The Firebyrd Project: Part 2—Collecting the shards of a smashed glass house

(For background on this series, please see previous post.)
 (RGB stock image)

The remnants of a smashed glass house

As stated in the previous post, the Firebyrd Project is very much a (theoretical) work-in-progress, so while I'm not ready to present a final track list, the general concept is coming together.  More on that in a moment.

With respect to the relevant material, I think it's fair to say that, for the most part, none of my selections will come as a surprise to those who know what Gene was up to in the early '80s.
Each track that I will be presenting has been well documented elsewhere. My job, admittedly self-appointed though it may be, boils down to researching the best sources of extant material, selecting the best tracks, then trimming and prioritizing the remaining contenders, after which I'll begin the head-scratching task of organizing and reorganizing the material into a cohesive, statement-making package.

At this point I must stress that when the big reveal comes, it will come in a written form only; because this is a purely hypothetical exercise; no downloads will be available on this site.

It's a lot of material to wade through, on top of which there is a frustrating lack of easily accessed documentation regarding specific dates, personnel, studios, engineers and other such details—you know, the kind of stuff that excites music obsessives like me. Don't believe me? Okay, quickly now: where and when was 'Strange and Different Way' recorded? Who sang harmony vocal? I'll wait...

One of the most compelling parts of tracing the scattered remains of Gene's recorded work is that a lot of it will remain a mystery.

By the same token, one of the most frustrating aspects of tracing the scattered remains of Gene's recorded work is that a lot of it will remain a mystery.

Perhaps it's because the legendary unreleased "Glass House tape" will figure prominently in the discussion to come, but in the past few weeks the image has taken on greater significance.  This entire project feels akin to gathering and organizing the remnants of a smashed and abandoned glass house: some of the pieces can be found, yes, but they are difficult to place. Yet I cherish even the most damaged and flawed, because each one provides clues in piecing together the larger story about the man who once lived there. Some of the pieces have shattered like crystal; their significance lost.

It is the sharp pieces that prove most edifying.  They cut deepest.

Dispelling self-created myths  

I know this will sound quaint, but in the past I've comforted myself with the baseless notion that Gene's works were being curated like any other priceless pieces of art.  At some point after he died, I developed an image in my head of a well-maintained, indestructible vault in which Gene's treasures were being kept for posterity. The reality, however, as I've come to learn in the last decade or so, is much harder to bear.

There is no impeccably maintained archive or impenetrable fireproof vault.  There is only us.  Make no mistake: with each day that passes, we are losing some of these "buried treasures," as Kai Clark referred to them in an interview with Neon Brambles in the August 2018 issue of the Echoes newsletter.  They are vulnerable. They are being lost to art's most merciless foes: time and indifference.  I'm not making this stuff up, I know whereof I speak. In a very real sense, we, as fans, are the last line of defence in the preservation of Gene's music.  If we don't document this stuff, who will?

And so my humble little project here constitutes a sincere attempt to gather, arrange, and reconstruct these scattered shards of glass into something meaningful.  Our perception will never be as clear as the one gained from gazing into a freshly Windexed glass window into our imaginary glass home, but if successful, we may be able to at least reassemble the pieces in a way that affords us a clearer vision of Gene Clark's artistry.

It’s like he was leaving a trail of buried treasures that we keep finding and digging up. I think there is still so much more out there that we still have to discover and I can't wait to see what's next. The name Gene Clark is definitely growing, even so many years after he has left us. 
— Kai Clark 
Looking for a clearer image of Gene's work. (RGB stock image)

Reassembling the shards

Each day I find myself actively considering, selecting and eliminating tracks, immersing myself in the period, contacting people who worked with Gene during this time, hoping to gain firsthand knowledge or even hearsay recollections about unreleased songs, master tapes and so forth. Depending on the leads (or lack thereof) that turn up — something that is, in itself, dependent upon the willingness of certain individuals people to speak with me (or, alas, not)  reworking the song order and actively considering different groupings (should it be arranged chronologically, thematically, randomly?).

But at this point I think I'm prepared to share the breakdown of the package as it stands today:

Provisional title: The Firebyrd Project

  • 2 CD set 

In my view, it's necessary to make this a two-disc package, both to present a more fulsome picture of what he was doing during this somewhat murky period than afforded by the original Firebyrd L.P., and to make a grand statement about Gene's artistic worth.
CD 1: Original Firebyrd L.P. + Firebyrd Live
CD 2: Bonus tracks, recorded 1980-1984

CD 1

  • Original Firebyrd (Remixed and remastered, subject to availability of tapes)

If the multitracks still exist (which I admit is doubtful at this late date), I'd like to see the original album undergo a tasteful, judicious remix. The purpose would be to try to give the album a little more bite, perhaps lessen the elements that contribute to its flaccid, sterile sound. Who knows, we might uncover some mixed-out parts that could toughen the sound, create a more compelling atmosphere.
I don't think the 80's vibe should be turfed indiscriminately because that would perpetuate a lie; it was an album of the early 80's and should reflect that.  However, it should be possible to retain the decade-defining attributes of the record, yet still tease out a more muscular, emotionally compelling, mix.

What to do about This Byrd Has Flown? 
This Byrd Has Flown (1995) constitutes
a noble attempt to redress Firebyrd's
shortcomings, but missed the mark
by adding tracks that neither enhanced
the album, nor Gene's reputation.

