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Gene Clark: The Byrds and Beyond

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

Gene Clark: The Byrds and Beyond

Gene Clark is known best for writing some of the Byrds' finest work, but over a long if unsung solo career, he proved a versatile songwriter and musician. On the 20th anniversary of his death, we take a look back.

Born Harold Eugene Clark Nov. 17, 1944, in Tipton, Missouri, Clark was the third of 13 children. Clark grew up in Kansas where, by age 9, he was learning guitar from his father and would practice by trying to figure out songs by Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. He joined Joe Myers and the Sharks, a local rock 'n' roll band, when he was still only 13.

After graduating high school in 1962, Clark started playing with folk groups in Kansas City, but upon hearing the Beatles he gave up the folk scene and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to form a band like the one that so inspired him.

It was there he met James Roger McGuinn, a Chicago native and musical polymath who'd worked as a sideman, session musician, and $35-a-week songwriter at the Brill Building. A fellow converted folkie turned Beatlemaniac, McGuinn met Clark at the Troubadour in 1964. A little over a year later, the Byrds would release their first record, the Bob Dylan-penned "Mr. Tambourine Man."

In so doing, they created an entirely new musical genre. Folk rock, as it became known, combined the brainy poetic lyrics and vocal harmonies of the former with the clean electric guitars and driving beats of the latter in what was essentially America's musical response to the British Invasion.

The Byrds first album consisted mainly of Bob Dylan covers and updated folk tunes, but the outstanding originals were all penned by Gene Clark, including the B-Side "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better," which wasn't a hit at the time but has since been lauded as one of the band’s best songs. It's been covered by artists as diverse as Juice Newton, Dinosaur Jr., and Tom Petty, and in 2009, Rolling Stone ranked it among their 500 greatest songs of all time.

The Byrds were also unique in that they had what amounted to three rotating frontmen, with McGuinn, Clark, and David Crosby all taking turns singing lead vocals. This lack of a central focus, combined with their onstage aloofness and uneven musicianship, sometimes earned them scathing reviews as a live act. It also provoked a sense of competitiveness within the group that could fuel creative impulses but would also prove destructive.

Clark again wrote most of the original material on the group's second album, "Turn! Turn! Turn!", and saw two of his songs released as singles. Tensions were by now growing within the band. Crosby was dissatisfied that none of his songs were being recorded; other members were unhappy with the cozy relationship between McGuinn and producer Terry Melcher. They also resented Clark who, thanks to his songwriting credit royalties, was making a lot more money than anyone else in the band.

For his part, Clark wanted to sing more and disliked the group's heavy touring itinerary because he had a crippling fear of flying, having witnessed a plane crash as a youth. "If you can't fly," McGuinn reputedly told him, "you can't be a Byrd."

After writing the song often credited as beginning the psychedelic rock movement ("Eight Miles High"), Clark left the band. Columbia Records signed him as a solo artist but unfortunately released his 1967 debut album the same week as the Byrds' "Younger Than Yesterday."

A lack of early solo success saw him briefly rejoin the Byrds when David Crosby left to form Crosby, Stills, & Nash, but this stint lasted less than a year. A second solo record for A&M, combining strains of country and rock, fared no better commercially. Subsequent tracks would go unreleased for months or years, tied up in legal red tape or sidelined by the record company's lack of confidence in their marketability.

In 1973, Clark again joined the Byrds, now back to their original lineup, but their reunion album was far from a critical darling, though many writers noted the songs penned by Clark were the strongest.

After the Byrds disbanded, Clark soldiered on, putting bands together, releasing more solo work, landing an unexpected hit in the Netherlands, adopting new musical styles, getting picked up and dropped by record labels, forming brief reunions with his old bandmates. He'd always been a heavy drinker and smoker – both habits he credited with helping to soothe his travel anxiety – but as the years wore on, his drug and alcohol dependency worsened. In the early 1980s, the success of R.E.M. – who made heavy use of the same arpeggiated, jangling guitar sound discovered by McGuinn – sparked newfound interest in the Byrds by a younger generation of musicians. Teenage Fanclub penned a song devoted to Clark, and in 1986, he recorded "So Rebellious a Lover" with Carla Olson of the Textones – a record that sold more copies than any of Clark's previous non-Byrds work.

Clark and Olson were planning a follow-up when his lifestyle finally caught up to him. He died May 24, 1991, of a heart attack at age 46.

"People don't give enough credit to Gene Clark," Byrds bassist Chris Hillman said. "At one time, he was the power in the Byrds, not McGuinn, not Crosby. Few in the audience could take their eyes off this presence."