REVIEW: Gene Clark, Still Younger Than Yesterday: “Gene Clark Sings For You” & “The Rose Garden Collection”

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Sometimes it feels like Gene Clark never really left us. The discovery and periodic releases of the former Byrd’s solo recordings have graced us over the past few decades. As time has passed, his inestimable multi-generational influence becomes more apparent spanning folk and country rock, rock stalwarts like Tom Petty and R.E.M., and a new roots generation. It’s all kept Clark top of mind and contemporary though he’s been gone since a tragic passing more than twenty-five years ago.

And now, four years after the documentary The Byrd Who Flew Alone chronicled Clark’s life and passing, we are fortunate to go back in time again to hear Clark’s 1967 demos originally recorded for his second post-Byrds album Gene Clark Sings For You (now released for the first time on Omnivore Records) . Generously annotated by John Einarson, the biographer traces the “mythic” acetate that was rumored to be in a record label’s vault and now appears five decades after Clark dismissed to pursue another creative direction.

The album sounds more interesting than it is dated. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we’re listening to the gifted melodies and songwriter who was only twenty-three at the time. In the closing track “Till Today,” the song sounds less like a demo and more like a letter from the beyond. Clark’s deep voice and ruminations are like a memoir in several minutes, deep reflections of someone who seemingly had more life experience than many of us develop over a lifetime.

Much of Clark’s writing follows this blueprint. In “Yesterday I’m Right,” his intensive regrets reach near wailing in a two-way dialogue in which he asks, “ What did I ever do that was right?” The falsettos of “Past My Door” reveal a vulnerability as if he’s talking back to his ex-lover. There’s innocence in the lead track “On Her Own” as Clark laments a girlfriend who has moved to San Francisco.

But the music is also loose and fanciful. In “Down On The Pier” a song in which Clark sounds like he’s dictating notes in his diary in real-time. It also evokes the sounds of it’s time, namely the Beatles “Norwegian Wood” and Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around.” Clark borrows from Dylan’s third-person narration of “Tombstone Blues” on the descriptive “7:30 Mode” while evoking Bo Diddley  in the bluest scratchy stomp of “Big City Girl.” If the single “Doctor Doctor” is derivative, it’s also delicious, an artifact that bridges folk-rock and psychedelia rooted between the Sunset Strip and Golden Gate Park. “Past Tense” anticipates an early R.E.M.

Perhaps it’s the generous annotated notes that make both Gene Clark Sings For You and another Omnivore release The Rose Garden Collection feel like living history. Clark was introduced to the Rose Garden band as he was pulled onstage one night to play his signature Byrds song “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” He gave the fledgling group an acetate of six songs and they ended up recording “Till Today.” The new collection expands upon the 2005 Elektra Records reissue.

Somewhat surprisingly the six songs identified as “The Rose Garden Acetate” are the least interesting on Gene Clark Sings For You. But “Till Today” is like listening to a Byrds reunion with Clark back in the fold and mixed in a collage of Byrd’s voices. The faster tempo and vocal mix obscure the emotion on Clark’s own demo tape. It is the rehearsal version that is perhaps the most interesting with the Rose Garden’s raw vocals evoking Clark as if he was sitting in with the band.

At times The Rose Garden Collection sounds like a period piece while delighting in its anthropological roots. Like Clark’s own songs, the jangling guitars of “Coins of Fun” mix the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and foretell the emergence of next generation bands. (It could just as easily be mistaken for an R.E.M. outtake circa Reckoning.) And in “Rider,” the guitars  reverently derived from the Byrds’ lexicon mix rhythms that would be adopted in later versions by the Grateful Dead.

The liner notes are required reading for any serious music fan. Einarson’s interview with Clark’s onetime girlfriend, and Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips provides a lens into Clark’s creative side– but also detailing the demons he’d grapple with through his shortened life. Clark’s intensity as a young gifted writer is captured as is his star aura. Read inside to learn the origins of  the Ferrari he was often seen driving in Hollywood.

In the end there’s an aura of mystery to Gene Clark Sings For You. Only he and pianist Alex del Zoppo are credited on the album. The next line reads: “Other musicians unknown.”

Find out more at www.omnivorerecordings.com

 

 

 

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