‘Dark of My Moon’ Part 1: 1988-1991

Notwithstanding the excellence of So Rebellious a Lover, his 1987 duet album with Carla Olson, or Tom Petty’s high-profile 1989 cover of the evergreen ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’, Gene Clark’s professional reputation had reached its nadir in the last two and a half years of his life.

Why? Well, apart from the bridge-burning antics of the 1970s that precipitated the loss of contracts with major labels like Asylum and RSO, his mid-80s decision to form the 20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds – a loose aggregation of under-rehearsed, substance-abusing pirates and assorted confederates – betrayed almost pitiable desperation and shortsightedness, if not downright tackiness.  He must have really needed the money to sell his musical soul in this way.  Indeed, the Byrds tribute period is an awkward, if not cringe-inducing, time to discuss, even for Gene’s most ardent fans.  

After all, Gene had always been the coolest, most handsome Byrd; the one with sartorial dash and a darkly mysterious aura born of fascinating contrasts. He was by no means inarticulate, but Clark’s folksy speech gave no indication of the tortured poet within.  He had a muscular build that oozed rugged masculinity, yet he penned some of the most emotionally vulnerable lines in all of rock.  (As an aside, it’s my belief that this juxtaposition of strength and vulnerability largely constitutes Gene’s appeal to both sexes.) He had also created a body of work that commanded respect from his modest, but fiercely loyal, fanbase.  

The Byrds tribute period, however, tested the tenacity of one’s fandom and faith in -- as Paul Nelson put it in his notorious review of Two Sides To Every Story -- "the once-classy Clark." 

Indeed, some might say that this fateful decision robbed him of his previously unassailable cool, the stigma from which he would never fully recover (certainly the bitterness remained for McGuinn, Hillman & Crosby, who unforgivably froze Gene out of their brief reformation of the Byrds in 1989). 

Cynical, opportunistic cash-grabs like the Byrds 20th Anniversary might reap benefits in the short term, but the lingering after-effects tend to besmirch the integrity of the brand.  Just ask any purist fan of The Who.

In the period immediately after the release of So Rebellious a Lover leading up to his death in May 1991, Gene had been out of the major leagues for over a decade.  He had seemingly resigned himself to the club circuit.  The promised follow-up to So Rebellious never seemed to materialize.  And, more ominously, on certain occasions Gene’s struggles with substance abuse were startlingly apparent – culminating in the coup de grâce at the Cinegrill in April 1991.  With all of these things in mind, any casual Clark fan could be forgiven for the retrospective assumption that, at the time of his death, Gene was simply a spent force; that there was, if you will forgive me, no other No Other in him.

“It’ll be fun to do a new record; I’m very much looking forward to it.”   Gene Clark, February 3, 1990

In spite of his fall from major-label grace, Gene certainly felt he had another record in him.  In both the posthumous official releases and various live tapes in circulation emanating from the 1988-1990 period, Gene speaks with palpable ebullience about a new record.  The stunning series of October '88 solo live recordings (he was on fire that month) provides fulsome evidence of a sober, fully focused performer in fine voice; his skills in no way diminished.  In stubborn defiance of the demons surging and conspiring within him, he continued to speak about some mysterious new album that was, alas, always on the horizon, just out of reach.  Out on the end of time.

But, tellingly, there is no effort to elaborate during these announcements; no details are ever provided.  His words are vague, non-committal.  Everything is qualified.  Everything is pending, suspended…intangible.

The word “probably” got used a lot.

Consider this exchange from October 2, 1988, Mountain Stage, West Virginia, later released on the In Concert CD, in which Larry Groce refers to a recent archival release (presumably Murray Hill’s Never Before) then turns to asking Gene about his current activities.

Groce: Your new album, solo album, is that in the works still? You said that you’ve released one of the old ---
Clark: I’ve got a new one in the works too. We’re in the preproduction right now. Should be started next month.
Groce: Original tunes?
Clark: Probably mostly.
Groce: What label is it on?  Is it placed yet?
Clark: We’re talking with a few right now, so …

With his curt response, “We’re talking with a few,” Gene accomplishes two things.  He perpetuates the notion that he’s still a big, swaggering star that the labels are fighting over – i.e., he’s still talking the talk.  (Whether this was merely braggadocio or a sign of acute delusion is up for debate.  I’d say the former.) He also manages to avoid the embarrassment of having to acknowledge that self-sabotage meant any label interest would have come from strictly minor league entities.

“I hope the moon is in the right place”

Two days later, on October 4, 1988, in Nashville, Gene introduced a song thusly:
“This is a song that I wrote not too long ago that hopefully will probably be on a record before too very long.  I’m actually supposed to start on this next month – November.  I hope the moon is in the right place, you know.” [italics mine]

Perhaps self-conscious about the quasi-mystical sound of this remark, Gene laughs with the audience, before further mocking himself, adopting the voice of a fast-talking music-biz type.  “You know how that goes, you get the moon in the wrong place…the album ain’t a hit…”
Self-deprecating comedy out of the way, Gene launches in a soul-stirring version of ‘My Marie’, replete with the “angry sons” verse he left off the legendary Mountain Stage performance.  No person in their right mind could hear this remarkable performance and come to the conclusion that Gene’s best days as a writer were behind him.

The truth of the matter is that, at the time of his death, Gene had put together his most impressive collection of songs since No Other.  And one of them, ‘Dark of My Moon’, almost seemed predictive of the final tragic irony in a life that was plagued by them. 

Yes, Gene had the songs for a major-label comeback and, quite possibly, the finest, most ambitious album of his career.  But his voice was getting weaker; his health more fragile.  

His moon was most decidedly not in the right place.  In fact it was becoming darker every day.


Anonymous said…
I had to listen to that performance of My Marie after reading this... My file does not include most of the comment - so I was not aware of it - thanks so much for sharing that! But what a performance it was - just beautiful! Now I can't wait to read part 2!
ge said…
My cover of MY MARIE

[all me on home 8 track]
Anonymous said…
thanks for the background to this period-thank goodness the gypsy angels demos got release-there are some pearls on it
Anonymous said…
I really enjoy reading Clarkophille, thanx. But I have one question. Was Gene's performance with the Byrdstribute really so bad? What I saw on You Tube, for me it wasn't bad at all. I really liked Silver Raven and he had a dreamteam behind him. Well maybe some members of the band couldn't sing and that was dissapointing. I most liked it when he sunghis own songs (not Bob Dylan).
But maybe I have a bad taste :)
But keep up the Good work.
The Clarkophile said…
Thanks for the comment. Listen, if it was you who left another comment for the most recent post (dark of My Moon part 2) I must apologize, because while trying to publish your comment using my iPhone, I accidentally hit delete (stupid fat fingers!).

It's not that Gene's performances were uniformly poor with the Byrds Tribute that irks me, it's that he had to resort to this kind of tacky exploitation of his past when he was still writing top-notch material that would never be released. It permanently tarnished his reputation to boot.