Sunday, 25 January 2009

Incredible Armada Undermined: '7:30 Mode' from Gene Clark Sings For You


7:30 Mode
Written by Gene Clark
Vocal, acoustic guitar: Gene Clark
Bass, drums and lead guitar: Unknown
Recorded late 1967, Gold Star Studios

The apotheosis of his Dylan worship and a touchstone for future metaphor mining, ‘7:30 Mode’ was the most ambitious lyric Gene had attempted thus far, rife with striking images, fictional/mythical characters and complex, sometimes downright incomprehensible, wordplay. At six minutes in length, with no chorus, no identifiable catchphrase(s), no instrumental hooks, its only solo a fifteen-second harmonica teaser, and bearing a title with no immediately identifiable significance to whatever it was he was singing about,‘7:30 Mode’ was clearly an audacious attempt to hit a poetic home run, and the intended centrepiece of the Sings For You sessions.

It was Gene's first epic.

Whether or not it was a successful epic is up to the individual reader, of course, but one thing is undeniable: As evidenced from its carefully structured, image-crammed, (mostly) ten-syllable lines, Gene must have pored over these words for days on end, refining, editing, re-jigging. For all we know, he may have even agonized over the piece in an amphetamine-fueled frenzy, locked away in his white-walled room out on the end of time, hoping that these efforts would somehow re-establish him as a formidable writing force in the music community. Or perhaps it was the result of an all-night writing session of the sort that spawned ‘Set You Free this Time’ and probably dozens of others.
In any event, a concerted effort went into its creation; he obviously had high hopes for this work.

Abandoned by its author over forty years ago, the lyrics are herein transcribed for the first time. You be the judge. Should Gene have pursued this piece and seen it through to its eventual release?

7:30 Mode

Through smoky shadowed blues of evening's fall
Did you hear the wind's harmonic whine?
Purple into blackness now we all,
and grey becomes a thought, respect from time.
The Love Man slings his reels of smiles and rhyme
But somehow he does not see her at all,
For though his mellow chrome-wheeled carriage glides
The looking glass has shown her still another.

The choruses of windup children dance
While Nancy has to pay for her new rainbow.
Fringe disillusions passed her into a trance,
Her days of Pocahontas 'neath the table
To figure out, to round about me here,
Or thinking to relate her where she stands,
How morning just proceeds without a flaw,
The questions in the drumming depths of oceans.

The ragman never stops to wonder why
The streets are haunted by his own reflection
Simple gaze of who and where am I
Out from his sooty portrait of rejection
At least complex, a web of steel and glass
Find thoughts there stumbling into one another.
Theresa says her teacher was fool;
Her Aunt Marie says blame is to her mother.

harmonica solo

The Flying Dutchman's lone acoustic drone
Spans time, it weighs no payment to his measure.
Through galleries of endless stormy seas
He roams, bearing his brain to be unfilled.
Eight-hundred years before the mast have lost
He dares not death, lest all his sails be flattened
Room only for relation to an end
There is no cause to seed, to care or need.

Congratulations to the thread-strung horn,
He blew until his notes were lent unable.
His soul stripped bare to bleed of its remorse,
Incredible armada undermined.
Tracked not to be confined, to just exist
In a medium splintered stating of what is,
He left his strings to melt into no song,
The wake of some years past can now be settled.


Is each stanza a standalone narrative? Is there some common theme? What is this song about? We’ll never know the true answers to these questions because, as far as I know, there is no record of Gene's having discussed it with anyone.
What I offer then is my humble take on his words, based on a lifetime of having been moved by them.

The first stanza introduces us to an outdoor scene in which colour, or the lack thereof, acts as metaphor for the motivations of two individuals riding in a carriage:

Through smoky shadowed blues of evening's fall
Did you hear the wind's harmonic whine?
Purple into blackness now we all,
and grey becomes a thought, respect from time.
The Love Man slings his reels of smiles and rhyme
But somehow he does not see her at all,
For though his mellow chrome-wheeled carriage glides
The looking glass has shown her still another.

