'My Marie': Part 1

Introduction

Although disappointing in terms of career trajectory, the 1980s proved to be an astonishingly rewarding period in terms of the quality of Gene Clark's songwriting.  Now a seasoned writer, Gene was no longer simply writing to write (as he had been in the '60s, a time in which he was churning out more songs than could realistically be recorded).  It was now a matter of quality over quantity. During a decade when many had dismissed him, Gene wrote (or co-wrote) several songs that I consider to be masterworks: 'Your Fire Burning', 'Pledge To You', 'Dark of My Moon', 'Kathleen', and, of course, 'My Marie' (written with Pat Robinson), among other notable tracks.

After Pat's death almost a year ago (August, 2016), I began to wonder if it were finally time to write about 'My Marie' -- something I'd been consciously avoiding, simply because I felt too close to the song to be able to produce anything resembling an objective piece. (The Mountain Stage version, eventually released on In Concert, shall be the main focus of this piece, insofar as I consider it to be as close as we'll get to a definitive version, dropped verses notwithstanding. However, as many as nine other extant versions were considered in preparation for this post.)

Pat was a kind and gracious man. I remember with great fondness the interview I did with him in 2008 (for my first Shindig! piece). He was extremely patient with me -- then a woefully inexperienced interviewer -- and offered fulsome responses to the stuttered barrage of questions I asked him. I still remember what an immense thrill it was to be discussing one of  my favourite songs with one of its writers. Year later, when we became Facebook friends, we exchanged a few PMs. He was just as friendly, and I was always touched by the fact that he always asked me how I was doing -- something that haunted me after I'd heard he'd passed away.

As a '60s garage/psych-rock enthusiast, I'm genuinely embarrassed to admit that it was only recently that I realized Pat had been a member of Fenwyck, whose 'Mindrocker' is featured on the first Nuggets box set (some may be unaware that besides Gene, Pat also worked notables like Joe Cocker and Leon Russell). Had I made the Fenwyck connection at the time I would've surely asked him about it, but alas...  

Add that to my list of regrets, I suppose.

With sincere gratitude and deepest respect, I offer this two-part piece in tribute to Gene and Pat. 


Background

The Post-No Other decade and following (1975-1986)

For those who can appreciate the dazzling artistic growth and singular poetic vision that characterized Gene's work from 1964 to 1974 (and that culminated in the towering achievement that is No Other), 1977 represents a turning point of sorts: it is the point at which Gene Clark became self-consciously aware (or quite possibly had this awareness foisted upon him) that the overriding requirement to sell records superseded artistic invention. Doubtless due in part to No Other's commercial failure, Gene appeared to begin to second guess himself and his noble quest. Indeed, from this point forward, his muse seemed more scattered, less focused, even occasionally compromised, as though his confidence had been irrevocably shattered by commercial indifference, poor decisions and/or plain bad advice. 

Thus, in an artistic sense, and perhaps not surprisingly, Gene began to tread water artistically. While Two Sides To Every Story contained some truly fine moments, it's the curious choices and head-scratching misfires that tell us that something was amiss.  Notwithstanding the excellence of his definitive reading of James Talley's 'Give My Love To Marie,' the prevalence of cover material ('In the Pines,' 'MaryLou') betrayed a crisis of confidence, especially since other far superior self-penned material was passed over.

The odd decision to re-record his own 'Kansas City Southern,' however, is a pivotal moment. Sure, a previous remake of an original song had already been undertaken ( 'She Don't Care About Time' from Roadmaster) -- but at least that one worked.  There seemed to be no justifiable reason to redo 'Kansas City Southern'.  Whether or not one is a fan of 'She Don't Care About Time' being recast as a country dirge, it must be admitted that the overhaul was drastic, sincere, and totally consistent with the sound, texture and mood of the other seven songs recorded during the '72 sessions. 



Sadly, the same cannot be said of 'Kansas City Southern.' What had been a evocative rumination on the sights and sounds of childhood was cynically manipulated, inexplicably forced into the role of a fist-pumping Springsteenesque rocker. (Ironically, as recorded evidence suggests, had the same treatment been afforded to 'The Daylight Line,' the results would've been much more palatable.)



