Saturday, 20 June 2009
As I’ve said many times throughout the course of writing this blog, it is intensely satisfying to discover the unmistakeable threads of Gene’s personality running through his work like strands of musical DNA. I did not know the man who died on May 24th, 1991, yet I’m quite certain that on a poetic level, I am intimately attuned to every nuance of his artistic spirit.
And what is becoming clear to me is that the sheer breadth and scope of his poetic vision grows larger with every song featured herein.
‘Pledge to You’, the nearly seven-minute opening track from the posthumously released collection of demos, Gypsy Angel, is quite possibly the greatest love song of Gene Clark’s career. At the very least it constitutes the apotheosis of his lifelong ruminations on Love/Death/Time extending as far back as ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ from 1965.
The song begins with a prefatory prayer/dream which at first resembles an overwrought dramatic reading by a cowboy’s campfire (straddling the line between truly emotive and downright corny) until Gene’s stirring vocal seizes upon the words “true love I ne-e-e-e-e-e-e-eed”, and leads us into the Clarkian mystic. In a rock and roll culture that is, by tradition, obsessed with irony, it is a testament to Gene’s talent that he could deliver these lines with such unabashed sentimentality and actually make them work. Ironic detachment is oftentimes a convenient escape hatch for performers who feel the need to remain self-consciously enigmatic (cf. Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan). Gene Clark never needed such refuge.(I challenge anyone to present a case for Gene having exhibited this regrettable tendency; for all his faults, he stood by his work.)
By the time Gene has finished singing the introductory portion of the song, one thing has become abundantly clear: he bloody well means it.
As far as the organic nature of the recording itself goes, the sibilance in Gene’s delivery, and the otherwise fuzzy enunciation, makes it difficult to transcribe the lyrics with any degree of certainty(It is my pet theory that the song was recorded around the time of Gene’s car accident, a partial result of which was problems with his teeth). To wit, “With you here with me” sounds uncannily like “wish you here with me”; “renew” sounds like “review”, et cetera). One need only perform a cursory search on the internet to witness the varying transcriptions floating about, some of which make no sense whatsoever.
In any event, and for what it is worth, here are my best efforts to transcribe the lyrics:
Pledge to You
(by Gene Clark)
I have a prayer,
I have a dream,
and I believe that in my life there's only one true love I need
and I can be free, I can be free
with you here with me.
For if the world we know should end without warning
I want one thing to be true
I pledge my love to you, my darling,
and I will be there with you.
Somewhere I see in the ages our past
You and I were again
In a romance we knew that would last
Till our own history’s end.
So I pledge my love to you every morning
I know only one thing,
If I've gone away and there’s no warning
I won't be away without you.
We’ll be together again and again
and each time we’ll renew,
Baby we’ll never remember just when;
All our dreams will come true.
So in my prayer I believe
That you can dream
Just as long as you leave
in the right way you've been
And back to the place:
If the world we know should end without warning
I pledge forever to you
I will be there every morning
In spirit and heart and
Even though we may be worlds, girl, apart
There is one thing we’ll know
Time has no boundary as far as our love
and that's as far as it wants to go.
So if the world we know should end without warning
I pledge my love, dear, to you
I pledge my love, dear, to you
I pledge my love to you.
‘Pledge to You’ is a not so much a lyric as it is a formal promise based in the chivalric code to which Clark himself had been betrothed since he began writing. But it goes beyond that into the realm of spiritual transcendence: these are marriage vows with no discernible beginning, nor any foreseeable ending: These are eternal marriage vows (an impression which is given further credence when one considers the twice-used phrase "I do").
In Clark’s prayer/vision, he and his love have met up in lifetime after lifetime (“and each time we’ll renew”) and have essentially manipulated and defied time and death: Same Time, Next Life. Thus the inherent limitations foisted upon us by our own mortality are made groundless,irrelevant. Time is usually seen as a foe, something against which a man battles while trying to ensure he has more of it. In Clark’s prayer, time has become an ally against which the forces of death are ultimately defeated by the naturally reoccurring, immutable laws of immortality governing the couple’s love. After they “leave” this world the lovers will instinctively know they have met up “again and again”: in each successive lifetime they will return to their sacred well-spring of renewal in this physical world: “Back to the place/Your embrace.”
But there is a troubling disconnect between the self-assurance of the lyric and the mournfulness of the melody. In spite of the bravado, the ominous spectre of sudden death hangs heavy. There are repeated, almost desperate, attempts by the singer to convince himself (“I want one thing to be true”) and his lover that the eternal nature of their love ultimately trumps whatever unexpected tragedies might befall them, and which might thus rob them of the ability to say a final goodbye. (That Gene’s own death was a sudden event, notwithstanding his well-documented health problems, is an especially poignant footnote.)
The rustic nature of the demo---the crude echo on Gene’s voice, and the occasionally audible thud of his foot tapping out the beat---creates an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere. We’re surely into Robert Johnson territory here; truly spine-tingling stuff. Add to these elements a melody featuring Clark at his dark-hued, haunting best and it becomes patently obvious that the singer is himself intimidated, possibly frightened, by death, even as he deems it impotent in the face of the limitlessness of time with which their love is equated: “Time has no boundary as far as our love/ And that’s as far as it wants to go.”
Following a breakdown which reprises the opening prayer, there comes an unusually brusque, almost Townshendian, series of power chords on his 12-string acoustic. These chords signal the moment that Clark begins his ascent towards the climax of the song: his final declaration, his final pledge, his showdown with Death.
By the time Gene has begun to sing the moving last verse (“Even though we may be words, girl, apart…”), it is clear that there is a grief-laden subtext to the narrative suggestive of an unexpected death (hers?), or at least a sense of one’s impending demise. But this in a purely corporeal sense, of course.
So real, so immediate, is the emotion in Gene’s voice that it sounds as if he is actually choking back tears during the performance. #
So in the last minute of the song the tension between the forces of Love and Death do battle within the final three declarations of love. In the first two declarations Gene’s voice is full of emotion tinged with grief. It is in the final, climactic declaration, however, that his vision of transcendence, of the victory of Love over Death, is most clearly felt.
It is the sound of the triumph of an immortal spirit.
# It is quite possible, however, that I am projecting upon him my own reaction.