The italicized words draw attention to the images of colour, suggestive of both the time of day and uncertainty of the times. Smoke and shadows hint at unseen forces, ulterior motives; howling wind is traditionally a fear-inducing trope.
Purple is an odd colour for Gene to have chosen (I can hear Gene’s detractors--and perhaps even my own--crying “Purple prose!”). From the transition of “purple into blackness” we might infer that purple, suggestive of all things regal and, by extension, affluent--perhaps even prosperous, has spiralled downward into the black hole of poverty. Maybe Clark envisioned a Depression-era scene in which the rakish socialite preys upon the vulnerability of the impecunious woman he has—ahem--taken for a ride in his chrome-wheeled carriage? What the Love Man hasn’t counted on, however, is that woman has ulterior motives of her own.
The fourth line felt remarkably familiar to me, as though I had heard its message in another Clark-penned song. Then I remembered the payoff line in ‘I Remember the Railroad’:

So I see the jet planes flying
I watch them out of sight
I keep on what I'm tryin'
Hoping that time will treat me right
I remember the railroad line.


‘Grey becomes a thought, respect from time’ says essentially the same thing: The uncertainty of what lies in the future does not infuse us with a sense of hope or potential for happiness; instead it induces fear and dread. The big difference in '7:30 Mode' is that the sense of hope has been suspended; it is now a grey area.

I found the second stanza to be largely impenetrable, but here goes. The “windup children” line may be a reference to cookie-cutter programs propelling children through the educational system as though they were preprogrammed dolls on a conveyor belt. Juxtaposed with this is the image of Nancy, whose “rainbow,” presumably a desire for independent thought and expression, must be paid for. Independence is not easily won. Her disillusionment with the system sends her into a trance, whereupon her path in life becomes confused. Days proceed in an apparently normal fashion “without a flaw,” but inside her the confusion still reigns: “The questions in the drumming depths of oceans.”
Could Nancy be a metaphor for Clark himself? After all, as we saw earlier with ‘Kathleen’ and will encounter again once we get to ‘The Virgin,’ it was not unusual for Gene to cloak his stereotypically less-than-manly feelings of vulnerability in the guise of a female proxy. (One of the places Nancy turns is “round about me here”; the meaning is clear: our narrator knows her.)
Gene had been in a band that, after his departure, went on to write a song about the cookie-cutter nature of rock stardom; a band who mimed like puppets to songs on TV shows. Maybe the artifice of showbiz contributed to the deafening drumming in the depths of his own soul.

Next up is a seemingly aloof streetperson, whose importance here is gauged not by his own feelings, but by how he is perceived by others. The reason the streets are haunted is because his presence there has a disturbing effect on those who see him, who view his “simple gaze” as an expression of existential angst: “Who and where am I?” A gaze does not speak; it must be interpreted. Therefore, those who interpret his gaze in this manner are projecting their own philosophical questioning onto the ragman. He has effectively become their proxy.

Meanwhile, perhaps on these same haunted streets, complex webs of steel and glass--metaphors for the skyscrapers and the business-minded occupants therein--match wits and make deals by stumbling into each other. The ragman's poverty is squarely juxtaposed with the affluence of the movers and shakers of big business. But neither rich or poor seem at peace. The ragman sits in his own filth; the rich business-people "stumble."
But the jarring, rather awkward transition into Theresa’s complaints about her teacher constitutes an unsatisfying non sequitur.
There is no adequate resolution of the tension in the rich/poor dynamic.

The shift to Theresa might have been intended to echo Nancy’s disillusionment with the educational system noted earlier in the song. Otherwise I am at a loss to explain the presence of this line. The subsequent reference to Aunt Marie is significant in that Marie will be the name given to other women in Gene’s later works.

With the ragman and the windup children, one is instantly reminded of the exquisite ‘Spanish Guitar,’ from 1971’s White Light:

The beggar who sits in the street
On his miserable throne of defeat
Envisions no wealth there to meet
Thinking nowhere is far.

And the laughter of children employed
By the fantasies not yet destroyed
By the dogmas of those they avoid
Knowing not what they are.


The difference here is that in ‘Spanish Guitar’ Gene proffers the beggar’s point of view, while the laughing children are blissfully ignorant of the fact that their dreams, like those of Theresa and the wind-up children, will eventually be destroyed.
These ideas are more fully realized on ‘Spanish Guitar,’ insofar as the images are tighter, crisper, and the music more accurately reflects the spirit of the lyric.

