Monday, 17 February 2014

I Shall Not Be Released: 'That's Alright By Me'


'That's Alright By Me': 

Version 1: Gene Clark Sings for You (acetate, late 1967)
Version 2: Recorded early 1968, posthumously released on Flying High, 1998 


What do the following songs have in common: ‘If I Hang Around’; ‘Only Colombe’; ‘Crazy Ladies’; ‘All I Want’; ‘The Daylight Line’; ‘Communication’; ‘The Wheel of Time’; ‘What is Meant Will Be’?  Apart from being uniformly excellent, all were either written or co-written by Gene Clark.  More significantly, however, none were released during his lifetime.  But that was Gene: he gave his songs a fair shot – and as we’ll see, sometimes two – and then moved on.  There were always new songs to be written late at night around the kitchen table.  For the always-prolific Clark, a comprehensive list of his unreleased material would doubtless prove both lengthy and fascinating; indeed, it warrants a box set of its own.


Not all songwriters worked this way.  ‘Jealous Guy’ (from 1971’s Imagine) was originally titled ‘Child of Nature’ and penned three years before, during the Beatles’ trip to India; Lennon merely slapped on a new set of (superior) lyrics.  George Harrison revisited and revamped old Beatles-era material on a number of occasions: ‘Beautiful Girl’ was written in ’69 and released in ’76; ‘Not Guilty’ and ‘Circles,’ both White Album outtakes, were released in 1979 and 1982 respectively. Pete Townshend never threw away a good riff.  The fade of ‘Glow Girl’ (“It’s a girl, Mrs. Walker, it’s a girl”) was reconfigured to fit Tommy’s narrative structure and became ‘It’s a Boy.’  And so on.

For Gene there were, of course, exceptions to this rule.  On at least two occasions that we know of he tried to remake songs when initial attempts had fallen flat, or otherwise failed to coalesce to everyone’s satisfaction.  Tellingly, two such occurrences came during the vacuum of the Sings for You period (i.e. post-Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers/pre-Dillard and Clark).

Yesterday Am I Wrong

As we saw in the earlier examination of the impeccably written/sloppily executed Sings for You demos, Gene seemed to be suffering from some sort of crisis of confidence that manifested itself in a puzzling inability to follow through on the promise of his own work – work that had obviously taken consider time and effort to compose. The songs he wrote during this period were allusive, poetic, abstruse – but the recorded results lacked this same intensity: they were at best unfocused; and at worst, reckless and shambolic.  It was as if Gene had moved on from the Sings for You material before it had even been developed to its full potential. His confidence in his own work seemed to be shaken.  As a result, we have two vastly different arrangements of ‘Yesterday Am I Right’ (the bizarre, jazzy, horn-driven Hugh Masekela-produced take, and the traditional ballad version from Sings For You, neither of which work); plus two stabs at one of Gene’s finest unreleased songs, ‘That’s Alright By Me.’

Lyrical Differences

The narrative in ‘That’s Alright By Me’ is doubtless familiar to Clark fans, one that Gene turned to time and again: a dysfunctional, on again/off again relationship between an ambitious woman and the man who has allowed himself to become her safety net when those aspirations come tumbling down.

As relayed in the song, the pattern of the relationship seems to begin with intimations of restlessness on her part that he infers as frustration with the limitations of their present life (“So now this house has grown too small”), followed by the declaration of a vision quest from which he assumes he’s excluded (“You say you live now in tomorrow | And there I sense you don’t see me”).  The idea that this has all happened before is cleverly woven into the tale with allusions to a clock chiming four – her signal to “turn again then | To take pursuit of empty dreams.” The cynicism in these lines indicates either bitterness at her impending departure, or weariness with the pattern of leaving/returning itself, the regularity of which runs like clockwork.  Possibly both.

Certainly the chorus is an appeal for her to fess up about her intention of leaving, as opposed to cloaking her plans in “nervous words and empty motions.”  Indeed, his ability to “sense” what she’s about to do before it has even been done is our surest sign that this is a ritual that that builds slowly – but openly and irrevocably (“claim symptoms just too plain to pass”).  But it is a cycle that has played itself out one too many times, the tension from which results in a complete breakdown of both the cyclical pattern and his ability to maintain the role of safety net (“You have drained my love at last”).  Indeed, the realization that his love has been drained ultimately sends him packing too (“Tomorrow I'll be slowly moving | I can't waste all my days the same”).

Oftentimes Gene’s breakup songs left things purposely ambiguous, the most famous example of which was “I’ll probably feel a whole lot better when you’re gone”).  Here, however, the kiss-off line (at least in the second version) indicates final resolution: “Don't stop to think of where I might be | Don't stop to figure who's to blame.”

The earlier SFY version, however, included two extra verses that may allude to the specific reasons for her departure:

[Verse 5]

I’ll drink my last toast to your wealth, babe
I’ll break my last convicting smile
Don’t think of what you must remind me
I’m going to let you keep your style.

