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Byrd Lives: Cult Hero Gene Clark’s 21 Best Songs

With some of indie-rock’s brightest stars touring in his honor, we pick the former Byrds frontman’s essential tracks

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Beginning January 22nd in Philadelphia, members of Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Beach House, the Walkmen and Wye Oak are joining forces to play a series of concerts during which they'll cover Gene Clark's 1974 cult classic solo album No Other in its entirety. Not familiar? You should be. Forty years after the album was released it remains an awe-inspiringly majestic and moving listen. 

Beach House and Friends Plan Gene Clark Tribute Tour

But it also represents only a small sampling of Clark's immense skills. Born in the small town of Tipton, Missouri, in 1944, Clark was a founding member of folk-rock pioneers the Byrds, penning original material for the group before embarking on a solo career that encompassed heavily orchestrated, sadly underappreciated treasures like No Other and sparser, also underappreciated affairs like 1971's folk-focused White Light

Exclusive Listen: Lost Gene Clark Album Classic "Kansas City Southern"

For all Clark's songwriting gifts – his music managed the feat of feeling both metaphysical and homespun – the singer-guitarist never found much in the way of solo success, and he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, dying in 1991 at 46 years old. But his body of work has long found favor among those music fans and musicians who count themselves as seekers. Years before the No Other tour, Clark's songs were covered by Tom Petty, the Eagles, Yo La Tengo and Robert Plant, to name a few. So to celebrate this latest Gene Clark renaissance (a new documentary, The Byrd Who Flew Alone, is also making the festival rounds), we've chosen his 21 finest songs, taken from all eras of his career. 

By Andy Beta

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“Kansas City Southern”

Through the Morning, Through the Night, 1969

By 1969, the partnership between Dillard and Clark began to fray, with the former leading towards the trad, and Clark trying in vain to get back with the more commercially successful enterprise, the Byrds. This song, powered by a keen steel guitar line from Sneaky Pete Kleinow (soon to be the pedal steel go-to guy for the likes of Steve Miller and the Rolling Stones), finds Clark reminiscing about his childhood in Missouri, dreaming of escape via the train tracks traveling to distant vistas just over the horizon.

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“One in a Hundred”

Planned Byrds reunion single, 1970

By 1970, one would be hard-pressed to get the original line-up of the Byrds into the same room, but this sumptuous single (wherein every Byrdmember's part was recorded separately and then mixed together) showed the kind of magic the group could still effortlessly achieve. Despite featuring those choirboy harmonies and sterling guitar lines, legal issues and in-fighting resulted in this single being scrapped. As was Clark's fate, the song later was relegated to his 1973 odds and ends album, Roadmaster, which only saw release in the Netherlands during his lifetime.

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“Because of You”

White Light, 1971

Disenchanted with the star-making machinations of Los Angeles, Gene Clark decamped to Mendocino with his girlfriend (and soon-to-be wife) Carlie McCummings, writing a new batch of songs for his second solo album, White Light. Contemplative, refined and wholly gorgeous, "Because of You" sees Clark addressing the acquisition of love rather than its loss. Producer (and unsung hero guitarist) Jesse Ed Davis adds tasteful garlands of slide guitar, organ and hand percussion as Clark sings of love as "the taste of one in two."

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“With Tomorrow”

White Light, 1971

"It was idyllic," Carlie McCummings said of her time in Mendocino, California, with Clark, where he wrote the deeply personal songs that comprised the country-rock classic, White Light. On the gossamber ballad "With Tomorrow," Clark sings, in a moving quiver, "I must have thought it was a dream while she was here with me." It's as hushed and perfect a song as he ever penned.

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“For a Spanish Guitar”

White Light, 1971

It's been widely reported that Bob Dylan had this to say about "For a Spanish Guitar," arguably Gene Clark's greatest effort: "(It's) something I or anybody else would have been proud to have written." Against gracefully descending guitar chords, Clark distills Dylan's poetic mysticism down to its emotional essence. In the song, he examines the troubadour's plight: his or her effort to draw in the great wide world of beggars, laughing children and seagulls, and to render that world  in song and strings. Clark muses, as best he can, that "the answers they cannot explain/ pulsate from my soul through my brain/ in a Spanish guitar." 

