All I Want is a posthumous hit
Note: The following is a rewrite of a piece first published on The Clarkophile in 2008.
“All I Want”
Written by Gene Clark, Tom Slocum and Shannon O’Neill
From This Byrd Has Flown (1995)
Recorded in 1987/1991
With the sharp left-turn of their hugely successful Cabriol/“Pink Moon” ad in 2000, Volkswagen found Nick Drake’s short-cut to stardom, albeit 26 years after his death. Could one of Gene’s songs perform the same feat?
I first heard Nick Drake’s music in 1987, after I was given a 90-minute Maxell cassette of his work. I didn’t know much about him except that he was deceased, English, a bit of a cult artist, and I’d probably like him. It didn’t take much more than the first 15 seconds of “Way to Blue” to hook me; Nick has been a part of my life ever since.
What does any of this have to do with Gene Clark?1 After all, in terms of of style, voice, career, backgrounds, they couldn’t have been less alike; the music they made was, both literally and figuratively, continents apart. In spite of this, they communicated with me on the same deeply personal level. About things men ought not mention. Things like loneliness. Pain. Rejection. Loss. Sadness. Self-doubt. Their music provided the kind of dignity that is often denied under such circumstances, and became the soundtrack of innumerable silent crushes, sucker-punch rejections, barroom melodramas, and the odd midnight rendezvous.
And Nick dared to call out the black eyed dog of depression; the hound that stared me down in the dead of night.
Because the corporeal Nick was no longer around to defend himself, I felt honour-bound to defend him, as I did Gene. If you wanted to have a go at Nick, you had to go through me.
Pink Moon gonna get ye all
In 2000, Volkswagen enlisted the help of Nick Drake’s starkly elegant ‘Pink Moon’ (1974) for what turned out to be a surprisingly effective TV ad campaign. I heard about Nick’s posthumous fame before I actually saw the commercial. When finally I did, my reaction was equal parts exhilaration and bewilderment. I was glad, but suspicious.
As I recall, the whole experience of seeing Nick mentioned in newspaper articles felt a little surreal; things felt disturbed, out of place. The music and images did not belong together. Before that commercial, this particular combination of images and sound would only have been possible if I’d been listening to the Fruit Tree box set with the muted TV for company. The rock snob in me felt that Nick didn’t belong in something as tacky as an ad. And for a bloody car? He was above this.
Open wide the hymns you hide
What I failed to understand back then was that, for people who had never heard of Nick Drake, it made perfect sense. It was a damn good commercial. From the striking blue-hued visuals and well-cast actors (who communicated through facial expressions only), to some crisp editing and a mercifully brief shot of the “Cabriol” tag, this was a slick and confident soft-sell production. I have no idea how the ad affected sales of the Cabrio, but it certainly helped sales of Nick’s CDs. Suddenly marketable, his music was subsequently featured in films like The Royal Tenenbaums, Serendipity, and Garden State. Amazingly, a new generation found Nick’s music, and perhaps reminded the rest of us how good he was.
Below: Volkswagen’s Cabrio ad; two comments left on YouTube (click to enlarge).
All of this has led me to wonder if there could be similar success for a Gene Clark song in a high-profile ad. I had hoped the appearance of Gene’s work on the OST of a massively popular show like NBC’s This is Us would kickstart something similar, but we haven’t really seen it, have we? Like Drake, Gene never had a solo hit single, but Gene lived long enough to record much more music than Nick, which deepens the pool from which a likely candidate might be drawn.
Has Flown Can Fly
So here’s my question: which Clark solo song from the years 1966 to 1991 would have enough commercial—as in TV commercial—potential to recreate the Drake effect: i.e. capture the hearts of a new generation?
I can think of a few songs from Gene’s canon that might suffice, but in terms of catchiness, directness, and emotional clout, I have chosen ‘All I Want.’
‘All I Want’ is a track recorded in 1987 and 1991, posthumously released on 1995’s This Byrd Has Flown (essentially an attempt to reintroduce the Firebyrd LP with remastered sound, and augmented by three additional tracks)). The song was written by Gene and his buddy Tom Slocum, with additional work on the final arrangement by Shannon O’Neill. It boasts a warm, typically sensual vocal from Gene, with an impressive list of backing musicians, including 'Sneaky' Pete Kleinow (The Flying Burrito Brothers), Rick Marotta (John Lennon, Paul Simon) on drums; Albert Lee (guitar); and Jeff Porcaro (Toto). All are terrific; “Sneaky” Pete turns in a typically memorable performance on pedal steel.
As per both Tom Slocum and John Einarson’s book, Gene’s stately lead vocal was recorded during his final studio session, sometime between January, 1991, and his death that May. It is a mature, dignified performance; the sound of a man who, in another reality, was about to enter an exciting new phase in his career. Can you imagine hearing this vocal over the radio in 1991? I would’ve been stopped in my tracks the second I heard “I’ve been countin’ hours, and it’s lonely, lover/ And it’s all because of you.” But even even months away from his untimely passing, Gene’s ability to deliver a commanding, definitive vocal remained largely undiminished. The harmony-heavy chorus (featuring Herb Pedersen) is lush, unabashed AOR; its lyrics, simple and universally accessible: "All I want is your love, all I want is your kiss, all I want is to hold you."
So far so good, right? Can’t miss, right? Not so fast.
"I know that you know a million Casanovas, lover
And you know that I know a million bitches too
But there ain't a hundred of them gonna snow you under
Or blow your cover or make you feel blue."
Apart from the melody, which I’m fond of, I find the entire bridge objectionable: awkward, sexist, trite. It’s tough-guy talk that feels...forced. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the liner notes to This Byrd Has Flown, Tom Slocum alludes to some disagreement between the co-writers: "As a song it was and is, lyrically and musically, an even split, but we both had some reservations about it. He wasn’t sure about my ‘bitches’ line and I wasn’t quite happy with the ‘blow your cover’ bit."
Well, turns out they were both right. But at least I know who to blame for the “bitches" line. I get that it’s commonly used in lyrics, but apart from the equally puzzling “interbred bitches” line in ‘Del Gato’ (co-written with Rick Clark) Gene didn’t feel the need to use it in any other lyric. It pleases me no that Gene himself disliked it. Whenever I hear the song, I imagine it was sung through gritted teeth.
It isn’t a line Gene Clark would have ever written. From the get-go, Gene’s lyrics filtered relationships through a respectful, if unrelentingly melancholic, chivalric code. I have no idea if Clark led his life according to this code, nor do I particularly care, but the "bitches" lyric is antithetical to Gene’s personal style of songwriting. To his credit, he does not pull off the "bitches" line very well.
With a different set of lyrics, ‘All I Want’ might have been a late-period classic for Gene. As it stands, some intrepid commercial ad person may wish to snip the chorus in all its lush AOR glory and use it in some advertisement to sell toilet paper. Or life insurance. Or how about one of those pharmaceutical commercials on CNN with a voiceover like: “Consult your doctor before using Despairigone. Side effects may include constipation, skin rash, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, headache, insomnia...” with 🎶All I want is your love, all I want is your kiss”🎶 providing the necessary counterpoint.
Mark my words, if this were to occur, Gene Clark would finally have that solo hit single that eluded him during his career.
And that, my friends, would be a pleasant side effect. I’m sure Nick would agree.
Listen to “All I Want” below.
1. The greatest cover-that-never-was: imagine Gene singing Nick’s ‘Which Will.’ You can just hear it, can’t you?