Saturday, 20 December 2008

My Held-Back Pages: Into the Vacuum of Gene Clark Sings for You, Part 4



Past Tense
Recorded late 1967
Gold Star Studios
Unreleased acetate entitled Gene Clark Sings for You
Personnel:
Gene Clark: Vocal, acoustic guitar
Alex Del Zoppo: Electric piano
Unknown: Bass
Unknown: Drums, maraccas

'Past Tense'
Written by Gene Clark

Walking with your head high past the crowd
Someone is calling to you your name.
Plain unaware or maybe too proud
To be playing such a small a game.

I don't see how easy you could miss
Don't you realize where she is?
Or maybe you think she'll always wait,
’Cause you see her standing there again.

I know you don't know what it means
For her to see your face again.
I know you think she'll never leave
I say you've another guess, my friend

All of those days that I have seen
Her standing all alone on her own
Past tense and what did she really mean?
And you want her to want you back again.

(Brief instrumental bridge)

I know you don't know what it means
For her to see your face again.
I assume you think she'll never leave
I say you've another guess, my friend.

All of those days that I have seen
Her standing all alone on her own
Past tense and what did she really mean?
And you want her to want you back again.

************************************************

In 2000, Not Lame, a power pop label headquartered in Colorado, released a now sadly out-of-print 2-CD tribute to Gene Clark entitled Full Circle (Hint: try eBay). Perhaps not surprisingly, considering Not Lame’s laudable raison d’etre, Gene’s proto-powerpop compositions from the 1960’s proved most popular for plundering: indeed, 25 of 36 songs (two other songs were specially written tributes) were either written or co-written by Gene before 1970.
Notwithstanding the myriad discussions on Internet music forums as to what does and does not constitute power pop, I shall now humbly offer my own definition of what this subgenre is to me:
Powerpop is a term which embraces brief, compact songs (usually 2:30-3:30) featuring a driving tempo, jangly, sometimes overdriven guitars, sweetened, hook-laden harmonies, and fill-heavy drum patterns. Invariably, the subject matter of the songs concerns idealized, and usually unattainable, girls---not women. It’s my belief that this is a crucial distinction to make because the underlying ethos of the music is nothing less than the distillation of awkward adolescence---with all its melodramatic immediacy, chronic self-absorption, inherent contradictions and clumsy intensity---into a single song. Accordingly, the music contains its share of postured bravado reflected in tough guitar riffs and a compelling romantic storyline (cf. The Raspberries’ ‘Go All the Way’). But beyond this veneer of toughness, at its core powerpop communicates any given teenaged boy’s emotional vulnerability and confusion; powerpop has traditionally been the domain of disaffected, lonely, often nerdy males. (Thus Pete Townshend, big-nosed, windmilling guitar hero for unpopular, pimply teenaged boys everywhere, became Powerpop’s first Patron Saint; it is only fitting that Townshend himself coined the term “power pop.”)

In rock history, Gene Clark is generally acknowledged as having been among a select few who can reasonably lay claim to have been a pivotal figure of influence in the early stages of three musical genres: psychedelia (‘Eight Miles High’), country-rock (With the Gosdin Brothers/Dillard & Clark) and the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970’s (‘71’s White Light). The Not Lame tribute album speaks volumes about Clark’s influence over an entirely new generation of powerpoppers and provides ample evidence to support the contention that Clark’s mid-sixties output places him squarely at the forefront of the birth of still another genre. With ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,’ ‘The World Turns Around Her,’ ‘She Don’t Care About Time,’ to name but three, Gene (with the other Byrds, of course), helped usher in a form of pop music which was both chiming and chunky, told a story, and had mellifluous harmonies floating above it all as reflections of the storyteller/singer’s underlying vulnerability. Listen to Big Star’s Radio City alongside the above-suggested songs to see what I mean.

Up until now, Gene’s final forays into the proto-power pop genre would have been found on his first solo album (‘Couldn’t Believe Her’/ ‘Is Yours Is Mine’), since of course, his return in 1968 with Dillard & Clark signalled a turn toward an entirely new direction, country-rock. He never really returned to this kind of prototypical powerpop, although a case could certainly be made that the aborted 1970 solo single ‘She’s The Kind of Girl’ and ‘One in a Hundred’ could be viewed as a matured return to the genre.

Thus it came as a welcome shock to discover that the Sings for You demo reveals one final stab at proto-powerpop: ‘Past Tense.’

