Talking Triumphs and Tragedy: An interview with Paul Kendall about his new documentary on the life of Gene Clark
Interview with Paul Kendall, October 2013
Q. Notwithstanding his tenure in the Byrds at the height of their popularity, Gene Clark isn't exactly a household name. Why did you decide to embark on this project now? Was this essentially a labour of love?
A. A labour of love is exactly what it was. I’d come to the end of the full-time career/family-raising part of my life and was vaguely looking for a project that would allow me to merge my interests in music and filmmaking. I’d been inspired by two friends who’d made a great documentary about Arthur Lee (‘Love Story’) and thought I might be able to do something similar, if I could find the right subject. Two of my sons are filmmakers, I still had contacts from my Zigzag days and I’d got a bit of spare cash, so I thought I had the resources to at least get something started. I’ve been a big fan of Gene’s music since the first Dillard & Clark album (I was aware of The Byrds, but not of him as part of the band) and I’d met him, while he was on tour in the UK during 1977. I’d always felt he and his music should be much better known. I was given the John Einarson biography as a Christmas present in 2010, which really fleshed out what I knew of his story, and immediately felt I’d found the right subject. I was surprised to realize no one had done a Gene Clark documentary before and started thinking about the possibility of doing it myself. The first thing I did was talk to the ‘Love Story’ guys about their experience of making that film. By a happy coincidence, it turned out that they’d been considering doing something on Gene as a follow-up (they did Mott The Hoople instead) and were able to put me in touch with his estate. From that point on, the whole thing just snowballed. I first contacted the estate in March 2011. Come September 10th, we were on a plane to L.A. to shoot the thing.
Q. What was the hardest part of assembling and telling Gene's story?
A. The whole project has been a rollercoaster ride, between moments of elation and moments of despair. But the most challenging bits have probably been getting it started and getting it finished. We wanted to do it with the blessing and involvement of Gene’s family and estate, not least because we knew that getting interviews with the likes of Crosby, Hillman and McGuinn would be difficult without it. But getting that approval wasn’t straightforward. A number of people had approached them over the years, about doing a Gene Clark film, but nothing had ever come of it. So they were, understandably, skeptical when we first got in touch. Especially as we had no reputation or credentials or backing. Fortunately for us, Barry McGuire and John York were coming to Europe in May 2011 to do some dates in Holland and Germany, and we were able to meet up with them in Frankfurt to shoot interviews. We edited the Barry interview, together with some archive material that we’d found, into an early version of the New Christy Minstrels chapter of the film. I think this showed Gene’s sons that we were a) serious and b) competent, and we were up and running from that point.
Q. How many interviews were conducted?
A. We shot 30 original interviews, mostly in the States with a few over here, and got access to a number of archive audio interviews – with Gene, Doug Dillard and Tommy Kaye.
Q. How many people worked on the doc with you?
A. It’s really all been done by myself and two of my sons, Jack and Dan. I’ve covered all aspects of production, from doing the research and setting up the shoot through to sorting out all the admin side, as well as co-directing with Jack. The three of us did the shoots – Jack and Dan filming while I did the interviews. Jack has done all the editing (a mountainous task, as you can probably imagine). Dan was responsible for lighting and cinematography on the shoot and has done retouching on archive photos since. The only outside help we’ve had, on the actual film production, has been with grading/colouring.
Q. Is there anyone you would have like to have interviewed but couldn't, for one reason or another?
A. We drew up a wish list of interviewees at the start of the project and the great majority happened. A few of the names on the list were optimistic – Bob Dylan, for example, and Tom Petty, who we nearly got. Of the more realistic ones that we didn’t get, the main disappointments were Jim Dickson, who sadly passed away while we were still on the drawing board; Doug Dillard, who was too unwell to be interviewed; and Bernie Leadon, who initially was going to take part but then changed his mind – apparently he hadn’t enjoyed reminiscing about Gram Parsons for ‘Fallen Angel’ and didn’t want to go through it again.
Q: Tell me about your interviews with the surviving original Byrds.
A. We knew, right from the start, that we had to get access to all three, if the film was to have any real validity and weight. Fortunately, once they knew we had the blessing of Gene’s family, they were very happy to participate.
The original plan was to shoot each of them in their own homes – as we did with nearly all the other interviewees. As it turned out, we only did this with Chris. We went to Florida to interview Roger and had to find neutral ground for the interview. After looking at various possible locations around Orlando, we ended up turning our hotel room into a makeshift studio. We had just enough room to set up the lights and cameras. I had to talk with Roger from a crouching position in a broom cupboard in the corner of the room. Perhaps that’s why that interview doesn’t have quite the same relaxed feel as most of the others.
David was coming to the UK, on tour with Graham Nash, immediately after we got back from the States. He said he rather meet us then, so we arranged to shoot his interview before their gig at the Colston Hall in Bristol. That fell on the day after we came home and we almost blew it. After a month of everything going as well as we could have hoped, during our very crowded shooting schedule around America, we came within minutes of missing our flight back from Orlando. Thankfully disaster was averted. We got there, got it done and – as many people who’ve already seen the film have commented – David is one of the stars of the film.
