Gene Clark - A Tragedy In Two Parts: Part Two - Mr Tambourine Man

Posted by Miss Ess, February 6, 2008 08:52pm | Post a Comment
Gene Clark is sort of a tragic figure. He is also one of the most complex, idiosyncratic rock stars I have ever read about -- I just finished Mr. Tambourine Man by John Einerson. Due to mental illness, addiction and over abundant sycophants, he died too soon and without ever realizing and enjoying his true potential.

Things started out triumphantly enough in the early 60s, with Gene being plucked from complete obscurity in Kansas by the New Christy Minstrels to be in their group. He toured with them for a few months before his fear of flying, among other things, forced him to quit the band. He kept Los Angeles as his home base and soon met Roger McGuinn and David Crosby and they began creating music together. Soon, The Byrds were the biggest American band in the middle of the 60s and they were creating the kind of songs that will be remembered forever.

Clark's time in The Byrds was truly the stuff that dreams are made of. He was a star literally overnight, able to buy a Ferrari and live on the edge. He became used to the amount of attention being a super star and the toast of the nation brought him.

Gene was the main songwriter in The Byrds at that time, with songs like "My Love Don't Care About Time" and "Feel A Whole Lot Better," which meant that he was earning the most money. The others in the band jealously undermined him, especially David Crosby, who convinced an insecure Gene that he was such a poor guitar player that he shouldn't play on stage anymore. Crosby told Gene he should sing and shake the tambourine instead. Of course, Crosby took over Gene's Gretsch on stage. The many power plays within the group eventually led to Gene quitting the band.

After The Byrds Gene worked on a solo album that is mistakenly titled and billed as Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. He also worked and played hard with famed bluegrass musician Douglas Dillard. They put out two albums as Dillard and Clark-- The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark and Through the Morning Through the Night. Gene was into and helping to create "country rock" long before pretty much everyone else. Due to Gene's growing reputation as a partier who pulled extreme stunts, none of his albums received much commercial push or press. Gene could never stick with one label-- he'd always get kicked off due to some kind of incident like yelling at the executives, insulting their wives, canceling an important gig, etc.

It seems that Gene's life was fraught with bad luck, mental illness, mistrust and addiction. I believe from reading this book he was likely bipolar. He burned many bridges within the industry with his brash behavior, and gained a reputation of being difficult to work with. On the other hand, much of the time he appears to have been caring and affectionate, a real gentleman.  He certainly suffered from phobias and compulsions, including crippling stage fright. Gene is perhaps most famous for having a fear of flying. This stemmed from his witnessing a plane crash out on the plains of Missouri when he was a child. Gene would never speak about his phobias or ask for help. He never talked much to anyone about his internal feelings. He seems to have been an extraordinarily inward person who was both an erratic alcoholic but also genuine and well-loved. 

True happiness finally came to Gene in the late 60s and early 70s when he met and married his wife Carlie, moved away from Los Angeles to bucolic Mendocino and had two children. While he was in Mendocino, he lived an idyllic outdoor oriented life of rivers and ocean cliffs and whales, all centered around his rustic cabin. He wrote two brilliant albums there, White Light and No Other. Unfortunately, when he would return to LA for business, he would fall back into his sycophant crowd and feed his growing addictions.  This led to his divorce and losing his property in Mendocino.

Over time, while Gene continued to fight to make music, he lost track of who his real friends were and increasingly became involved with people who took advantage of him, of his perceived money and fame and who encouraged his ever increasing drug and alcohol addictions. His alcoholism led to dementia, tremors and an even more erratic, sometimes violent personality.

It's hard for me to even write this blog because there is so much complexity to Gene's life and it seems impossible to give it justice by writing a short piece. It's so far beyond all of that. I can understand why the author of Mr. Tambourine Man, John Enierson, was compelled to include so many interviews and so many sides of stories. The book itself is kind of massive and has small print, like he was really trying to jam it all in. At first this was a bit off putting, but in the end I can understand that grasping the many facets that made up Clark's life and influences takes more than a typical 150 page bio. The book was somewhat overwhelming though. It's a lot to wade through and the stories within its pages are often heartbreaking. 

Still, though Gene's life was often dark, the patches of light within it shone very brightly. Gene's songwriting has been admired by heavy hitters like Bob Dylan and John Lennon and he was at least able to communicate his deeply hidden feelings through song. He fought hard for his career and to keep doing what he loved, although he both sabotaged his own work and tragically could never truly step out from the shadow of The Byrds. His fascinating life's example ended up teaching me the importance of holding onto one's creativity, one's family, and also how vital it is to know the difference between a true friend and an enemy, and to recognize when that enemy may in part be yourself.

Here's Gene in the 80s playing "Silver Raven" from No Other:

And here's Gene with The Byrds in their heyday singing "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better":

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No Other (2), The Byrds (8), Gene Clark (6)