Published November 21st, 2019 at 6:00 AM
The career-making moment Gene Clark was waiting for in 1974 may now – 45 years later and long after his death – finally be arriving.
The singer and composer grew up in the Kansas City area before leaving in 1963 to become a co-founder of the landmark rock group, the Byrds. He later left the Byrds to pursue a star-crossed solo career. This month a British record company has released a deluxe reissue of what may be his signature solo album, “No Other.”
What in 1974 was considered a commercial failure in recent weeks has generated extravagant praise. Variety, the Los Angeles entertainment industry publication, has declared the record a “lost 70s classic.” The Economist, the London-based financial weekly, declared: “It is not merely a ‘great lost album’ – it is one of the finest albums ever recorded.”
Critical reaction to the “No Other” reissue likely will hasten the transformation of Clark’s historical memory. Often cast as a discouraged and unlucky rock star – Clark died in 1991 at age 46 – he is increasingly seen as a bold and transcendent artist.
“I think he would be ecstatic about it,” said Kai Clark, a son of Gene’s who lives in California and is pursuing his own music career. “He went through a lot of struggles, and I am sure he would be very pleased that the album is finally getting some notice.”
Kai’s uncle, singer and musician Rick Clark, agreed.
“I think Gene would be seriously surprised,” said Rick, a younger brother of Gene’s who also is a singer and composer. “He might even be slightly shocked. He was struggling for a long time and near the end he was feeling that nobody really remembered him that well.”
Gene Clark long has represented one of Kansas City’s most compelling show business stories.
He achieved spectacular success with the Byrds, which in 1965 were touted as the “American Beatles.” That year the Byrds could be seen routinely on network television, with the lanky Clark front and center with his Prince Valiant bangs, singing and banging a tambourine. He also gained notice as a composer on the Byrds’ first album, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which featured four Bob Dylan songs.
Clark wrote or co-wrote five of the rest.
But during a long and sometimes frustrating solo career, no matter how much critical praise Clark received, he never enjoyed the commercial success of former Byrds bandmates David Crosby or Roger McGuinn – much less the Eagles, who ruled the 1970s with a “country rock” sound many believe Clark helped invent.
For that reason, the deluxe edition of “No Other” represents vindication for Clark’s admirers and family.
Clark was one of 13 children, and today six Clark siblings still live in the Kansas City area. Four of them last year attended the St. Joseph, Missouri, ceremonies inducting Gene Clark into the Missouri Music Hall of Fame.
“It just seems that for so many years there was not a lot of recognition of Gene,” said Chris Clark Davis, a sister of Gene’s who spoke for the family that day.
Some of that likely was due to his father’s unsettled personal estate, according to Kai Clark.
“We went through quite an ordeal because he didn’t have a will and the state named a probate attorney who had no idea about the music business,” said Kai, who was 17 years old when his father died.
It took much of that decade for legalities to be untangled.
By the late 1990s, however, that process was complete, and since then many editions of Clark’s music have been released – the “No Other” box set from British label 4AD being the most recent.
The recording is available in multiple formats, the most lavish of which includes the re-mastered original album, alternative versions of its eight songs, a documentary detailing the album’s recording, an 80-page hardbound book, and still other extras.
“Now we are able to protect my father’s music and do projects like this,” Kai said.
What today seems like an international tsunami of critical regard for Clark began softly and grew over some 30 years.
Some believe the revival began in 1989 when Tom Petty, on his solo album “Full Moon Fever,” included the Clark-composed “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” the second song on the Byrds’ debut 1965 recording.
Other high-profile artists since have been drawn to Clark’s material. On their album “Raising Sand,” former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant and bluegrass singer Alison Krauss included two Clark originals. That recording received a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2009.
In 2014 members of Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and The Walkmen toured while performing the entire “No Other” album.
In 2011 and 2014 Kansas City-area admirers of Clark organized weekend symposiums, the second of which included a tribute concert at Knuckleheads featuring Rick Clark and others.
Many admirers of Gene Clark seem to be responding to more than just his music, said Ingrid Neimanis, a New York graphic designer who curates a website (gene-clark.com) and also edits “Echoes,” a monthly newsletter.
“While his fans enjoy his music, there is also a real affection for Gene that you don’t often see with a lot of artists,” Neimanis said. “I think that’s because Gene’s songs hit so deeply. The poetry of the lyrics, the music and most especially Gene’s voice reaches people and connects with them.”
Among those devoted fans is Wayne Kasper of Tipton, the small Missouri community west of Jefferson City where Clark was born in 1944.
Kasper’s interest in Clark spiked after he found a book of rock history in the Tipton High School library and noticed that it listed Tipton as Clark’s birthplace.
In 1988 Kasper drove to Kansas City to see a Clark concert at Crown Center’s outdoor venue. Kasper brought along a red t-shirt bearing the word “Tipton” printed across its front.