[Verse 6]
The asphalt’s branded old illusions
Of what you’ll be when not confined
Have taken you, so just go on now
For I’ve been coastin’, I don’t mind

The use of the words “wealth” and “style” is interesting, and provide possible clues as to the reasons for her leaving: monetary gain. Obviously the use of the former is a clever pun on the phrase “drink to your health”.  We drink to celebrate new beginnings, career changes, good fortune, etc., which in this case may mean a sudden windfall or promising opportunity has landed in her lap.  But for him, the toast is one of bitterness, a chance to break one final “convicting smile” at the end of their relationship.  She is going somewhere and he may not follow, nor does he need to be reminded of it. 

The use of the word “style” indicates a perceived commitment to, and a predilection for, the finer things in life: presumably status, fame, fashion, all of which had been previously characterized by him as “pursuit of empty dreams”. His assurance that he will let her keep her style suggests he has no interest in following her chosen path.

The “asphalt’s branded old illusion” verse that Gene also excised from the ’68 version is merely a restatement of what has already been said, and was probably cut for its redundancy: it did not serve to further the narrative in any substantive way.  The idea of her feeling “confined” had already been addressed in the first line of the song.

Swing and a miss

The most frustrating aspect of the two versions of ‘That’s Alright By Me’ is that neither stands as definitive.  Clocking in at nearly six minutes (5:44) the SFY version is severely hampered by a clumsy drum pattern that was presumably inserted to break up the similarity of the verses and chorus.  The pattern, which features a three-beat roll across the tom-toms, followed by a snare hit on the fourth, has a post-punk vibe that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Joy Division track 12 years later, but on this occasion only serves to trample all over the song.  Moreover, the unknown drummer betrays his own unfamiliarity with the song by missing a snare hit when he mistakenly thought the “drained my love at last” line would head into the more conventional pattern employed in the chorus.

Elsewhere, mellotron is put to good use in the chorus, providing the kind of pathos and power that hints at what it might’ve sounded like had it been given a lush orchestral backing down the line.  But Gene’s vocal, however, is uncharacteristically weak.  It wavers and cracks at crucial moments, and generally lacks the weathered stateliness of the second attempt.




By the time I get to Phoenix
When the classy, career-spanning Flying High was released without fanfare in 1998, one of the undisputed highlights of the unreleased material was ‘That’s Alright with Me’. Recorded only months after the SFY version during Gene’s brief association with Laramy Smith and his band Phoenix, the track was one of three songs completed during this time (the others being ‘Los Angeles’ and Dylan’s then brand new ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’).

By the time he re-recorded the song with Smith, Gene seems to have worked out whatever vocal problems were plaguing him on the SFY take.  His lead is controlled and mature, dignified in a world-weary, Johnny Cash fashion.  There’s also a lead guitar part with to-die-for twang, some nicely placed and darkly atmospheric backing vocals.  Moreover, the absence of a cluttered drum pattern accentuates the forward trajectory of both the music and the narrator's resolve (“Don't stop to think of where I might be | Don't stop to figure who's to blame”).

One can’t help but wonder, however briefly, what Dillard and Clark would have done with the track.

But it is not for us to second-guess Gene’s decisions.  He gave the song two fair passes and never looked back.  To my knowledge, he never played the song live, nor made any attempt to resurrect it for a later album.  While it may be the stuff of an interesting parlour game to rearrange the facts of his life into endless “What if?” scenarios, the decisions he made cannot be changed. The work of the artist is done. It is now up to us to sift through the work and testify to its greatness, whether Gene saw fit to release it or not.  To his credit, Gene refused to look back.

That is our job. 

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article, Tom!
I've always loved this song - but the drums ruin the SFY version, and - for me - the bass line ruins the 2nd version. If only someone had been able to produce this song correctly....
Catherine

Lesley said...

Another fabulous entry. I love the way you bring these lesser-known gems of Gene's catalog into the light and, hopefully, create the urge in others to seek out more of his music.

Keep up the great work!

Whin said...

Before the Flying High CD came out tape traders got a batch of four songs from that 1968 period. Besides the three that you mention included in Flying High is a 2:30 backing track that really rocks. Have you heard it? Does it seem to fit the period? Any guess to what song it may back?

The Clarkophile said...

Haven't heard the tape you're referring to; have only read something about an unfinished backing track to Lyin Down the Middle.

The Clarkophile said...

Thanks to Catherine and Lesley! I appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment.

ge said...

I'll add a 'good job!' kudo----and also appreciate the link to your reviews & that Aussie site that seems a good place to find out about '60s psychey-sounding bands of today at bandcamp...i'm interested in finding ahtists that have mastered that magic form, achieved some level of indistinguishability from the actual analog era! [cosmic american & '60s psych-pop being my 2 favest genres de la musica]

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the article. Might have been nice to mention that the song's genesis began earlier in 1966, as part of Gene Clark & The Group's live set, as recalled by Chip Douglas.

Unknown said...

now that SFY is out I have finally heard that version and i LOVE that drum pattern, though it doesn't quite save the song from the lack of momentum you describe.