At this point I have removed the three tracks added to the 1995 release of This Byrd Had Flown—a project that, as I said, in some ways stands as a noble precursor to what I'm trying to accomplish here. Significantly, the tracks in question, 'C'est La Bonne Rue', 'Dixie Flyer' and 'All I Want', did not appear as bonus tracks, but were deliberately inserted within the existing Firebyrd running order.
At the time, the appearance of three previously unreleased Gene Clark songs was big news, and was a major draw for me. The selected tracks are problematic, for a variety of reasons.

'Cest La Bonne Rue (Thomas Jefferson Kaye/Tom Slocum)
According to the album notes, the song was written around 1975.  Gene's involvement here is slim to none, in my estimation.  If one compares Gene's version to the one released on the posthumous collection of Tommy Kaye's material, Not Alone, the backing tracks are quite obviously the same for both (although Kaye's seems to run faster).  Sometimes I think I can hear Gene's voice in the mix, singing a low part that's absent from Kaye's version, other times I'm convinced he wasn't there at all.  Bottom line is, if he is present on this recording, it's so vague as to be virtually inconsequential.  It does not meet the sniff test for being included on an album credited to Gene Clark.

Dixie Flyer (Thomas Jefferson Kaye/David Warner Brown)
So, more Tommy Kaye material here, the first recording of which I believe graced the 1979 self-titled album by Mistress—an album produced by Kaye and released on RSO, featuring musicians from the Two Sides To Every Story era and other members of Gene's inner circle (Gary Legon, Doug Dillard, Rick Clark, Mike Utley). 

Gene's version is not currently available on YouTube (although a very rough "rehearsal" version can be found here), but in reality, it suffers from the same problem as 'C'est La Bonne Rue': Gene's presence is not felt to a degree that warrants its inclusion.  You can drive yourself crazy trying to pinpoint Gene's voice. Perhaps if the compilers had mixed out the other voices and featured Gene as lead vocalist it might've made sense, but I regret to say it's not an especially good song in the first place. Now, I'm aware of the fact that Gene played it with the Firebyrds in 1984, so maybe one of those versions might be suitable for the Firebyrd Project, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Here is the 1979 version by Mistress, featuring Rick Clark!

All I Want (Tom Slocum/Shannon O'Neill/Gene Clark)

Of the three bonus tracks, 'All I Want' is the obvious winner; a track that, in spite of it's offensive lyrical misstep (the infamous "bitches" line), moved me to write about it in an earlier blogpost. But it is not a product of the Firebyrd era at all, being recorded on and off in the 1987-1990 time frame. 

  • Firebyrd Live

The addition of live component is a mainstay of archival releases, which can be a good thing if the recordings are in some way illuminating. Based on my research, I'm prepared to say there is a surfeit of extant, early generation material (sourced from board tapes) that could potentially serve as an energetic counterpoint to what I would characterize as comparatively listless studio counterparts. 
I've noticed that the pairing of Michael Clarke and Peter Oliva in the rhythm section was a major factors in giving the songs some extra punch.

Some thoughts on Michael Clarke
The Notorious Firebyrd Brothers, 1984

By 1984, Michael Clarke's drumming had undergone dramatic changes since those heady days at World Pacific. The results are both positive and negative. Of the positive changes, evidently years of playing with a successful band like Firefall had forced him to adopt a more disciplined, conventional style (i.e. radio-friendly).  To his credit, Michael rose to the challenge.  His skills were sharp and direct on the Firefall albums, and led to a run of hit singles, three of which made Billboard's top 20: 'You Are The Woman' peaked at #9 on in late 1976; 'Just Remember I Love You' peaked at #11 a year later, as did 'Strange Way' in 1978. Astonishingly, of all the original Byrds, it was Clarke who managed to perform on the most hits in the latter half of the 1970s.

The irony in all of this is that by the time he hooked up with Gene as a member of the Firebyrds, Michael's playing, while still muscular and solid, had become rather unimaginative, even perfunctory. Michael's finest moments in the Byrds came when his unconventional, wide-eyed-and-whatever-dude style collided with challenging, era-defining material, to give us some of the most thrilling drumming of the 1960's ('Eight Miles High', 'Turn! Turn! Turn!', 'The Bells of Rhymney', etc.). That is no small achievement.
By 1984, however, Michael's selection of fills, and placement in the song, are characterized by sameyness and predictability.  This might've fit the bill in the bar, but when scrutinized with a sober ear, seems a little monotonous to me. Luckily, Peter Oliva's bass playing—punchy, precise, soulful and solid—keeps things interesting. His familiarity with Gene, both as a friend and musician, comes through clearly, both in his playing and Gene's stage banter. From the recordings I've heard, Peter's steady, precise hand has a way of enlivening Michael's curiously safe reliance on basic rudiments (see clip below). My eventual selections will reflect consideration of these factors.

Next time: A discussion of songs that can be considered for Disc 1. 


John said…
Very excited about this project. Thanks for taking it on. I will say you can leave "C'est La Bonne Rue" off because it's cheesy, or because it's not from the same time period, but it seems fairly easy to hear Gene speak-singing the lead vocal on this cut.

A larger issue brought to mind by that song is that at a certain point in Gene's career -- and this is certainly right in the midst of it -- he started to cede control and producers, co-writers, and fellow musicians all seemed to have more input into his sound. We get a lot more "Gene Clark singing a song" than "This is a Gene Clark song" as things progress. I don't mean to suggest anything nefarious; Gene likely started to doubt his own ears after years of great music being ignored in the marketplace and wanted to lean more on others. But it does mean marginal material that doesn't have that same Gene Clark feel starts to creep in.