My Held-Back Pages: Into the Vacuum of Gene Clark Sings for You
For Gene Clark, the period between the February 1967 release of the artistically rewarding but commercially ineffectual Gene Clark With the Gosdin Brothers and his subsequent re-emergence in October ’68 with The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark was marked with false starts, experimentation and regrouping. It would not be unreasonable to assume that generous helpings of frustration and self-doubt conspired to thwart his commercially bruised muse during this time.
It is also a period shrouded in a great deal of mystery and mythology among the Clark cognoscenti, largely because of the 8-song acetate of demos gamely entitled Gene Clark Sings for You. John Einarson’s excellent biography of Gene exploded many of the myths surrounding this collection of songs, chief among them the idea Sings for You was a fully realized, studio-slick masterpiece which had been unfairly sentenced to languish in the vaults. The truth, although far less dramatic than all of that, is just as compelling: Sings for You is a roughly performed collection of fully realized songs, and thus a more plausible, less-romanticized reflection of Clark’s state of mind during this 18-month period. While the writer in him was intact, his ability to effectively communicate, arrange and record these ideas was largely confounded. Somewhere in the process between gifted inspiration and shoddy execution lies the essence of Gene Clark’s 18 months at the creative crossroads.
By 1967, Clark’s early promise as a writer with an uncanny flair for composing commercially viable material was inexplicably rendered more or less impotent at the exact time he needed to establish himself separate and apart from McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman. In Byrds classics like ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ and ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ he had woven universal themes of love and loss with exuberant melodies, all of them tinged with the unmistakeable signature of melancholic yearning. In stark contrast to this, his post-’65 compositions would seem to indicate he spent more time working with his pen rather than his guitar pick. ‘Echoes,’ his first single flop, although now seen as a shimmering piece of chamber-pop poetry, even with proper publicity, could never have competed with the ultra-hip dynamo that was the Byrds’ ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,’ which managed to be lyrically interesting and extremely catchy. The aborted single ‘Only Colombe,’ which author/musician Sid Griffin memorably likened to Dylan fronting the Left Banke, was further evidence of Clark’s worsening (or deepening, depending on your viewpoint) obsession with Bob Dylan. Bottom line: ‘Only Colombe’’s lyrics are infinitely superior to its melody, which, even after repeated listens, fails to register on the applause meter. It didn’t have a good beat and you couldn’t dance to it--which was presumably part of the reason why it was pulled in the first place.
Rather than regroup in an attempt to write something along the lines of his previous triumphs with the Byrds, Gene chose instead to dive headlong into the dubious crevasse of narrative ambiguity and dizzying, complex wordplay. (He was now, for better or worse, at the apotheosis of his Dylan-worship.) Significantly, the Sings for You acetate reveals he occasionally sang in an obvious impersonation of Dylan’s style (‘7:30 Mode’); an affectation that shows how deeply he was under the spell, well after most of his peers (and Dylan himself) had moved on.
The vocal impersonation is indefensible, of course--especially since Gene had such a lovely voice in his own right--but what does one conclude about the lyrical explorations? Possibly a foolish move, and unquestionably unwise in a commercial sense, but after forty-one years one may smile and admire Gene’s obvious commitment to polishing his craft. What shines above all else in these recordings is his enduring love of words.
One must conclude that Gene felt compelled to explore this aspect of his writing and take it to its absolute zenith before he was able to find the perfect balance between meaningful lyrics and memorable melody (cf. 'Why Not Your Baby'). He would never again write a hit single, but there was still great music lying ahead, all of it pure Gene Clark.
Next installment: 'Past My Door' from Gene Clark Sings for You