Gene Clark – Here Tonight: The White Light Demos Review

Gene Clark (1)

A release of demos from a country-rock legend’s most fruitful period, but is it necessary?

Omnivore Recordings, 2013

9.0 / 10.0

Gene Clark is one of the most important figures in the development of what we know today as country rock and/or alternative country. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know it. Thankfully, Here Tonight: The White Light Demos is going to give me a chance to drop just a little bit of education. Clark was born in Tipton, Missouri, the third of thirteen children. His family soon moved to Kansas City where he began learning the guitar from his father at age nine. Before long he was writing his own songs and, at 13, joined a local rock and roll combo, Joe Meyers and the Sharks. Like many of his generation, Clark developed an interest in folk music because of the popularity of the Kingston Trio. After graduating high school in 1962, he began performing with several folk groups working out of Kansas City where he was discovered by The New Christy Minstrels, who hired him for their ensemble. After hearing the Beatles, Clark quit the Christys and moved to Los Angeles where he met fellow folkie/Beatles convert Jim (later Roger) McGuinn at the Troubadour Club and in early 1964 they began to assemble a band that would become The Byrds.

Gene Clark wrote or co-wrote many of The Byrds’ best-known originals, including: “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “Set You Free This Time”, “Here Without You”, “If You’re Gone”, “The World Turns All Around Her”, “She Don’t Care About Time” and “Eight Miles High”. Bassist Chris Hillman noted years later in various interviews remembering Gene: “People don’t give enough credit to Gene Clark. He came up with the most incredible lyrics. I don’t think I appreciated Gene Clark as a songwriter until the last two years. He was awesome! He was heads above us! Roger wrote some great songs then, but Gene was coming up with lyrics that were way beyond what he was. He wasn’t a well-read man in that sense, but he would come up with these beautiful phrases. A very poetic man–very, very productive. He would write two or three great songs a week”. “He was the songwriter. He had the “gift” that none of the rest of us had developed yet…. What deep inner part of his soul conjured up songs like “Set You Free This Time,” “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “I’m Feelin’ Higher,” “Eight Miles High”? So many great songs! We learned a lot of songwriting from him and in the process learned a little bit about ourselves. At one time, he was the power in the Byrds, not McGuinn, not Crosby—it was Gene who would burst through the stage curtain banging on a tambourine, coming on like a young Prince Valiant. A hero, our savior. Few in the audience could take their eyes off this presence.”

A management decision delivered the lead vocal duties to McGuinn for their major singles and Bob Dylan songs. This disappointment, combined with Clark’s dislike of traveling (including a chronic fear of flying) and resentment by other band members about the extra income he derived from his songwriting, led to internal squabbling and he left the group in early 1966. Columbia Records (The Byrds’ record label) signed Clark as a solo artist and, in 1967, he released his first solo LP, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, a mixture of pop, country rock and baroque-psychedelic tracks. The record received favorable reviews but unfortunately for Clark, it was released almost simultaneously with the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday, also on Columbia, and (partly due to his 18 month-long public absence) was a commercial failure. With the future of his solo career in doubt, Clark briefly rejoined The Byrds in October 1967, as a replacement for the recently departed David Crosby, but left after only three weeks, following an anxiety attack in Minneapolis.

In 1968, Clark signed with A&M Records and began a collaboration with banjo player Doug Dillard. With guitarist Bernie Leadon (later with The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles), they produced two country rock and bluegrass-flavored albums: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark and Through the Morning Through the Night, both of which fared poorly on the charts. It wasn’t until 1971 that a further Gene Clark solo set finally emerged. The album was titled White Light on the actual record, although the fact that the name was not included on the cover sleeve led some later reviewers to assume mistakenly that it was titled ‘Gene Clark’. The record was produced by the much sought after Native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis with whom Clark developed great rapport, partly due to their common Indian ancestry. A largely acoustic work supplemented by slide guitar work by Davis, the album contained many introspective tracks such as “With Tomorrow”, “Because of You”, “Where My Love Lies Asleep” and “For a Spanish Guitar” (supposedly hailed by Bob Dylan as a song he would have been proud to compose). All of the material was written by Clark, with the exception of the Dylan and Richard Manuel penned number “Tears of Rage”. Launched to considerable critical acclaim, the LP failed to gain commercial success, except in the Netherlands where it was also voted album of the year by rock music critics. Once more, Clark’s refusal to undertake promotional touring adversely affected sales.

