Gene Clark's Underrated Gem Gets Reissued with Bonus Tracks

Gene Clark went from superstar status to cult favorite faster than probably any artist in rock’s history. Departing from The Byrds at the very height of their powers (immediately after “Eight Miles High”, which he was the major architect of), he bounced from label to label, cutting some of the greatest albums of the late-60’s and early 70’s in the process. He progressed, flowered and remained, in a quiet way, one of the finest singer-songwriters of the period, and in hindsight, chronicled the stylistic shifts in music and social mores as well as anyone, including larger lights such as Neil Young. Some of his finest work was for A&M Records, either in tandem with Doug Dillard (The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark, which mid-wife’d the ‘country rock’ genre) and 1971’s Gene Clark - also known as White Light to many fans; as good as any ‘singer-songwriter’ record from the early 70’s. On this album, none other than Bob Dylan commented that one song, the epic “Spanish Guitar”, was one that he wished he’d written.

By 1973, he participated in a much-heralded but artistically uneven Byrds reunion album for David Geffen’s Asylum Records. Despite the debatable quality of the overall album, Clark’s contributions shone brightly, and Geffen signed him up for a solo project, setting the stage for No Other.

The end result was a monolithic album, which stretched the senses and creative process, and No Other is often considered by many fans to be Gene Clark’s absolute, all-time masterpiece…which has constantly baffled me. Although it contains great material – some of it, in fact, his best –the arrangements and overall top-heavy sound of the record has been called “un-listenable in places” by some, including me. The over-indulgent quality of the album was always a reminder of the worst of that semi-artificial, mid-1970’s/ L.A. studio ‘dead’ sound that many despise. However, this new reissue has given myself, at least, cause to… not reverse my opinions, but to re-define them and to appreciate this album a lot more on its own terms.

Part of this is due to the sparkling sound quality of this CD. The brightness of the high-end (especially the acoustic guitars) and the vigorous definition of the drums and (numerous) percussion overdubs here now seem to coalesce properly for the first time to these ears. Perhaps this is due to the album being remastered from the original multi-tracks (it hasn’t been re-mixed). Whatever it is, I feel like I’m listening to it for the very first time, and with fresh ears. The other factor that makes this reissue more attractive, obviously, is the wealth and quality of the bonus material, which I’ll get to in a minute.

This album is about love, mortality, survival…and cocaine. Yes, this is the most nose/gum-frozen album since Sticky Fingers. About half the songs have references to being high in some form or another via lá coca, and Thomas Jefferson Kaye’s indulgent production echoes this. They almost didn’t need percussion… they could have just used razors tapping on the mirrors. Hey, L.A. in 1974 with a six-figure budget? On Asylum Records!? I rest my case. On the title track, rumor has it that none other than Sly Stone was present at the session, and it makes sense; his post-Riot numb funk is all over the track. But somehow it actually almost works. Between the transcendent spirituality (and spaciness) of the lyrics to the Afro-funk of the rhythm track, it falls together. But, when you get a glimpse of the alternate or demo version of the song in the bonus tracks, you’ll surely appreciate it even more.

The ethereal music and arrangements here surround some of Clark’s most progressive and mesmerizing lyrics. The songs are filled with parables and allegories that take a long, hard look at personal politics and humanity through Gene’s eyes, and by proxy, a generation of 60’s survivors seeking to define themselves in a (not so brave) new world. The 1970’s were here for real, friends, in all of its life in-the-fast-lane, burned out decadence. But oddly, there is a strong sense of purpose and virtue to the words Clark sings on such songs as “The True One” and “Lady Of The North”, and they underpin his own folksy wisdom with an indefinable sense of grandeur and strength of spirit. This dichotomy makes the album a sort-of perverse second cousin to Neil Young’s cathartic antidote to excess from the same era, Tonight’s The Night.

But the key to this reissue very well may be the bonus tracks. Here, the listener gets a near-complete (and very different) alternate version of the album. I’m unsure if these tracks are demos or early versions of the songs. If they’re demos, they’re of damn excellent quality, most likely cut live in the studio. There is an immediacy to the songs, and these paired down arrangements (no choral or multiple keyboard overdubs; what a difference from the album tracks!) bring the songs into the listener’s focus with a much faster, zero bullshit quotient. For my own reasons mentioned above, it’s an epiphany.

One of the most interesting bonus cuts is a version of “Train Leaves Here This Morning”, which had first appeared on 1968’s epic, quietly revolutionary The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark (and a few years later on the Eagles’ debut album). Whether Gene meant this as a warm-up tune or it was in serious contention for a place on the finished No Other (which was conceived by Clark and Kaye as a double album set) is difficult to say. But there is no denying the power and earnest quality of this reading, which in itself is a must for Clark fans.

In the end, for fans of the album this is a virtual treasure trove; the reissue you’ve been waiting for. For those who have thought it somewhat overrated over the decades, it’s a perfect opportunity to re-explore…and the bonus material is worth the price of admission.

©2004 M. Greenwald