New Film Reveals the Sad Flight of the Byrds' Gene Clark

Gene Clark
Gene Clark
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On a short, recent U.S. tour, an indie-rock superband featuring members of Beach House, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear performed the whole of No Other, a marvelous, largely forgotten 1974 album by Gene Clark, the late singer and a founding member of the Byrds. The concert's opening act was an excerpt, about that LP, from The Byrd Who Flew Alone (Four Suns Productions), a quietly gripping 2013 documentary by Jack and Paul Kendall about Clark's extraordinary gifts and tragic, losing war with limelight.

Listen to Gene Clark's 21 essential songs

Clark, who died in 1991, was barely there, in the telling of his own story: appearing only in still photos, disembodied voiceovers from an audio interview and tantalizing footage from a TV-studio performance of an older Clark singing No Other's "Silver Raven," solo with an acoustic guitar. Everything else – anecdotes about the recording, analysis of the music, regrets over its commercial failure – was left to survivors: colleagues and admirers such as the Byrds' David Crosby, No Other bassist Lee Sklar and Sid Griffin of the Long Ryders.

The Rapid Ascent of a Reluctant Star

Clark passes through the rest of The Byrd Who Flew Alone (now available on DVD) in the same way, like a ghost with a long, iron grip on others' recollections. Born in Tipton, Missouri, in 1944, Harold Eugene Clark bloomed early, busting out of the prairie with early-Sixties folk stars the New Christy Minstrels, then co-founding the Byrds with Crosby and Roger McGuinn in 1964. Clark dominated the group's two 1965 albums with his prolific composing and emotionally magnetic voice but never recovered from his sudden exit in late '65, ostensibly over his fear of flying. Clark issued only four major-label solo LPs in his lifetime, the last in 1977, and refused to promote No Other or its predecessor, the 1971 pensive-country classic, White Light, with tours and press campaigns.

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Clark's story has been told in depth in two books: Johnny Rogan's 1997 edition of his comprehensive Byrds history, Timeless Flight Revisited (Rogan House) and John Einarson's 2005 biography of the singer, Mr. Tambourine Man (Hal Leonard). But the Kendalls do a remarkable job of bringing Clark's genius and allure to life from the scant visual evidence he left behind: rare concert footage of a clean-cut Clark with the Christys; clips of the '65 Byrds miming to their hits on dance-party TV shows; that undated "Silver Raven" clip, included in full as a bonus feature on the DVD. In one sequence, sadly without sound, Clark is seen with the other Byrds in what looks like a backstage dressing room, clapping his hands with intense concentration as if he is teaching a rhythm to a new song. He is classic-Sixties handsome, with commanding Roman-esque features; Clark is also lost, in the best way, in his music.

A Byrd in Twilight

Much of The Byrd Who Flew Alone is inevitably given over to Clark's extended twilight, in the Seventies and Eighties, of false career starts, personal crisis, divorce and physically ravaging alcoholism and drug use. One sad, striking measure, not in the film, of Clark's faint, public trail after the Byrds is that he was never interviewed as a solo artist for Rolling Stone. The first major story about him in the magazine was my obituary, published in July, 1991.

The Kendalls treat that darkness – and Clark's periodic sparks of creative recovery, like his Eighties collaboration with singer-guitarist Carla Olson – with a frank care. Clark's Missouri siblings David and Bonnie, his sons Kelly and Kai, Byrds bassist Chris Hillman and producer-songwriter Tom Slocum all speak with sympathy for Clark's trials and demons. They also sound hurt and still baffled by his poor choices and surrender to the consequences, even after drastic stomach surgery in 1988.

The Byrd Who Flew Alone ends with a home video, running next to the credits, of Clark singing Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" with a clear, grateful resolve. The setting is humble: Clark and one of his later bands performing the song, with smiles, at a kitchen table into a boom-box recorder. But in a film in which Clark is more spectre than star, you finally see, as well as hear, the legend in everyone's memories and etched forever in those records.

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David Fricke

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke has more than 10,000 albums in his New York apartment. His first record review for the magazine was Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' (RS 290).

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