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“Here Tonight”

Roadmaster, 1973

While not recorded with his Byrds' brethren, Clark replicates his earlier band's distinct harmony blend and easy melodic charm in this succinct tale of life on the road for a beleagured musician. The pick-up line: "It just seems so insane to strike out in the rain/ when it's so easy to remain right here tonight" is last-call flimsy, but still worth finding solace in, at least for one night.

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“In a Misty Morning”

Roadmaster, 1973

In this elegant, slow-cresting song — powered by steel guitar and fiddle — Clark contemplates a failed relationship with the sensibility of a haiku master, seeing the outside world as a manifestation of his interior state. His evocation of streets wet with rain and crying clouds reflect the singer's own fraught state of mind. The lyrical image of a momentarily fearless Clark staring down a police cruiser strikes a poignant grace note.

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“Full Circle”

Byrds, 1973

In October of 1972, the five original members of the Byrds: Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke reconvened to record a poorly received reunion album. One of the album's highlights, though, featured the band tackling Clark's crystalline and wise "Full Circle." (The song was also included on Roadmaster). Enamored with the concept of the Buddhist Wheel of Life, Clark must have felt like the Byrds reunion was déjà vu all over again, his fortunes rising (the Byrds was his lone remotely lucrative project) only to plummet soon after: "Though you always look for what you know/ each time around/ there's something new again." This lineup of the band never recorded together again.

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“Strength of Strings”

No Other, 1974

With big-selling artists Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles having covering Gene Clark's songs, David Geffen signed the singer-songwriter to Asylum Records in early 1974. Staring out onto the Pacific Ocean from his Mendocino home, Clark drew on discussions with far out friends like David Carradine and Dennis Hopper about the philosophies of Carlos Castaneda and Madame Blavatsky and folded such mysticism into his lyrics. Rather than the spare folk sound that underpinned White Light, on No Other producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye aimed for a more lush, intricate sound with an R&B undercurrent, enlisting twenty-five odd players, back-up singers and string musicians. While critics deemed the album indulgent (studio fees reportedly topped $100,000), the epic "Strength of Strings' was an uncanny hybrid of Delta blues, orchestral rock and cosmic gospel.

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“Lady of the North”

No Other, 1974

As the No Other sessions went over budget and deadline, Clark's marriage to Carlie McCummings crumbled and he reverted back to his hard-living days, but with a new SoCal twist: cocaine. He holed up with former musical partner Doug Dillard and attempted to woo his estranged wife back with the resplendent yet aching album closer "Lady of the North." In the song, Clark remembers "trials never entered into any conversation," and yet seems resigned to the dissolution of his marriage, lamenting a change in the seasons ahead. As the music roils to a climax, producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye sends violin, cello, organ and pedal steel guitar through wah-wah pedals, bringing the song to a lift-off on the line about "flying high over the clouds." While he rightly considered the album his masterpiece, the critical and commercial failure of No Other was something that haunted Clark for the rest of his life.

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“Sister Moon”

Two Sides to Every Story, 1977

Having lost his recording deal with Asylum and heading in a personal and professional downward spiral, Clark again worked with Thomas Jefferson Kaye for Two Sides to Every Story, which he deemed his greatest work apart from No Other. The emotional devastation from his divorce is palpable throughout the album, an inescapable sadness infusing every song — nowhere more so than on the string-filled lament "Sister Moon." On it, Clark sings of a woman who strives for independence, yet who has already found another companion. Emmylou Harris provides backing vocals on this elegiac ballad.

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“Gypsy Rider”

So Rebellious a Lover, 1987

Clark enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the 1980s, as bands in Los Angeles' Paisley Underground scene as well as Athens, Georgia, college-rock icons R.E.M. drew from his melancholy blueprint. Around this time, while hashing out a new project in a living-room session, Clark found himself singing duets with the Textones' Carla Olson, their voices naturally melding into a perfect whole. On the ensuing early alt-country effort, So Rebellious a Lover, the duo set their distinct voices to heartfelt mandolin and dobro. "Put your face into the wind/ find another road where you've never been," Clark sings in a world-weary voice on the album's autobiographical "Gypsy Rider," sounding resigned to his fate. So Rebellious a Lover would be the man's last studio album, as he succumbed to natural causes exacerbated by alcoholism in 1991 at the age of 46.

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