans of Gene’s music, his legendary unreleased tracks fall into two groups:
(1) The songs performed live during his lifetime but never commercially released, which over the years became striking bootleg-only releases (e.g. "Crazy Ladies", "Last of the Blue Diamond Miners", "The Daylight Line", et cetera)
(2) Songs which had been celebrated as lost masterpieces by the select few who had the chance to hear them (the Sings for You demos; the song "Communication"), but never booted in any form. Part of what makes "Kathleen" so mysterious is that even among the Clark cognoscenti it had no prior reputation to live up to; it simply appeared, without fanfare and without underground buzz, as if carried on the Spirit of the Wind itself.
Saul Davis, Clark’s ex-manager and compiler of Gypsy Angel, doesn’t even seem to know specifically when the song was written or recorded; the only clue to its vintage is that it was among a raft of songs written for the followup to 1987's So Rebellious a Lover (with Carla Olson). Bearing in mind that the most mundane of lives are these days documented with self-obsessive glee by MySpace and Facebook devotees, all in furtherance of the idea that no shred of information is too trivial, the absence of even the most basic recording details for a work such as "Kathleen" seems preposterous, or, at the very least, difficult to understand and accept.

Perhaps, in the end, Clark’s rare foray into the omniscient narrative style is not the anomaly it would seem. Maybe Gene saw a definite parallel with himself in the tale of a titian-haired, green-eyed young woman who pines in solitude for her lost husband, whose only interpersonal contact comes in the form of entreaties to the unseen Spirit of the Wind. Like the haunted, lonely figure of Kathleen, left alone on the shore while her husband goes off to sea, Gene Clark toiled in relative obscurity for the balance of his adult life, never reconnecting with the 21-year-old boy who watched the rest of the Byrds board that plane to New York without him, leaving him behind as well.

For its protagonist as well as its author, "Kathleen" is a song of fortitude and faithfulness.


(1) It’s my fervent belief that the suddenness of his departure was the manifestation of a debilitating--and subsequently untreated--psychological disorder.

(2) The magnificent "Your Fire Burning", on the other hand, is a fully realized long work; one of Clark’s most complex lyrics and heartbreaking melodies. It will be covered in a later blog entry.


ge said…
Terrific notion: your blog here!

Notwithstanding your enthusiasm for 'Kathleen's uniqueness, I'd remind you to review the lyrics to 'Only Colombe'--to me they seem almost companion pieces! Haunted seaside lovelorn poetic feminine, a Jungian feast! [to be found in a lot of Gene's images...]
The Clarkophile said…
Excellent point.
"Only Colombe", to me anyway, is more a Dylanesque compilation of images; it lacks the cinematic scope/straightforward narrative of "Kathleen."
"Companion pieces"--I like that.

On a related point, have you ever noticed that sea imagery is something that crops up again and again in Gene's work?

Thanks for reading and leaving a message!
Anonymous said…
Gene Clark is one of my favorite songwriters. It still bothers me, after all these years, that he is no longer with us. I just read your review of "Kathleen" and downloaded it from iTunes. For some reason I had never heard this one. I'm so glad you posted this, and that you set up this blog in the first place. Thank you!

Anonymous said…
Did some more exploring of the Gypsy Angel album. "Your Fire Burning" is absolutely heartbreaking. I'd be interested in your views on that one, as well. thank you again!

The Clarkophile said…
Thanks Murder of Ravens,
I appreciate your interest in my blog.
I'm thrilled you downloaded "Kathleen." In case anyone is wondering, I have deliberately refrained from posting free mp3's of the songs I'm discussing in the hope that the piqued curiosity of readers will result in sales being directed toward the Estate.

"Your Fire Burning" is in my top-5 Gene songs and will be featured very soon. That's a huge song for me.
The next entry, which should be appearing this weekend, is slated to be "She Don't Care About Time."
Thanks again for your comments, and for reading my blog. It's good to know other folks out there are listening to Gene too.
The Clarkophile said…
Oh, I almost forgot, the live version of "Your Fire Burning" is devastating. I would strongly suggest tracking that one down.
It's currently available on the In Concert CD.
skipway said…
Wow! What a great, propitious start to your blog, Tom! I bet those years in Mendocino staring out to sea had a lot to do with images of the sea cropping up in Gene's songs.