A Whiter Shade of Light
Below is a discussion of tracks 8-14 from the forthcoming album Gene Clark - The Lost Studio Sessions, 1964-1982. Follow links for discussion of tracks 1-5 and 6 and 7. Click here for an Introduction to the series of posts.
Apart from David Bowie, it's difficult to name any other major artist of the rock era whose musical explorations took as many drastic left turns as Gene Clark. From the exquisite amalgam of chamber pop/Monkees/garage rock of his debut to the splendour of his visionary bluegrass of Dillard and Clark, from the get-go -- and to his enduring credit -- Gene refused to be tied to any single style of music.
Indeed, each of his successive works was so dissimilar from its predecessor that they stand now as aural monuments to Gene's artistic development (I like to think of each song as a pillar in its construction); so diverse as to be identified without use of their titles.
For example, if someone were to talk derisively about the "overproduced" and "bombastic" album, we would know from our experience as battle-hardened Gene Clark warriors that this uncommonly foolish, misguided soul was referring to No Other. Similarly, if someone referred to Gene's "stark, acoustic, singer-songwriter album," we would know it was a reference to White Light. Here we have two albums made a mere three years apart, but which were, in fact, worlds away in terms of their respective musical approaches.
Pure Gene ClarkBut far beyond these often drastic shifts in style and the attendant arguments about the merits and wisdom therein, I think it's fair to say that the true essence of Gene Clark's music is ultimately found in those performances that feature only the bare basics: his always-stirring vocals backed by that instantly recognizable slow, deliberate strumming of his acoustic guitar, sometimes coloured by superb, expressive blasts of harmonica.
This is Gene Clark performing the songs as they were originally written, before any producer, arranger or accompanists had made their mark on them. Indeed, this is the most direct link we have to the inner workings of Gene Clark's songwriting soul.
And it is with this in mind that we now turn our attention to what is unquestionably the centrepiece of Sierra's The Lost Studio Sessions, 1964-1982, six never-before-heard songs recorded during the fertile White Light period of 1969/1970. For those fans who prefer the stripped-down, bare-bones production of the White Light era, fasten your seat belts, because we are getting almost an album-within-an-album's worth of top-shelf original songs, none of which has been previously released in any form. Omnivore's excellent Here Tonight: The White Light Demos collection certainly scratched the surface of Gene's acoustic arsenal circa 1970, but featured only a couple of unreleased titles. Sierra's set ups the ante considerably with the inclusion of eight never-before-heard, pristine studio-recorded songs clocking in at a full 21 minutes.
If you thought White Light was stark, then consider these songs a whiter shade of light.
'Back To The Earth Again'
It has been noted that once Gene packed up and made the move to Mendocino his life became rooted in two antithetical extremes: the simple, quiet, rustic life as a husband and family man, surrounded by of friends and nature in Northern California (aka "normal") and the more ostentatious life of a rock star, replete with the kind of excess and indulgence that was de rigeur in L.A. but not conducive to the former.
It is no surprise that that Gene's poetry reflected this striking dichotomy.
In the 1960s and early '70s, TV's The Beverly Hillbillies made goofy comedy out of the traditional fish-out-of-water premise by having the characters making sense of their surroundings by using countrified terms they felt comfortable with (swimming pool = "cement pond").
In Dillard and Clark's 'Something's Wrong,' Gene brilliantly lamented this collision of country sensibilities and city life by employing a similar device: thus, one who recalls a childhood spent playing amongst Sherwood trees, when suddenly thrust into the heady, bohemian life of L.A., laments the sight of gaudy street signs as "neon brambles."
In 'Back to the Earth Again,' Gene employs a similar metaphor, but this time with a decidedly darker tone. Towers in the city loom like "concrete tombs." The refrain "Back to the earth/back to where it all begun" is both a wish for, and an exhortation to, reject the artificiality of modern life for the pureness of nature.
In the end, however, it is a subtle promise; a stark reminder of our shared mortality.