Moving into the Firebyrd period (1982-1984), Gene exhibited a continuing reliance upon past glories to gain attention. The stirring remake of 'Mr. Tambourine Man' (carelessly titled 'Tambourine Man' on the cover ... whose bright idea was it to ditch the honorific, I wonder?) that opened the album made sense, but the decision to re-record Gene's signature song ('I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better') was as lazy and inexcusable as the misprint of the song's title on the album jacket itself ('Feel a Whole Lot Better'), not to mention the performance therein.


The reliance on past glories was somewhat understandable, even forgivable, but Gene's controversial involvement in the Byrds tribute shows that followed (circa '84-'86) may have caused irreparable damage to his professional reputation. It is, in fact, the only portion of Gene's career that causes me to wince. 


Pat Robinson

Pat Robinson

Once you've climbed aboard the tribute-circuit wheel it's deceptively hard to get off.  The financial rewards from gigging are immediate -- unlike songwriting royalties, which ebb and flow -- but there are no long-term benefits to be had. And we are not talking about shows at huge venues. Once the gigging stops, so too does the flow of cash. Doubtless it was the promise of a virtually endless supply of gigs that kept Gene on the road so much in the mid-'80s, but this came at the expense of his muse. (I have been told that Gene felt a sense of obligation to keep the tribute tours going out of a sense of responsibility to the other musicians). Apart from the tapes made on his old Tascam, I'm unaware of any significant recording sessions that were undertaken during this period. 

Hooking up with Pat Robinson, John York and Carla Olson to form a loose musical collective was probably the wisest decision Gene could have made during the 1980s.  Working as a trio with CRY (Clark-Robinson-York) and as a duo with Carla, Gene had found likeminded confederates who were supportive, compassionate and generous.  At a time when dubious hangers-on provided distractions that diverted him from his muse, Pat, John and Carla -- comparatively cleaner-living individuals than one usually finds in the rock world -- essentially gave Gene the space, permission and time to indulge his neglected muse.
L-R, John York, Gene Clark, Pat Robinson

Pat especially (in my opinion as an outsider), was an unsung hero in Gene's life. 
John York: "Pat Robinson basically offered Gene a space at his home to write and make demos in.  But the conditions were that there would be no drinking, no drugs, no hangers-on, nothing. 
It turned out to be a very creative environment for Gene."
Carla Olson agrees that Pat was instrumental in rejuvenating Gene's creative spirit.
Before he came along, she says, “Gene wasn’t writing, only talking about writing.  Pat contributed a lot to Gene’s writing and got him off his butt to get stuff finished.”

Not everything that emerged from the CRY/Under the Silvery Moon period was an inspired as 'My Marie,' but the time and effort these men spent writing and recording together was more than justified by the existence of this song alone.


Part 2 to follow...


Comments

Indigo Mariana said…
Interesting post, though I would argue that Gene's contemporaries were struggling with their musical identities at this time as well. As the artists of the 60s approached middle age in the 80s, I think most were struggling to find their place in the music scene and the mtv culture. Comparatively, Gene's output at this time holds up well IMO and is far less cringe worthy than some others. Were the Byrds tribute shows any worse than 3 Monkees, one hermit or two turtles? I'm not so sure.
Tom Sandford said…
I don't think I said anything contrary to what you're asserting, so there's really no argument here. There is nothing in Gene's recorded output from the 80s that I find cringeworthy, it was the decision to embark on the "20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds" tours. No, I don't think it's worse than the Monkees or any other reunion, but those tours are not germane to the discussion at hand.
Jesse Reiswig said…
Very interesting post, which I'm belatedly reading, Tom. I'm curious, do you know of any documentation of the CRY/Under the Silvery Moon sessions that details when they took place. The liners to Under the Silvery Moon only note that they were over the course of a couple of years. I'm guessing they started in '86--shortly before the Gene and Carla sessions presumably--and continued into '88?