Dark, melancholic 1974 solo offering from the thinking person's Byrd
In may 1977 Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman reformed The Byrds for a European tour. At the appropriate moment, McGuinn would turn to Clark and ask: “So, Gene. Do you wanna be a rock’n’roll star?” To which Gene always replied, “Nope.”
Many a true word. Gene Clark had quit The Byrds back in the mid-’60s, while Fifth Dimension was in pre-production (imagine George Harrison leaving The Beatles during Rubber Soul), blaming his fear of flying; an irony considering that “Eight Miles High” was his swan song with them. Whatever, the gag tells us plenty about this reluctant team player.
Harold Eugene Clark from Tipton, Missouri grew up in Kansas City with his own agenda. Heading west for Los Angeles, California, aged 19, he joined eccentric folkies The New Christy Minstrels, then did the Troubadour/Whiskey A Go-Go thing and hooked up with Jim McGuinn’s nascent Byrds outfit. He was the straight man to the band leader’s commercially cute ‘let’s-do-Dylan-and-make-a-million-bucks’ persona. Which happened. So he stayed for a while. And then he left. That was Gene Clark’s way.
Following stints in The Gosdins and Dillard & Clark, he achieved moderate sales for 1971’s Gene Clark (confusingly also known as White Light) and 1972’s Roadmaster, initially available only in Holland. Welding an increasingly cynical streak to a love of chemicals, booze and Zen Buddhism, Clark immersed himself in a new venture with madcap producer and sometime Steely Dan cohort Thomas Jefferson Kaye. Kindred spirits, they were astute enough to enlist various elite LA sidemen and the heavenly gospel voices of Venetta Field, Clydie King, Cindy Bullens, Claudia Lennear, the Matthews sisters and Ronnie Barron.
Checking into The Village Recorder, West LA in March 1974, Clark wanted something more considered. Something darker, in the way some Rolling Stones records are. Six months and $100,000 later he’d got his wish: an album that evoked Hollywood Babylon versus the death of the hippie dream?a staple obsession of this period judging by contemporary albums by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mac Gayden, Stephen Stills, Steely Dan, Neil Young and Steve Miller.
Unfortunately, Asylum’s boss, the flamboyant, hard-nosed David Geffen, was as contrary as his prized signing. Asylum refused to bankroll a double album (five other songs were cut and squirrelled away) and offered minimal promotion. Where were the singles? Why was Gene on the cover posing like Valentino in a Hollywood Hills mansion? Why was he wearing make-up and camp satin pants? Despite himself, Geffen was not amused.
Of course the cover, often dismissed as a red herring that bears no relation to the music inside, was part and parcel of the whole. Art-directed and designed by Marlene Dietrich’s grandson John, and photographed by his wife Linda, the sleeve glorified the golden age of 1920s Hollywood debauchery. The Gene genie aside, it showed a motley selection of sensual flappers and matinee idol hunks like Rudi Sieber (Marlene’s onetime husband), and gave off a vibe based on decadence, coke-sniffing rou