All three spoke about him with a mixture of fondness and sadness, as you would probably expect. Chris was, by far, the most frank and open in his reminiscences and insights. Roger, in particular, was more guarded. He and David were both very comfortable on the subject of the creation of The Byrds and Gene’s role in their success. What happened thereafter…less so. I got the sense that Gene was a bit like the black sheep of the family, who they felt a bit awkward talking about. They must be very conscious that they’ve taken flak over the years, for their perceived mistreatment of Gene, so you can see why it’s a sensitive subject.
Q. There doesn't appear to be much footage of Gene after he left the Byrds, apart from some TV appearances. How did you deal with this issue?
A. Gene Clark archive material of any kind, between The Byrds and McGuinn, Clark Hillman, is in short supply. Our best efforts couldn’t turn up any video footage from those years, and people who’ve spent far longer than ourselves on the quest haven’t found anything either. We realized early on that this was going to be the case, but we’d already decided that we wanted to make more use of location footage than is usual with this type of film. My feeling was that the places he lived in were more meaningful to Gene, and more influential on his work, than the times he lived in, and we wanted to get a sense of those places into the film.
Before going to the States, we did as much research as we could into the places where he’d lived – with his family in Missouri, in LA and Mendocino. Quite a few of the significant buildings in his life no longer exist – his grandparents’ house in Tipton, where he was born; the first family home in Swope Park; the house in Sherman Oaks, where he died. But others do – we were able to film at the Bonner Springs house, where the Clarks moved during his teens; at Doug Dillard’s house on Beechwood Canyon, where Dillard & Clark came into being; and, most importantly, at the farmhouse just outside Mendocino.
We also shot a lot of general atmosphere footage, to get a feeling of those three very different locations: the down-to-earth simplicity of the rural Mid-west, the full-on rush of Hollywood, and the serenity (spirituality, you could even say) of Northern California. Experiencing them all, in concentrated form, made it easy to understand why Gene spent much of his life being pulled in conflicting directions.
Q. As you dug into his life and spoke to people who knew him, did you find out anything that you hadn’t known before, either positive or negative?
A. From what I already knew, and from reading the John Einarson book, I was quite well immersed in Gene’s story before we started making the film, so nothing really came as a shock. One thing I was pleasantly surprised to find was a universal affection for Gene, across everyone we interviewed – a sense that, for all his faults and the upsets he caused, he was ‘a good guy’. The one piece of genuinely new information, which we couldn’t make room for in the film, concerned Gene’s father, Kelly Sr. It’s well known that he played guitar and was an early influence on Gene’s interest in music. But, according to David Clark, Gene’s younger brother, he was a very good musician and was invited to join the Gene Krupa Orchestra. He was about to get married, however, and Jeanne wouldn’t let him go on the road. Who knows what would have happened, if he had.
|Read the article HERE|
A. Of all the artists I interviewed during my brief stint as a music writer, only two struck me as people I’d have liked to know better as fellow human beings. One was Lowell George and the other was Gene. I went up to either Leeds or Liverpool to do an interview with him for Zigzag, in the bar of the hotel where everyone was staying. But the gig (in fact the rest of the tour, if I remember right) got cancelled, so after I’d turned off the tape recorder we just kept talking through the afternoon and into the evening, over a few quiet beers. From what I’ve learned since, I got very lucky – “a few quiet beers” doesn’t seem to have been his usual style. My impression of him was as a deep, gentle soul, but naïve – not in the sense of being dumb – far from it – but unworldly… marching to a different drum from regular folk. The other thing that made a particular impression, was that he genuinely seemed as interested in the life and thoughts of an unknown rookie writer as I was in his. Sadly my tape of the interview got lost somewhere along the way through the years, but fortunately we were able to access some others from the same period.
Q. The title of the documentary refers to the “Triumphs” – plural – and the “Tragedy” of Gene Clark's life. The tragic aspects are obvious. Bearing in mind that Gene Clark never had any commercial success as a solo artist, what in your view are the triumphs?
A. Commercial successes and artistic triumphs are by no means the same thing…as I’m sure you know. I would consider the first D&C album, White Light and No Other to be artistic triumphs in their own right, in addition to his work with The Byrds. I would also say that, considering the various personal difficulties he faced throughout his career, his ability to rise above those difficulties to create such a body of work should also be considered a triumph.
Q. What do you believe was the essence of Clark's uniqueness as a songwriter?
A. A god-given flair for melodic invention and lyrics, which, at their best, come from another place. (The word ‘visionary’ has become wildly over-used, but in Gene’s case it can be applied quite literally.) All delivered, of course, in a uniquely wonderful voice. There have been many fine covers of Gene Clark songs, but no one does them better than he did himself.
Q. Finally, are you pleased with the results of the documentary?
A. After more than two years of immersion in the project, it gets hard to be objective about it and you tend to focus on the things you’re not happy with. But we’re generally pretty pleased – and the reactions of people who’ve seen it suggest we’re right to be.
|DVD available from http://foursunsproductions.com/Gene-Clark-Documentary/|