Sparks in the Dark: Why Gene Clark’s Late Period Songwriting Should Not Be Undervalued (1980-1991)

NOTE: For ease of reference and for purposes of this discussion, I have divided Gene’s career into three distinct periods:

Early - 1963-1969 (New Christy Minstrels, The Byrds, Early Solo, Dillard & Clark)

Mid - 1970-1979 (Mid Solo, Asylum Byrds, McGuinn Clark & Hillman)

Late - 1980-1991 (Late Solo, Firebyrds, Clark Robinson York, Gene Clark & Carla Olson)

Sparks in the Dark: Why Gene Clark’s Late Period Songwriting Should Not Be Undervalued (1980-1991)

Composed well into his 40s, at a time when he did not even have a record contract, “Your Fire Burning” is the apotheosis of Gene Clark’s enduring artistry; the most convincing testament to the value of his Late Period works—and yet it has gone largely unnoticed by the Clark cognoscenti; a mere spark in the dark.

Over the past three months, I have written extensively about “Your Fire Burning” as part of the planned series I began earlier this year. As I became immersed in writing, however, I found myself becoming obsessed with a slight variation on the same topic: common perceptions and prejudices vis-à-vis Gene Clark’s Late Period work (as defined above). And so, thousands of words later, I have decided to organize and present my efforts in easier-to-digest sections.

“Gene once appeared at Aron’s Records to sign LPs and chat. He was promoting a new album at the time, of course. This is in L.A. [circa 1984]. Three people showed up to chat with him. Three people. He manfully put up with it and chatted with the three folks there, but it must have broken his heart. It would have mine.” — Sid Griffin, writer, musician (The Long Ryders, The Coal Porters)

Counterclockwise from top left: Images of
Gene Clark from Early, Mid & Late Periods

For many music aficionados, Gene Clark’s reputation as a songwriter is primarily based on the flawless string of contributions to the Byrds, and his extraordinary run of LPs in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. The 1980s, however, has always been a bit...problematic. Mention the songs from this period, and even the staunchest Clark fans tend to see it as a tragic patch for “poor Gene” (Gene’s fans tend to be overprotective, if inadvertently patronizing). It is a period for which phrases like “Cinegrill” aka “Gene’s Last Stand,” “20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds,” “bar circuit,” “substance abuse,” and “Firebyrds” hang like ominous clouds over his final decade, because, for many fans, these were their most immediate associations with Gene’s career at the time of his death.  

When fans are pushed for honest opinions of Firebyrd, his final solo album released in 1984, winces of disappointment are commonplace (although their disappointment would doubtless pale in comparison to what Gene experienced at the album’s record-signing event, as described above in Sid Griffin’s account). But how many of them are familiar with the cache of posthumously released Late Period gems? Or the other cache of still-unreleased material, circulating or otherwise? And for heaven’s sake, why isn’t “Your Fire Burning,” quite simply the the greatest song the man ever wrote, widely hailed as such? It is the apotheosis of a style Gene had been perfecting since “Here Without You” in 1965.

If the Early and Middle period works are seen as a time “you may embrace,” the Late Period remains “a time to refrain from embracing.”

A Line of Demarcation: The Late Period — 1980-1991

One of the original aims of this blog was to spotlight Gene Clark’s lesser-known compositions—especially those written during the tragic third act, or what I like to call the Late Period, encompassing the years 1980-1991. Facts tell us that there were few Gene Clark releases during this time. One cannot deny the grim reality that substance-abuse issues, and the health problems flowing therefrom, all took a toll on Gene’s life, family, and music. Lurid details are indeed out there, if that’s what you’re after. But I have no interest in acknowledging, refuting or deflecting them.

That said, I have no intention of sanitizing Gene’s life, or minimizing the effects of substance abuse upon him, or those whose lives were affected. It is the disease I abhor, not the man. I will not judge him, except to say that somehow, in spite of every indignity and humiliation he faced in the 1980s, and beset by the ruthless addictions that eventually killed him, Gene Clark still managed to create music of uncommon depth and beauty.

