Tuesday, 17 May 2016

A filmmaker's quest to honour Gene Clark, the Byrd who flew alone

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, April 2014

"I think he is legitimately at least the equal to Gram Parsons, and should be better remembered as the father of Americana."

Those are the words of Gene Clark's former manager Saul Davis in the opening moments of British directors Paul and Jack Kendall's elegiac music documentary The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark. It seems ungraceful to position the two men in opposition, yet Davis's point is stark and compelling: Gene Clark, founding member of The Byrds and creator of some of the most sumptuous music ever recorded in the country-rock canon, saw the recognition his work deserved pass him by. Critical consensus today, it is fair to say, deems Parsons, also once a Byrd, as the genre's pioneer and most soulful voice.

Clark's story is unique even among the great 'lost' talents of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Unlike the likes of Parsons, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Jimi Hendrix and others, he did not die young (he died in 1991 at the age of 46 as a result of a bleeding ulcer, according to the coroner), yet today Clark's body of work has the aura of an artist whose light burned only briefly, and whose music has developed something of a cult following as a result.

As fan and member of the Coal Porters Sid Griffin says of Clark's career in the documentary, "He continually missed ships leaving the harbour". He was never able to mobilise himself to meaningfully synchronise with the movements and fashions of his day, due to his struggles with alcohol and drugs, an aversion to playing the promotion game and a chronic fear of flying (one of the reasons he parted ways with The Byrds in early 1966). He once floored record label monolith David Geffen in a Los Angeles bar. He did not, one might say, care for the business side of music.

A songwriter and singer of some profound depth, Clark's "earth music", as Taj Mahal puts it on screen, hit its peak on two magnificent solo albums No Other and White Light. His album with renowned banjo player Doug Dillard (The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, 1968) is another astonishing collection, while in The Byrds he wrote none other than 'I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better' and co-wrote perhaps their most iconic track, 'Eight Miles High'. A thread through the documentary is the fact Clark was untrained in the technical arts of music and perhaps more bafflingly, achieved a singular mystery in his lyrics without reading books.

The documentary is a true passion project for long-time Clark lover, Paul Kendall and his sons Jack and Dan. Thanks to exhaustive trips to the United States, they managed to track down nigh on everyone who mattered, and surviving, in the Gene Clark story. Thus in the film we get heartfelt contributions from one-time Byrds Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, producer Larry Marks, No Other bassist Lee Sklar, singing partner Carla Olson, former wife Carlie and sons Kai and Kelly as well as admirers Griffin and Taj Mahal.

"There were undoubtedly some emotional moments during the interviews," says Paul Kendall, "particularly with people who probably hadn't had much opportunity to express or explore their feelings on the subject before – but I never detected any hint of anger or resentment.

"It wasn't the overriding feeling, but sadness was obviously present in all cases – sadness that he'd never managed to find lasting contentment or stability in his life, and that his work didn't achieve the full recognition it deserved. Along with that sadness, there was a lot of bewilderment about his mercurial temperament and his self-destructive demons. But there was also real affection for him as a man, and pride at being associated with him."

Kendall had interviewed Clark in 1977 for Zigzag magazine, and having remained a ardent fan, was moved to put the wheels in motion for the film after reading John Einarson's biography Mr Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of The Byrds' Gene Clark. From the start the project was completely independent and funded by the filmmakers, motivated by nothing but an obsession with Clark's back catalogue.

"Under normal circumstances, you'd probably put together a proposal and look for funding from a broadcaster or a larger production company. In our case, we felt that would be wasted time. Even if we could have got interest in the idea of a Gene Clark documentary, we certainly wouldn't have been the obvious choice of people to do it: no track record, no credentials, no obvious resources."

The key figures were Clark's sons. They had been approached on multiple occasions by "well-known filmmakers" but no films had come to fruition. It took the Kendalls showing the Clarks their initial interviews with Barry McGuire, from Clark's first singing group of note the New Christy Minstrels, and another former Byrd and bass player for Clark, John York, to convince the sceptical brothers of the film's potential worth. With the approval of the estate, everything else fell into place.

Naturally, in trying to fit Clark's enigmatic life story into under two hours presented Kendall with a series of excruciating editorial decisions: he admits leaving out details and songs that went strongly against his instincts. In addition, Kendall and his sons were keen for the film to be a celebration of Clark the artist than anything else.  That meant not looking too closely at the more painful aspects of his life: the drug and alcohol abuse, the erratic, sometime aggressive behaviour and ruptured friendships.

"Everyone in the film has their own perspective," says Kendall, "and in some cases their own agenda. But I think the story and the picture that emerge are as accurate as we could make them.

"There are certain aspects of his life – and the aftermath of his life – that are somewhat murky. But we made an early decision not to delve into that too much. Many of the key players in those aspects are no longer with us to tell their side of the story, and we didn't want to get distracted away from Gene's music, which was always going to be the primary focus of the film."

Gene Clark's sound ripples poetically and sensitively through the film, from New Christy Minstrels songs right through to 1987's So Rebellious A Lover with Carla Olson. But the quality of the music alone is not enough to sustain such a documentary. Therefore we are left with the curious trajectory of Clark's life as a narrative, which is compelling in its marriage of melancholy and beauty.

"For me, two things above all [stand out about Clark's biography]: the complexity of his character and the contradictions in it, and the mystery of how a man who was musically untutored and unread, for the most part, could produce work of such melodic beauty and poetic lyricism. He didn't seem to understand that himself. I think the fact that his gift was god-given, and therefore beyond his control, was a constant source of turmoil for him.

"Perhaps oddly, the person he most reminds me of, as a character, is the footballer George Best – another man who encompassed both an inherent shyness and a love of success, or rather, some of its benefits, and for whom extraordinary talent seemed to be both a blessing and a curse."

The Byrd That Flew Alone: The Tragedy and Triumph of Gene Clark is available in Australia through Greville Records or from FourSunsProduction.com

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