After years of alcohol and drug abuse, fueled by regular commercial failures, Gene Clark tragically died of a heart attack in 1991. He was 41 years old. In the time since his death, Clark’s work with The Byrds, Dillard & Clark, and The Flying Burrito Brothers is just beginning to receive the credit it so richly deserves. Among his solo albums however, White Light conclusively remains a ruefully undiscovered gem. It’s works in our favor then that Omnivore Recordings is setting about to change that. This week Omnivore released Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, featuring never before heard solo demos from the 1970-1971 White Light era (including three tracks unreleased in any form). The result plays a bit of rules that other record companies should follow before deciding that a release of demo recordings is necessary.

Rule #1 – The Sound Quality Should Be Listenable
A major problem with far too many ‘demo sessions’ releases is that they are four track recordings that were intended as little more than road-maps for the songwriter to work from. There is nothing a prospective listener wants to read less than ‘interesting for collectors or completists only’. In the case of Here Tonight, the recordings are pristine. There are few signposts at all that these weren’t intended to be final recordings. The sound quality is pristine and the mastering is as impressive as any modern songwriter recording you will here. I would challenge a listener to pick these tracks out as demos without knowing better ahead of time.

Rule #2 – The Tracks Should Qualify As Complete Songs
Even more egregious than sound quality problems in the dreaded ‘for collectors’ label is the inclusion of fragments of a song. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to here this more often as well. This is when the recording comes from the period when the song was nowhere near being a complete thought. My mind immediately goes to the Crosby, Stills, and Nash Demos release, which was almost entirely comprised of humming verses and inferior versions of otherwise great songs. You don’t find this anywhere on Here Tonight. These recordings were clearly taken from a period just before Clark added the final arrangements to each song. The lyrics and structure for each song are complete, leaving a recording that sounds like you probably would have heard these songs live during a Clark solo acoustic performance.

Rule #3 – The Release Should Add Something To The Original Material That Wasn’t Present Before
Here is where The White Light Demos really shines. The stripped back versions here do a lot to cultivate the legend of Gene Clark as one of his generation’s very best songwriters. One of the problems I’ve had with the country rock of this era are the full band arrangements that sound more than a little dated today. On Here Tonight, those arrangements give way to Clark alone with his acoustic. This puts a brighter light on Clark’s phenomenal lyrics and makes his intent with each song a bit clearer. With maybe the only exception of the title track, I think I actually prefer the versions here in demo form to the final versions from White Light. You here more personality in Clark’s vocal performance and his ties to American and European folk become more clear in these versions. In the form presented on Here Tonight, these songs make it much more difficult to deny that Gene Clark was a legendary songwriter. That alone makes this collection not just a necessary, but absolutely significant addition to Clark’s catalog.

Gene Clark was as important to modern country music as other more regularly dropped named like Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, and Emmylou Harris. The tragedy of his early death is only amplified by the fact that he has never received the level of appreciation that he so direly deserved. Outside of historical context, Here Tonight: The White Light Demos is a nearly perfect recording in its own right. This is perfect music for a lazy Sunday evening. Furthermore, among the class of ‘demo’ collections, maybe only Bruce Springsteen’s overkill collection Tracks rivals Here Tonight in terms of what it adds to our collective understanding of the artist and its individual quality. This is clearly not an attempt to cash in on Gene Clark, but instead a release lovingly put together by people that appreciated Gene Clark for what he was; a legend.

Key Tracks:
“For A Spanish Guitar”
“Please Mr. Freud”
“Opening Day”
“Jimmy Christ”

Purchase Gene Clark’s Here Tonight: The White Light Demos

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About Chris Bell

Chris Bell was born in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO in 1981. His path toward a life enjoying music began at ten, when he first heard Queen. Chris attended Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, where he studied English and Communication Arts. While there, Chris spent three years working as an on-air disc jockey for 88.7 KTRM Radio. Chris was the host/creator of the weekly ‘Tangled Up In Bob’ show and a frequent guest on the station’s weekend talk format, serving as a guest commentator on music and politics. It was during this time that Chris was first published by the National Communication Association. His work, ‘Dylan and the New Left: How Political Song Changed American Political Rhetoric’ was presented at the 2002 NCA National Convention in New Orleans. Chris was the only undergraduate to present research on his panel, ‘Rhetorical Strategies in Music’. After college, Chris moved back to Kansas City and started his own talent management company, Poker Face Productions. He continued to manage that company until moving to Brooklyn, NY to pursue a business opportunity in 2008. While there, Chris started as a weekly column writer and album reviewer for Now back in the Midwest, Chris is hoping to bring what he learned about music media in New York to his hometown and support an already vibrant arts culture in Kansas City. His areas of concentration include American Roots, Glam Rock, Punk, Psychedelia, Chamber Pop, American Underground, and Garage Rock.

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