Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Completion of San Francisco Trilogy: ‘On Her Own’

1. ‘On Her Own’ (Introduction/Character development)
2. ‘Past My Door’ (Complication/Conflict)
3. ‘Down By the Pier’ (Climax/Resolution)

In my earlier discussion of Sings for You tracks ‘Past My Door’ and ‘Down By the Pier’, I had gamely posited the notion that Gene had attempted a two-part narrative concerning a man’s ill-fated attempts to reconcile with his girlfriend, replete with an unforgettable final image of Clarkian pathos: a man standing alone on a San Francisco pier, impelled by some kind of masochistic delusion of faithfulness, waiting for a woman who will most certainly never arrive.
Recently, however, I have come to the view that Gene may have been attempting something even more ambitious: a thematically linked trilogy of songs, beginning in L.A. (presumably), and concluding in the streets and waterfront of San Francisco.
If we accept ‘Past My Door’ as part 2, and ‘Down by the Pier’ as part 3, ‘On Her Own’ can be effortlessly slipped into the narrative as the introductory part 1.
Lyrically inferior, but musically superior, to either ‘Door’ or ‘Pier,’ ‘On Her Own’ functions as: a) exposition assisting comprehension of its complexly worded sister pieces; and b) one of the few instances in these sessions where Gene’s ear for commerciality had not been supplanted in favour of occasionally overcooked, if not downright impenetrable, lyric writing.

The idea that the Sings for You collection included a projected trilogy did not occur to me until recently when, while transcribing the lyrics to ‘One Her Own’ I noted an unprecedented third reference to San Francisco. On its face this doesn’t seem at all out of character; certainly it wasn’t unusual for Gene to name cities in his lyrics, one of his first compositions recorded by the Byrds was entitled ‘Boston.’ Another one of his (many) unreleased songs was entitled ‘Bakersfield Train’; Dillard & Clark’s ‘Lyin’ Down the Middle’ name checks San Bernardino. But three references to San Francisco (a city in which he is not known to have resided) within the context of eight discrete cast-offs simply begs further investigation and admittedly, in my case, speculation.

A pitiful dearth of rock writers have seen fit to undertake serious analyses of Gene’s oeuvre, much fewer than, say, Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Because of this, there has been no corresponding fan-created, self-sustaining mythology over the decades. Learning of the legends (true or not) surrounding Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, Young's so-called “Doom Trilogy”, or Stills’ and Furay’s fortuitous sighting of Young’s black hearse on Sunset Boulevard, are as much a part of inculcating the hardcore fan as listening to the music itself.
It is my contention that because of this, what exists before me now is wide open, virgin terrain begging for discovery and speculation. Indeed, such speculation-via-analysis is completely necessary if we (I say “we” as a thank-you to Johnny Rogan and John Einarson before me, and in fervent hope of inspiring others after me) are to someday establish Gene as a writer on the level of, if not superior to, his more celebrated contemporaries.

So would it have been entirely out of the question for Gene to have written three thematically linked songs? Certainly a great portion of his songs were self-contained entities. He was prone to employing recurring themes and images in his lyrics, a few of which (the sea, the name Marie) have been identified in earlier posts of my blog. But to my knowledge he did not attempt to create anything as ambitious in scope as Townshend's Tommy/Quadrophenia, or McGuinn's Ibsen Rock excursions (with Jacques Levy) in the ill-fated Gene Tryp project, there are fascinating clues and indications in his officially released canon to suggest that Gene did not always see his songs as purely compartmentalized, standalone pieces.

Take ‘Blue Raven’, from 1984’s Firebyrd, a belated sequel to ‘Silver Raven’ from ’74’s No Other (“This time the raven is not silver/this time the raven is blue”); or how about ‘Release Me Girl’, ‘Liona’, and the long version of ‘My Marie’, three songs that make overt and---as co-writer Pat Robinson told me with respect to ‘My Marie’---deliberate use of the words “no other” in the lyrics as a self-referential nod to Gene’s masterwork. And even within the confines of the No Other album there are repeated references to “silver” as a unifying image.
From this we may conclude that Gene displayed at the very least a capacity to view his songs as interrelated; at the most we can see them as part of a continuum, a story.