Devoid of the kind of wordplay that characterizes much of Sings for You, ‘Past Tense’ is a spiffy little rocker which tells a story of teenage melodrama similar in spirit to Lennon’s ‘You’re Going to Lose That Girl'. In this song, however, our narrator upbraids his friend for having treated his ex so cruelly by continuing to sadistically manipulate her feelings even after having rejected her.
This ability to empathize with the girl’s feelings, as opposed to his friend’s, displays a return to the chivalric code that had characterized so many of his early Byrds classics. These recurring themes of honour, integrity and personal accountability constitute some of Gene’s most charming qualities as a songwriter. In reality, we know he failed to live up to these high standards in his personal life, but the aspiration to this kind of dignified, gallant character runs like a telltale fingerprint throughout his career (One instantly recalls his objection to Tom Slocum’s use of the word “bitches” in the otherwise gorgeous ‘All I Want.’) Perhaps this code of honour was something to which he aspired, but could never attain because of his private demons. But from those I have spoken to who were close to him, when sober, Gene was a classic gentleman: always impeccably dressed and coiffed, polite and respectful.

Musically, ‘Past Tense’ begins with a brief acoustic riff, played by Gene, whereupon a powerful two-shot snare fill suddenly propels the song into high gear. Alex Del Zoppo’s electric piano enters the fray with a slightly ominous-sounding pulse pattern, similar in feeling to that found on ‘I Am the Walrus,’ creating a discernible seriousness, laying the groundwork for the melodramatic storyline to come.

The chorus is a delight, featuring, for the first time on the Sings for You tracks, a harmony vocal:

I don't see how easy you could miss
Don't you realize where she is?
Or maybe you think she'll always wait,
’Cause you see her standing there again.

There’s a definite Monkees vibe; one wishes that an experienced pop producer like Don Kirshner or Curt Boettcher could have had a go at realizing the anthemic commercial potential herein, which is merely hinted at in this bare-bones demo. But even in this form, Gene’s plaintive vocal effectively communicates both the narrator’s anger towards his friend’s conduct, and his compassion for the girl’s situation.

The drummer obviously felt caught up in the song’s powerpop potential, providing a series of Keith Moon style fills. Ultimately, however, without electric guitars to provide similarly aggressive propulsion and a corresponding degree of heaviness, the drums feel overplayed and intrusive. What is sorely missing here is McGuinn’s chiming Rickenbacker, Crosby’s chunky rhythm, and, of course, their peerless vocals as the cherry on top. One cannot help but fantasize, had fate been kinder to Gene Clark, what a devastating one-two punch the late-’67-era Byrds could have delivered with ‘Past Tense’ slated as B-side to Crosby’s relentlessly energetic ‘Lady Friend’ (both songs were written in roughly the same time frame).#

If the Sings for You tracks were ever someday released for public consumption, I think it’s a safe bet that some aspiring power pop group out there would seize upon ‘Past Tense’ and build upon its potential. The master architect’s blueprint is drawn; what is required now are the skilled workmen to make that vision a tuneful reality.
Were that to occur, it would put the lie to earlier notions proffered within this very blog wherein I lamented the fact that Gene lost his commercial ear around the time of the aborted ‘Only Colombe’ single. Until that day arrives, I can only say that this was simply not the case and I regret having made that earlier assertion. In the end, we are presented with still more compelling evidence that Sings for You needs to be heard on a wider scale: ‘Past Tense’ is a song that is too good to be thought of in the manner suggested by its title; it deserves to be sung and heard in the present tense. Now.

# The failure of ‘Lady Friend’ to connect with punters at the time of its release, or to be subsequently acknowledged as one of the finest singles of the 1960’s, is a travesty to me.

6 comments:

goodmusicguy said...

Right On, Brother! You get it, 'all the way'(sic) - but what to expect from someone who has such excellent blog, eh?! Keep up the good work(and good taste)! From the guy's whose label put this tribute out! (Bruce, the Not Lame guy)

The Clarkophile said...

Thanks, Bruce. Full Circle is my all-time favourite tribute disc; some really inspired performances on there. Glad I got my copy before it went OOP!
Not Lame is good people.

bdb said...

Another great tribute in writing.

The Clarkophile said...

Thank you very much! Encouraging comments like yours are what keep me going.

Stephanie said...

Thank you for this blog.

The Clarkophile said...

Thanks for reading and leaving a message!