The Flying Dutchman's lone acoustic drone
Spans time, it weighs no payment to his measure.
Through galleries of endless stormy seas
He roams, bearing his brain to be unfilled.
Eight-hundred years before the mast have lost
He dares not death, lest all his sails be flattened
Room only for relation to an end
There is no cause to seed, to care or need.


A mythical character, the Flying Dutchman was a ship’s captain who deliberately steered his vessel headlong into the path of a gale, all the while drinking and singing songs, ignoring the pleas of crew and passengers to turn back. Legends say the vessel and crew were sentenced to roam the seas for all eternity, sometimes seen by mariners during terrifying gales in the image of a ghost ship.
Here, Gene transforms the Flying Dutchman into a character whose eternal voyage is not imposed upon him, it is undertaken by choice as a means of escaping the burden he bears in his mind: “Through galleries of endless stormy seas/He roams, bearing his brain to be unfilled.” His eternal voyage will only conclude when he has successfully divested himself of all burdens, responsibilities and obligations:

Room only for relation to an end
There is no cause to seed, to care, or need.


(It should be noted here that, again, Gene’s trusty go-to image in future work, the Sea, has made another unforgettable appearance.)

I believe the final stanza is a veiled reference to Gene’s experience in the Byrds and its (for him anyway)harrowing aftermath. Congratulations are offered to a musician via the deliberate conflation of the functional requirements of stringed and horn instruments (“Thread-strung horn”). He has performed the feat of combining two modes of music making into one. In much the same way, The Byrds successfully combined two distinctly separate genres of music, folk and rock, into the cohesive whole of Folk-Rock. Gene lent his talents and writing skills to the Byrds until he, like the stringed horn player, felt was unable to do so any longer.
In the wake of this inability to contribute, the horn player’s soul, which we can now conclude reflects Gene’s own, is “stripped bare to bleed of its remorse.”
Let’s be clear here: Everyone knew, or ought to have known, that Gene never intended to leave the Byrds. Does anyone ever doubt that Gene was completely eviscerated by this unfortunate event?

To come up with an image to succinctly capture this sense of personal failure interwoven within the group's collective self-sabotage, Gene delivers one of the most extraordinary lines of his career. It is a line that compresses three years of life experiences, from his triumph with the Byrds to the meltdown that led to his departure from the group, into one unforgettable image: “Incredible armada undermined.”
The Byrds were a band whose success was built upon mutual ambition, determination, talent and vision. The yin to this yang is that within their own ranks they were also wholly reliant upon the creative energy generated from infighting, competition, envy, pettiness, intimidation and aggression. The two conflicting forces, positive and negative, created a battle-ready armada who became the biggest band in America at the time: America's Answer to the Beatles. For Gene, however, it was doomed from its inception because he simply could not reconcile these disparate impulses. Whether it was Crosby’s intimidation, McGuinn’s leadership, or the indifference of Hillman and Clarke to take his side, Gene found the situation no longer tenable. The track had been laid, its course inevitable. But even with this self-awareness he could not find the exact words to explain the conundrum which led to his meltdown.
His explanation comes “In a medium, splintered stating of what is,”; a line rife with vague, unhelpful qualifiers, and therefore one which could be easily misinterpreted by his fellow Byrds.

The last line of the song tells us Gene’s vessel has left the armada and come into dry dock. The wake it once created is settled. In other words, in the fallout of his leaving the Byrds, Gene's career momentum has subsided, but the upshot is the water is now calm. That is the tradeoff; that is the compromise he had to make to survive.


In the end, ‘7:30 Mode’ is a song which found Gene developing his own idiosyncratic style while still in the thrall of his Dylan-worship. Even though he abandoned the work, the images he conjured for it obviously had a profound effect upon him, insofar as these images would become Clarkian standbys. The seafaring images, the use of a female proxy and the ability to infuse single lines with abstruse concepts are just a some of the reasons why ‘7:30 Mode’ is a pivotal work in Clark's unreleased canon, and convincing evidence of his growth as an artist (Let’s not forget he was only 23 years old at this point).
But for those who read his words as I’ve transcribed them herein, and who are reading my words at this moment, there is an implicit understanding between us that it is the soul of the man that lies behind the poetry that fascinates us so.