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

Musically, ‘On Her Own’ begins with a sombrely plucked acoustic riff, soon joined by bass, drums, and electric guitar. As the song gathers steam, the drum pattern during the verses resembles a slowed-down variation on the pattern employed by Mitch Mitchell in Hendrix’s ‘I Don’t Live Today’, released earlier that same year [1967]. It’s an interesting, unusual pattern that suits the song perfectly, especially in light of the underlying themes of abandonment: the quick triple-snare hit on the second off beat leads to a snare-crash hit on the fourth, thus creating a sense of undercutting, like a sudden, repeated misstep down a flight of stairs. The arpeggiated guitar lines are fluid and rich throughout the verse sections, and it is this palpable tension between stability and uneasiness which sets the stage for an examination of the lyrical content.

What double lines I must have been crossing
Between the bold awakening and the asleep,
She slipped away and I wasn't dreaming,
I don't know what she plans to do for her keep.


The idea of having crossed “double lines” constitutes a pivotal, triple-pronged metaphor that draws a line of demarcation squarely through the middle of the narrative. The narrator’s lover has disappeared before the dawn while he has remained asleep. From his gradual awakening to what has transpired (“What double lines I must have been crossing …”), we may conclude that he has effectively crossed the line with her. Taking this one step further, the juxtaposition of one who is literally and fuguratively awake(ned) with one who remains asleep suggests her long-festering resentment of his emotional aloofness, and her realization that the existing dynamic within the relationship is no longer tenable; indeed, it is something which necessitates the “bold awakening”. As if this were not enough information to pack into three lines, Clark also manages to employ this same traffic metaphor to further the narrative: the verb "crossing" implies movement along a highway. In a figurative interpretation, it also suggests that her path and his may have reached a point of bifurcation. She is en route to a new life.

In the second verse, an image of hilltops obfuscated by low-hanging mist behind which snow may or may not be present, signifies the cold remoteness he has apprehended in her demeanour (retrospectively) in the wake of her departure: He is stung by the realization that she had been plotting to leave him for some time. This interpretation is accentuated in the next two lines in language that eschews metaphor for the plain speech of harsh reality: “Could it be in the back of her mind/Where she had planned to go?”

The cause of the tiff is not known, but again, we may deduce the reason from Clark's choice of words.

If you see me in San Francisco
You can tell your friends, I don't mind.


For all we know, the "friends" to which he alludes might be a reference to Diana and Stella from 'Down By the Pier.' He confesses a paucity of purpose for being in San Francisco, and the certainty of the line "It's got to be that girl I'd like to find" suggests that were it not for her, he wouldn't be there in the first place.
Her flight to Frisco and his implicit knowledge of her whereabouts might possibly be construed as a hint to the reason for the estrangement: her desire to live there conflicts with his desire to stay in L.A.

So far so good. But the song takes a serious nosedive in its chorus. "She likes to walk in the rain" is as trite as it gets; a serious groaner, and a potentially fatal drop in quality control. "She's got a strong mind of her own" is a little better, because while the line ostensibly describes her strong-willed personality, the addition of "of her own" offers a submerged hint about his own tendencies toward willfulness.

During the sombre bridge, beginning with the words "Seven days a week ..." the mood darkens. As in 'Pier' and 'Door', happier times are recalled before the grim reality intrudes:

But what words I hear when she told me how much she loves me.
Draw back the shades, I might as well sleep.


The first line is interesting because of the switches in tenses. She "told" him that she loves him, but he "hear[s]" words as a result. With this, Gene is describing the process of writing: when she offered kind words of love to him, the words would be, in turn, filtered and interpreted through his own poetic muse.
The brief reverie is interrupted by the realization that those words would no longer fuel his soul or his muse, resulting in a desire to escape in sleep.

But the stage is now set for the next day's events: his attempt to effect a reconciliation after showing up at her apartment complex.
(See Part 2, 'Past My Door')

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




On Her Own
(by Gene Clark)

What double lines I must have been crossing
Between the bold awakening and the asleep,
She slipped away and I wasn't dreaming,
I don't know what she plans to do for her keep.