Gene's characteristic employment of pathetic fallacy is on full display here, chronicling the sudden loss of love with a storm hitting the coastline. Richly evocative; made memorable with a wry-but-right comment on disparate perceptions of sexual conquest ("I even gave her what she was boasting she had stolen").
'The Awakening Within'
An astonishing work and my favourite of the acoustic tracks, 'The Awakening Within' begins with a built-in hook-line ("Na-nah-na-nah-nah...") that is just begging for the addition of thick harmonies. Everything, from the singing to the guitar playing, sounds percussive. There is a persistent, halting manner about the song that contains a compelling Native-American feel, something akin to a tribal chant. Even the lyrics, sung in brisk staccato bursts, reinforce that interpretation, with "moons" being used to mark the passage of time ("For it's the second moon since you said that you would be leaving").
An updated version of the classic mid-tempo Gene Clark romantic ballad style. Here, Gene's chivalric hero recounts the romantic travails of a promiscuous woman in search of true love. Where Dylan might take an acerbic tone in this sort of situation, Gene, as always, assumes a compassionate, sympathetic voice. And, as always, Gene packs the song full of sweet, sublime hooks that become even more striking on repeated listens.
'Walking Through This Lifetime'
In this truly moving, magnificent song, Gene's spiritual quest focuses on sorrows both personal and societal, and asks if there will ever be deliverance from one's lot in life.
Walking through this world
Looking for the reasons why I find myself in sorrow
Watching lonely people who lift their heads in searching
For some time that they can borrow.
Quests for happiness almost invariably include a desire for an eternal love. Initially, this is proffered as succour to the harsh realities and endless pain brought upon us by powers beyond our control. For Gene Clark, who had been subject to the control of record companies and managers, the prospect of finding love provides the ultimate respite.
But in the end, this safety net of love proves illusory:
Walking through collections of power's passing fancies
Sometimes I think there's nothing but believing
Then there's someone gentle that makes you feel forever,
And then they tell you that they're leaving.
It is impossible to capture it in words, but listen for the moment at which Gene's voice wavers slightly as he sings "tell you"; it is among the most achingly beautiful moments in his oeuvre, as though he is at that moment remembering an occasion of traumatic loss.
A song about forbidden love, with Gene cast in a passive role as the one waiting to be contacted.
Sometimes waiting to hear from you
Something I thought I shouldn't do
'Cause I would only want to see you again.
As far as recurring themes in Gene's music go, it would be interesting to explore his penchant for ceding control to the female character in his songs. Almost invariably, she is the one who will decide his fate.
Interestingly, the song includes the second instance in which Gene employed the word "darked," previously heard in Dillard and Clark's 'She Darked the Sun.'
Some days, grey days, the sun won't shine
'Cause you have darked it from my eye
You and the other thoughts I find inside the rain.
For Gene, it is in the song's titular bird that, in a moment of tender poetic projection, one may find solace and inspiration:
Then there's the sparrow who still can sing
Even when everything else is wrong
He still can fly and find a song.
I have a suspicion that parts of this song (as well as some of the others from this session) were cannibalized and later integrated into the finished pieces on White Light. I am speaking mainly of chord progressions, although occasionally one hears a phrase that points to another finished work. "But there's the clouds who* [sic] just roll away/Upon the wind just move along" is very much reminiscent of "Then the dark clouds break away..." from 'Because of You.'
*I'm unsure if the personification of the clouds was intentional or simply an error, hence my inclusion of "[sic]." For the record, I'd love it if it was intentional.
'Only Yesterday's Gone'
Like 'Our Prayer,' intended as the opening track on The Beach Boys' aborted SMiLE
project, this all-too-brief song (1:56) feels like a genuine spiritual invocation to God; a
supplicant's desire for purifying benediction in ultimate pursuance of a new beginning:
Grace of peace come over us
Spread you freedom over us
And I'll be satisfied
Bring your wisdom close to us
Knowing that it is within us
And fill me up inside.
These songs are a major addition to the canon. Don't be fooled by the fact that they remained unreleased, abandoned by their composer. Their importance cannot be overestimated.
They are that good.
Gene was that good.