Songwriting 101: 'Strength of Strings' from No Other
Audacious and ambitious in its breadth and scope, ‘Strength of Strings’ epitomizes the cursorily vague philosophical core of No Other, and provides best evidence of the heights to which Gene’s muse might have taken him, had he not been emotionally eviscerated by the failure of his Grand Artistic Statement.
It also refutes any compulsion to pigeonhole Gene as just another sensitive, laid-back 70’s singer-songwriter. Yes, it is true, the stark, acoustic-based love songs on White Light certainly leaned in this direction. As a result, it is often lumped in with the 1971's graduating class from the James Taylor School for Sensitive Denim-Wearing Balladeers. While the often esoteric nature of the lyrics does not always support this categorization, the relative harmlessness of the music does.
What I mean to say is that the lyrics on White Light easily outshine any of its sometimes meandering, often innocuous, melodies. To anyone who did not read the lyrics of 'Spanish Guitar', it might seem like a pleasant little ditty. The title track features a loping melody over a non-stop barrage of largely impenetrable lyrics. Obviously a great deal of work went into the symbolism and complexity of White Light's words, but the blandness of their presentation does not reflect this intensity(cf. the anemic White Light version of 'One in a Hundred' with the definitive, simply glorious take on Roadmaster featuring the original five Byrds).
I sometimes wonder if Gene, as on earlier songs written during his cerebral Sings for You period (''66/'67), concentrated on honing his lyrics to the detriment of his melodies. (It is my theory it was for this reason that the Sings for You demos were permanently shelved.) But ‘Strength of Strings’ obliterates any conception of Gene as just another Dylan-worshipping, acoustic guitar-toting words guy. Consider this: it is a full two minutes into this six-and-a-half-minute epic until a single word is sung. Two full minutes. To my knowledge, no other Clark song from his officially released canon features a comparable interlude that is wholly dependent upon what its writer sought to communicate through pure, wordless music.
Beginning with a dual acoustic/electric guitar riff with an insistent, distinctly Native American texture, other instruments gradually join, as though awakened by, and compelled to replicate, the notes. Drums and bass soon enter, accentuating the final notes of the pattern, as if to gently presage the thundering climax of the song still some minutes away. But the pattern resumes; and each time it is repeated, the song’s intensity rises. An eerie chorale enters in the next cycle, interpreting the riff as hypnotic tribal chant.
But all of this is merely prelude.
Russ Kunkel’s dramatic, resonant tom-tom fill at the 1:30 mark launches the song into its next section, wherein an ethereal slide riff (presumably played by Gene’s partner-in-crime, Jesse Ed Davis) soars heavenward on the wings of the seraphic chorale. What occurs in those thirty seconds (1:30-2:00) constitutes some of the most exhilarating, deeply soulful music I have ever heard. For those brief seconds, Clark’s case for music as a profound, mystical-spiritual force is made without having uttered a word. It is, quite simply, a moment of transcendence.
The sweeping, cinematic grandeur of the first two minutes does present a problem. How does one follow this intro without rendering the remaining minutes of the song as pure anticlimax? Where do we go from here? And after such a dramatic stage has been set for his lead vocal, shouldn’t Gene’s opening salvo feature lyrics that aspire to the same lofty goal as the music? But when Gene makes his verbal entrance into the song a strange thing occurs. In a nice bit of ironic undercutting, he readily admits his impotence to craft language to adequately match the power of the music surging within him:
In my life the piano sings
Brings me words that are not the strength of strings.
But just listen to how Gene sings these lines. Think of the hushed, bedsit-romanticism of ‘With Tomorrow’, or the weathered but stoic reading of ‘Echoes’—this is something else entirely. Empowered by Kaye’s epic, Wagnerian production, Gene sounds as though he’s poised on the bridge of a ship, cursing into the eye of a fearsome gale. Pushed to the edge of his range, brimming with operatic gusto, Gene’s magnificent performance carried the day.
One of the things that makes Gene’s lyrics so deeply compelling was his ability to convey abstract concepts in very few words. In the above he affirms the inherent power of music over language, even as he explicates the vagaries of songwriting methodology: Music fires his imagination, compels him to write lyrics, but he concedes that his words could never embody the power he absorbs from the music.
It is this tension between aspiration and failure which results in the compulsion to capture, interpret and disseminate this power into language (lyrics). This cyclical phenomenon constitutes an artist’s creative surges; they are his self-regenerating lifeblood.
While it’s doubtful that Gene read Robert Browning, he had an intuitive knowledge that any artist’s reach must exceed his grasp.
With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Gene, notwithstanding his earlier admission of impotence, goes ahead anyway and attempts to capture in words exactly how he internalizes music as a series of startling visions:
Notes that roll on winds with swirling wings,
Brings me words that are not the strength of strings.
Fiery rain and rubies,
Now I see that my world has only begun.
“Notes that roll on winds with swirling wings” is one of the most exquisite lines Gene Clark ever wrote, and yet, in spite of this, he concluded that these words do not adequately reflect the power of music burning within him. Next come a series of seemingly conflicting images: a rain of fire; a sun that cools. Is this just hippy-dippy mystic babble, or is there maybe something more going on here?
With these words, Gene has constructed images in which naturally occurring opposites are harmoniously reconciled in the act of musical creation. He has created a sphere of musical perfection within his mind.
Some might find the “cosmic range” line a tad irksome, but this is just another way of saying “out on the end of time”, as he did some nine years prior with ‘She Don’t Care About Time’. In this instance, it is an expression of the boundlessness of a songwriter’s imagination in communion with the unseen (yet seen) musical-spiritual divinity.
‘Strength of Strings’ is a hymn to this divinity.