Well, the mist hangs low on the hill
And you never see snow
Could it be in the back of her mind
Where she had planned to go?

If you see me in San Francisco
You can tell your friends, I don't mind.
I don't know why I go to Frisco
It's got to be that girl that I'd like to find.

She likes to walk in the rain
She's got a strong mind of her own
And I never hear her complain
She took to living on her own.

Seven days a week I wake up and look out my window,
Sometimes I feel so low I can hardly speak,
But what words I hear when she told me how much she loved me,
Draw back the shades I might as well sleep.

If you see me in San Francisco
You can tell your friends, I don't mind.
I don't know why I go to Frisco
It's got to be that girl that I'd like to find.

She likes to walk in the rain
She's got a strong mind of her own
And I've never heard her complain
She takes to living on her own.

8 comments:

Jingle Jangle Mourning said...

Very impressive work. I'm sorry that so few people seem to take the time to comment on this.

I still hope that one day the world will get to hear these songs, one way or another. Until then, your describtions of the music and analysis of the lyrical content will most certainly serve as a nice substitute.

Thanks again, Andreas

The Clarkophile said...

Thanks so much for your comment. I was beginning to think there were tumbleweeds blowing through the comments section---ha.
Anyway, I appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment. Means a great deal to me.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tom,
I really enjoyed reading all of the posts about the songs from Gene's Sings For You. I agree with Jingle Jangle, I hope that one day we will get to hear these songs.
I wanted to mention that I really enjoyed your article about Wimple Winch. What are you working on now?
Do you have anything coming out in upcoming editions of Shindig or elsewhere? Thanks again fo all that you do!

The Clarkophile said...

Sorry it took me so long to get your comment up, FireByrd.
Thank you for the kind comments.

I've got several things on the go at the moment, none of which I seem to have time for, heh. Do you know The Lemon Drops, a garage band from Illinois who appeared on the Rhino Nuggets box set? I'm writing a full length piece on them, just in the initial stages of conducting interviews and doing my homework.
Hope to have a new blog post soon.

So very kind of you to leave a comment. Much appreciated!

Sha said...

Hey! I meant to leave another comment long ago to let you know I'm still enjoying your dedicated work on Gene's music.
I thought his birthday would be an appropriate day to actually do this :-)
Which song do you plan to analyse next? As much as I liked your discussion of the Sings for You songs I'd love to hear your thoughts on a song that I can actually listen to while reading. What about Strenght of Strings? Dark of My Moon? In A Misty Morning? Just some of my very favourites...
Have a genetastic day ;-)
Sha

The Clarkophile said...

Hi Sha!
I was hoping you were still dropping by. Thanks for leaving a message.

You must be a mindreader or something because all of the songs you named are coming up (and all BIG favourites of mine). Next piece will either be '1975' from White Light or one of the ones you posted.

Tom

Sha said...

Hey Tom,

oh, that sounds terrific! I'm not sure about my abilities to read minds but I'm quite sure we both have great taste :-)
As for In A Misty Morning I did not notice it too much until I heard the acoustic demo (the one with the "Doug, I might just do another one since nobody's here yet.." bit). That one really knocked me off my socks! I often find that I enjoy Gene's songs more in a very simple setting with just him and his guitar. Even though there are exceptions (eg. most of No Other) I feel that sometimes the arrangement is doing more harm than good to a song.
What are your thoughts on this?

All the best from a rain gray town,
Sha

The Clarkophile said...

That's an interesting point. Many of my favourite Gene moments ('Kathleen', 'Pledge To You', etc.) feature Gene only.

No Other is a different animal altogether, and needs to be analyzed as such, I think. There's really nothing else like it in Gene's canon, and while some bemoan the layered production as overkill, I think T.J. Kaye was trying to get huge sounds that matched the majesty of Gene's lyrics. It was a big gamble that obviously did not pay off commercially, but I do believe it is the apotheosis of Gene's artistic pursuits.
If it hadn't been a crushing failure, and he had been buoyed by success and acceptance, who knows what he would have done next?

The failure of No Other really killed him, I think. It set in motion an inexorable chain of events that eventually led to May 24th, 1991.