“I knew I was probably the only person from Tipton there and I was really nervous going backstage to meet him,” said Kasper, who in 2014 helped organize a separate Gene Clark tribute concert at a Tipton Knights of Columbus hall. “But within seconds of meeting Gene, that nervousness was gone. He was nice – a decent man.”
Clark accepted Kasper’s “Tipton” t-shirt.
In the early 1970s Clark joined the four other original members of the Byrds to record a reunion album. While many critics considered the subsequent recording to be underwhelming, all agreed that Clark brought the best songs to the project.
“Gene’s tracks far outshone those of the others who seemed to be holding back their best songs for solo projects,” said John Einarson, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, music historian and author who in 2005 published “Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds’ Gene Clark.”
The strength of those songs resulted in an offer from Asylum Records’ David Geffen to record a new solo album.
“Gene had a lot riding on ‘No Other,’ ’’ said Einarson, adding that Geffen did as well. “David Geffen was betting heavily that Gene could produce the goods.”
Asylum was the label home of 1970s rock icons Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, among others. The success of “No Other” could have, conceivably, added Gene Clark’s name to that list.
It didn’t happen.
Geffen reportedly was angered by the recording costs. Another issue was the music’s style – or, rather, its wide range of styles. The album, according to The Economist, “fuses country, psychedelia, baroque pop, gospel, folk, soul, funk and chamber pop with an ambitious majesty.”
It sounded like everything except what many remembered the Byrds sounding like.
“I don’t think it was the album they were expecting,” said Kai Clark. “My dad was stepping out of the mold and trying to pioneer some things. They may have been disappointed by the album, or maybe baffled by it.”
The record’s array of styles, added Rick Clark, largely had been the work of Thomas Jefferson Kaye, the album’s producer who had been eager to match the soul-searching nature of the songs Gene Clark had composed.
“Tom realized how spiritual most of the songs were and he wanted to portray them in an almost grandiose fashion,” Rick said. “It came out so beautifully. It is my favorite album of Gene’s.”
Ultimately, what had been Gene Clark’s all-in, go-for-broke album received little promotion and soon disappeared.
Clark soldiered on, recording and releasing several more albums that today often are considered examples of country rock or what today has become known as Americana.
Still, over the subsequent decades music scholars, when tracing the origins of the genre, spoke more often of Gram Parsons, a singer and composer who joined the Byrds after Clark’s departure and contributed to the band’s 1968 country rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
Ken Burns’ recent “Country Music” documentary showcased Parsons’ influence.
“If you look at Gram Parsons, his recognition is immense and I think my father was right there with him as a songwriter,” Kai Clark said. “But for some reason it was all way overlooked for a long time.”
For years after his 1991 death, stories of Gene Clark’s struggles also seemed to supplant those recounting his successes.
“I think tragedy sells,” Kai said. “And maybe tragedy has worked as a platform to bring my father’s story to the public. It’s unfortunate, because he did have a lot of joy in his life.”
Some media stories, added Rick Clark, “spent a lot more time talking about Gene’s problems than they did about his musical legacy.”
Rick Clark lived on and off with his brother for close to 20 years in California and today speaks of the toll he believed the music industry’s vicissitudes took on his brother.
“I saw what the music business did to him firsthand, and a lot of it was really ugly,” he said.
Gene Clark also faced significant health challenges in the late 1980s.
“He had an ulcer that was blocking his colon and they had to remove a third of his stomach,” Rick Clark said.
According to Rick, doctors attributed his brother’s death to heart failure, compounded by occasional substance and alcohol abuse.
“The doctor said, ‘Don’t go out on the road so much, don’t drink so much, don’t smoke so much,’ ’’ Rick said. “But by then Gene’s lifestyle had been set in stone for a long time. Gene did what he did, and he did a lot of stuff that was not healthy for him.”
In the context of such struggle, the affirmation that comes with the new edition of his father’s “No Other” album is a source of great satisfaction, said Kai Clark.
“We are really excited about it,” said Kai. “I think it is just so huge.”
By the end of this year, Kai anticipates the release of his own album, “Silver Raven,” a collection of his father’s songs both on his own and with the Byrds, and named for one of the celebrated tracks included on “No Other.”
This past weekend – in time for the 75th anniversary of Gene Clark’s birth on November 17, 1944 – a representative of a Tipton floral shop placed a guitar-shaped wreath at Clark’s gravesite at St. Andrew’s Catholic Cemetery.
A group of about 20 admirers, organized by Neimanis, financed the tribute.
Upon Gene Clark’s death, his two sons, Kai and Kelly, alerted his parents and siblings that he had wanted his gravesite to be in Tipton. In recent years the singer’s grave marker has been made vivid by a tambourine suspended from a heart fashioned from a slender metal rod, placed there by a Clark cousin.
On the memorial is inscribed Clark’s full name – Harold Eugene Clark – and the words “No Other” placed within another heart.
“That was me,” Rick Clark said. “My mom asked me at the time what would be a good epitaph, and I said ‘No Other.’
“There wasn’t another Gene Clark.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City-based writer.