I THINK MY BROTHER must have bought a copy of Gene Clark’s RSO "comeback" album, Two Sides To Every Story when it first came out, in 1977. I certainly remember flicking past it for years, never ever taking it out and playing it, always route-bound for those cool teen sounds: John Cooper Clarke, The Clash, Jimmy Cliff. In fact, the first time I ever knowingly listened to any tracks from that remarkable album was back in 1998, on CD Two of A&M’s Gene Clark Best Of, Flying High. Well, get me. I was missing out on tracks as eerie and beautiful as this:
We’ll get back to that sad, sad clip, but first, a few more words about that Gene Clark Best Of. I still believe that Flying High is the best single-artist compilation ever. Compiled by sometime MOJO contributor, one time Long Ryder, current Coal Porter, and friend of Gene Sid Griffin, it touches parts that other anthologies cannot reach, opening out a career that, up to that point, had been shut down or closed off to many.
Gene Clark looked like a fugitive Greek Argonaut, adrift in time. The Byrds’ Orphic existentialist, floored by a fear of flying, Clark wrote the labyrinthine heartbreakers, songs like She Don’t Care About Time, imbuing the band with a swirling melancholic romanticism that soon faded after after he bailed in 1965.
“Gene Clark looked like a fugitive Greek Argonaut, adrift in time.”
Shy, desolate, just 23, increasingly reliant on the fuzzy aplomb that only booze brings, post-Byrds Gene kickstarted country rock with his solo debut …With The Gosdin Brothers and the beguiled bluegrass mysticism of The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard And Clark, starring in lonesome roadside ballads as some outcast changeling, trudging a broadway of neon brambles, forever caught between hedonism and enlightenment, journey and arrival.
Subsequent albums became more intricate, variegated and dark, as Clark attempted to capture his own elusive dream-state of euphoric bewilderment. “I can only make guesses,” he sang, “on some of my past addresses.” Sadness weighed heavy, as you can see in the above clip, filmed in 1988 for Ralph Emery’s country music talk show, Nashville Now. Gene looks frail, solitary and tired, bound in the nontheistic complexities of some deeply odd lyrics. There’s beauty there, but not a lot left on the screen.
Gene drifted, drank and despaired for another three years after that TV appearance. He died from complications following a bleeding ulcer in 1991, aged just 46.
By 1998, Clark’s ’70s solo work had been largely forgotten, while their composer, dead some seven years, had been written off by many as a shy, boozy footnote in the history of The Byrds. Yet while Flying High single-handedly restored Clark’s reputation and revived his back-catalogue, it also worked as a complete listening experience.
From the early Byrds tracks at the start of CD 1 to the high-flying cosmic country and the lost, lonesome tracks that rounded off CD2 here was a compilation that served its purpose as a job of curation, but thanks to Clark’s skills as a songwriter and Griffin’s talent as a compiler it also told a rich, sad compelling tale of an American visionary and storyteller, one superior in every way to that other broken Western poet, Gram Parsons.
“I don't believe that Gram Parsons ever wrote anything as tragically beautiful.”
OK, I’ll admit that it’s not a competition, but one night, some years ago, in a bar called The Two Boots in New York’s Lower East Side I tried to drunkenly argue that same point with Black Crowes’ frontman (and number one Gram Parsons fan) Chris Robinson. A somewhat vocal debate, it ended with me being sick on a tree, but I think I won. I don't believe that Gram Parsons ever wrote anything as tragically beautiful as Hear The Wind, and I know that no Gram Parsons compilation could come close to the rich, dark complexities of Flying High.
Thankfully, Sid Griffin has continued his valuable work in drawing attention to the genius of Gene Clark. On Friday night at 9pm, BBC Four will be screening a 90-minute edit of Jack and Paul Kendall’s 2013 Gene Clark documentary, The Byrd Who Flew Alone. Sid’s in there, looking back and holding forth, so give him a wave if you see him. The film itself can be something of a difficult watch, as it focuses as much on Gene's many character failings as it does on his artistic successes. By the end of it, you might even feel that you've had quite enough of Gene Clark the man. But there's still always Gene Clark the singer-songwriter; and for that we'll always have Flying High.