Albums of new material credited to Gene Clark, 
released in the Late Period (1980-1991)

Any discussion/examination of Gene Clark’s officially released work in the Late Period will be limited to a mere three albums. Into this vacuum, many fans have relied on an abundance of bootleg material (consisting mainly of live shows from the Firebyrds and 20th Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds tours) to fill in the gaps in Gene’s musical history. This is understandable, of course, but the live shows do not always present Gene in a positive light. Nor do several-generations-removed transfers of bootleg home/studio demos. More often than not, these recordings, widely traded in the Clark community or sold on eBay by soulless profiteers, tend to support our worst assumptions: that Gene was going through the motions, abusing himself, resting on his laurels, and utterly dependent upon his Byrds credentials, some 20 years after he left the band. The image of a boozy, 40-year-old guy playing 20-year-old hits in smoky barrooms for an audience of barflies is, alas, accurate, but it’s only one component of the story. That stuff paid the bills. It was work, and hard work, just as I imagine being introduced by a spiky-haired host as “The Byrds” in a tacky 1987 appearance on Solid Gold was hard, but for different reasons. All of this nonsense took a toll on Gene’s reputation. And it took up considerable amounts of time.

Without necessarily arguing with that relentlessly negative narrative, I simply ask you to consider the view from a wider lens, one in which the totality of Gene’s contemporaneous songwriting is taken into account. Seen in this way, a different characterization emerges: throughout this entire period, Gene was an artist whose artistic drive, although occasionally thrown off course by pressures from within and without, remained largely intact. The Late Period songs offer ample proof that, musically speaking, there was much more going on with Gene than is commonly thought.

The Gene Clark we all know and love—the restless, mercurial artist; the complex poet, the querying mystic—was forced to the sidelines on occasion, but was never truly abandoned. Gene experimented with many styles (including synthpop and Caribbean) and worked with a variety of collaborators (Pat Robinson, John York, Andy Kandanes, John Arrias, Trace Harrill). Some of the resulting material was unashamedly commercial (“Something About You Baby”); other songs ventured into then-current/now dated production styles (“The Panther”) that had no resemblance to any established Clark sound. Gene also made an attempt to reinvent himself via the film industry, and submitted material for use in soundtracks of successful franchises (“Carry On” ultimately rejected for The Karate Kid Part II). He hustled songs to the Traveling Wilburys (I believe he sent them “Love Wins Again”) hoping for the big break that would reestablish his status as world-class songwriter. And for the Clark connoisseurs among us, those who find their deepest connection with Gene through his dark songs of romantic yearning and loss, there was partial return to epic-length mystical workouts last heard in the No Other era (“Your Fire Burning” “Pledge To You” “Communications” “If I Don’t Have You” “I Saw a Dream Come True”)

Perhaps due to my experiences on Twitter and music forums, I’ve become conditioned to expect witless, drive-by smackdowns in response to nuanced opinions. For that reason, I assume the knee-jerk response to the previous paragraph would be something along the lines of “Well, he failed, didn’t he?” Commercially speaking? There’s no question. The synthpop experiments, for the most part, sounded calculated, stale, cheesy (although there is something compelling about “The Panther” and a few others, although Gene’s affected country drawl is wildly inappropriate—like Willie Nelson singing Duran Duran). The pop songs weren’t hits; The Karate Kid II producers opted for Peter Cetera’s “The Glory of Love”; the Wilburys obviously declined. 

Do you recall the final line of the final song on Gene’s final album for a major label?

Situations weigh the anchor once more.” 

This, more than any other line, captures the essence of Gene Clark’s predicament, perhaps more than even he realized.

The situations and circumstances that relegated a writer of Gene’s stature to toil in the depths of obscurity are maddening, to say the least. We feel better when able to assign blame. And as a man who suffered from, and was eventually killed by his addictions, Gene made a convenient scapegoat. 

The material that went unreleased in his lifetime reveals flashes of undeniable brilliance; an artist reaching his peak, even as his life ebbed. And yet the many album-less orphans that have materialized in the years since Gene’s death have gone largely ignored in our collective assessment of Gene’s Late Period work; they exist mere sparks in the dark: a fire burning from afar.


Rebecca said…
Lover's Turnaround really rips into me most times when I hear it; just a huge song in my personal music hall of fame (really the only kind that counts)! I think there are many great overlooked and underheard Gene Gems (shades of it's a nugget if you dug it) from this time... and I do think he does a masterful reading of the Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind!
daragho said…
I'm only reading this blog now Tom, and I'm really glad you've highlighted this period of Gene's work. Over the last few years I've really come to appreciate Gypsy Angel: The Gene Clark Demos. Some of those songs are the most achingly beautiful he ever wrote, made all the more heart-wrenching by the homemade recordings, which bring Gene right into the room, as if he was sitting beside you and singing. I hope more material from the 1980s surfaces in time.
Unknown said…
I agree that he wrote some of his greatest songs during his later life. I wish that gems like "My Marie", "Dark of My Moon" and "Your Fire Burning" wee treated to the studio recordings that they richly deserved.

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