Review: Gene Clark Collected
Gene Clark - Collected
Music on Vinyl/Music on CD
It’s been a long, slow slog, but I think even the most cynical, battle-weary Gene Clark fan would be forced to admit that Harold Eugene is more popular now, 30 years after his death, than at any time in his post-Byrds career. There are several reasons for this, of course—John Einarson’s biography, Johnny Rogan’s Byrds tomes, and Four Suns’ The Byrd Who Flew Alone documentary, among them—but in my opinion, the pivotal moment, the thing that really kickstarted the whole Clark renaissance, was the 1998 release of the career-spanning 2-CD compilation, Flying High.
But Flying High was only ever released on CD; was only ever available in North America as an expensive import. Alas, it disappeared quickly, but the point had already been made, the mountaintop summited.
Now, just in time for Christmas comes a new career-spanning compilation, Gene Clark Collected, from Music on CD/Music on Vinyl, based in The Netherlands. How does it stack up against Flying High? Well, put it this way: while the compilers of Collected appear to possess at least some superficial awareness of Flying High (and Gene Clark), they seem curiously detached from, or possibly even willfully ignorant of, the things that made it (and him) so special.
CD1, which covers 1965 to 1974, contains 23 songs (interestingly, the World Pacific era is skipped). While it’s nice to see things kick off with Gene’s signature track, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, a sense of bewilderment quickly sets in: the entire Byrds era—the period upon which both his initial stardom and early reputation was initially built—is represented by a paltry four songs (the others being “I Knew I’d Want You” “Set You Free This Time” and “If You’re Gone”). These are all fine songs, but surely the period deserves more comprehensive coverage? Leaving aside for a moment the skipped gems from the World Pacific period, where are “She Don’t Care About Time” “Eight Miles High” “Here Without You” “It’s No Use” “She Has a Way” “You Won’t Have to Cry” “The Day Walk” and “The World Turns All Around Her”? This is akin to compiling the Beatles’ Red album (1962-1966) and omitting “She Loves You” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” “A Hard Day’s Night” “I Feel Fine” and—anyway, you get what I mean.
Next in the chronology is 1967’s Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. Our compilers opted for the two singles, “Echoes” and “So You Say You Lost Your Baby,” plus the B-side of the former, “I Found You.” Not bad choices at all, but again: a mere 10 minutes of music from Gene’s time in the Byrds; only eight minutes from Gene’s solo debut. Let’s stop for a moment and talk about this. Compact discs hold 80 minutes of music and this is a 3-CD set, so what the hell is going on?
Things get worse. Quickly. The Dillard & Clark period is represented by seven songs, but the inclusion of two covers, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Rocky Top,” shows a baffling degree of ignorance. Yes, the former was a single (with “Lyin’ Down the Middle”) but hardly among D&C’s most distinguished tracks. And the most prominent vocalist on “Rocky Top”—a song the liner notes inexplicably claim was “contributed” by Gene!—is freakin’ Donna Washburn (A gentle reminder, if I may, that this purports to be a collection of Gene Clark’s work, and not Doug Dillard’s then-girlfriend). To make matters worse, when discussing Gene’s contributions to Through the Morning Through the Night, the liner notes mention three songs, “Don’t Let Me Down” “Rocky Top” and “Polly” but make no mention of the fact that Gene wrote the titular song, as well as “Kansas City Southern.” And notwithstanding the undisputed brilliance of D&C’s take on the Fabs’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” we are now getting pretty far afield from establishing Gene Clark as a writer of consequence: in total, there are a whopping 16 covers in the set. Sixteen.
Carrying on, then, CD2 covers 1974 to 1987. The title track from No Other ended CD1, after which CD2 brings another three songs from the album (that’s four of the album’s eight songs—totalling over 24 minutes). It’s hard to argue with a generous selection of tracks from Gene’s acknowledged masterpiece, but some perspective, please: the entire 1965-1967 period is given 18 minutes.
And the choices only get more bizarre from there. Two Sides To Every Story is represented by four tracks, only two of which are Clark originals. So, rather than include “Past Addresses” or previously un-comped gems like “Lonely Saturday” “Sister Moon” or “Silent Crusade,” we get “In the Pines” and the forced, uninspired remake of “Kansas City Southern.”
Oh, lord, what fresh hell is this? Moving into the McGuinn Clark & Hillman period, it becomes abundantly clear that the compilers of this CD know nothing about Gene Clark—nor do they care. How do I know? Well, how else can you explain the inclusion of “Don’t You Write Her Off,” written by Roger McGuinn and Bob Hippard, on which McGuinn sings lead? If that wasn’t sufficiently disrespectful, well, how about “Surrender To Me,” the most egregious, preposterous song in the set. Not only was it written by Rick Vito, it was sung by bleedin’ Chris Hillman, ffs.
Honestly, though, I can tell you exactly how this happened. Somebody looked through Gene’s discography, made a list of MCH’s singles—not caring who wrote or sang them—and called it good. This is shoddy work. These people do not care about Gene’s legacy.
CD3, which purports to be a collection of rarities, is, in truth, merely a contextless dumping ground for a bunch of songs that have emerged over the years, either as bonus tracks on re-released editions of Gene’s albums, or taken from other (more distinguished) compilations—like Flying High.
While I was initially glad to see this set, I was disappointed to learn that Gene’s estate was neither consulted nor asked to participate in this release—which is a real pity. Had they done so, I’m confident that Kai Clark would have immediately set them straight with respect to the many errors that characterize this release.
But I was also bothered by something: I couldn’t understand why a company would, on one hand, invest in such a lavish, 3-CD/3-LP presentation (make a big splash on social media; go to the trouble of licensing a previously unseen Henry Diltz portrait), and on the other be so openly careless and inept with the actual content of a set they’ve gone to such great lengths to produce. I started to get the sense this was all sizzle and no steak. And it is. All of these songs are previously released. There’s nothing rare here.
Then it all made sense: Recently, I learned that far from being a unique, focused, well-researched/executed project along the lines of Flying High, Gene Clark Collected is merely one of 32 other such compilations in the company’s generic “Collected” series. This album isn’t about Gene Clark at all. It’s about product. All the thought and planning went into packaging. Who gives a shit about the songs?
As a fan of Gene’s music for over 40 years, it would normally make me smile with pride to see his name listed alongside the other artists in the Collected series whose work I respect and admire (e.g. the Velvet Underground, Robert Cray, Marvin Gaye). After all, that is something I’ve wished for all my life: to see Gene accepted as one of the greats.
But if the trade-off for this is seeing Gene’s musical legacy cynically manipulated and misrepresented, and treated with callous disregard just so somebody can make some money, was it worth it?
Gene Clark deserves better than this. So do you.