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Time Tunnel: Great Albums of 1971. Gene Clark – White Light

As we compiled our recent feature on the many great albums that were released in 1971, it became evident to several of us here at At The Barrier that the brief paragraphs that we wrote about some of our favourite albums from that momentous year didn’t really do justice to the seminal works we were describing.  We’ve decided, therefore, to run an occasional series in our Time Tunnel feature to reappraise a selection of our favourite 1971 albums in greater detail.  To get the ball rolling, I’ve had a close listen to what is possibly my favourite of all the tremendous albums that emerged in 1971 – Gene Clark’s White Light.

It may seem perverse that, with a massive range of popular gold and platinum-selling albums to choose from, I’ve selected an album that bombed spectacularly when it was first released.  But, as we all know, commercial success is an unreliable indicator of musical quality, and that’s certainly the case as far as White Light is concerned.

Harold Eugene “Gene” Clark was, of course, a founder member of The Byrds and, in the group’s early years at least, was the principal artistic force behind the band’s success.  His compositional contributions to the band’s repertoire included such classics as I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, Set You Free This Time and the ground-breaking Eight Miles High.  His influence on popular music was immeasurable and he was a leading proponent of musical genres such as psychedelic rock and alt-country.  Alongside his songwriting talents, Gene was also an accomplished rhythm guitarist, a peerless harmonicist and a truly outstanding vocalist; talents which he increasingly felt unable to exercise to their fullest extent from within the confines of The Byrds.

Things came to a head, as far as Gene’s membership of The Byrds was concerned, in early 1966, when a management decision to promote Roger McGuinn as the band’s lead vocalist, coupled with Gene’s chronic fear of flying, led to Gene’s decision to leave The Byrds.  Spells of working with The Godsin Brothers, and then with Doug Dillard and Chris Hillman followed. Both periods in which the pattern of producing highly acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful albums was established and Gene lapsed into semi-retirement.

During 1970, however, Gene secreted himself away in Mendocino, Northern California and came up with the batch of songs that would become White Light.  He got together with guitarist/producer Jesse Ed Davis and a small posse of musicians at Village Recorders in LA to produce an album of outstanding beauty and musicality.  Sparse instrumentation – the songs are structured principally around inter-twining acoustic guitars – provides the backing for a collection of nine songs that are entirely flawless.  And Gene’s voice – clear, mellow and impassioned – is consistently delightful.

For the recording, the musicians – Gene on vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonica, Jesse Ed on electric and acoustic bottleneck guitars, John Selk on guitar, Chris Ethridge on bass, Gary Mallaber on drums, Mike Utley on organ, Ben Sidran on piano and Bobbye Hall on percussion – sat in a circle, allowing complete eye contact between the musicians and generating a psychic understanding that pervades throughout this remarkable record. 

The result was summarised thus by the great Thom Jurek:

[This album] has established itself as one of the greatest singer/songwriter albums ever made…. Using melodies mutated out of country and revealing that he was the original poet and architect of The Byrds’ sound.  On White Light, Clark created a wide-open set of tracks that are at once full of space, [possess] a rugged gentility and are harrowingly intimate in places.  His reading of Bob Dylan’s Tears of Rage… rivals, if not eclipses, The Band’s.  Less wrecked and ravaged, Clark’s song is more a bewildered tome of resignation to a present and future in the abyss.  Now, this is classic rock. 

Strong, yet thoroughly appropriate praise indeed.

White Light is one of those rare albums that are carpeted, wall-to-wall, with magnificent songs.  From the very start of opening track The Virgin to the fadeout of album closer 1975, the songs are utterly captivating.  As I’ve indicated, this is, overwhelmingly, an acoustic album, although the band do get to rock out on songs such as One in a Hundred and the aforementioned Tears of Rage and 1975, the songs are predominantly intimate and poetic and the instrumentation is restricted to provide only what the songs require.  Guitars, keyboards and percussion are perfectly balanced and nothing is overdone.  The focal point is Gene’s wonderful voice, and the overall effect is simply wonderful.  This is classic Americana, recorded and released before the term was even defined.

The songs are uniformly excellent and it seems almost churlish to pick out any favourites. If pushed, I would direct first-time listeners to the jaunty title track: a brilliant song that works its way deep into the listener’s consciousness, the unbelievably mellow Because Of You and, most of all, to the truly stunning For A Spanish Guitar.  Considered by no less a luminary than Bob Dylan to be one of the best songs ever written, this is a masterpiece and one of the hundred songs that I would recommend that everyone hears at least once before they die.  Just two acoustic guitars provide the backing, Gene’s vocal would melt the iciest heart and the whole thing is rounded off with some superlative harmonica.  Whenever I listen to For A Spanish Guitar, I never want the song to end and it evokes so many happy memories.

But please don’t just leave it there.  The Virgin is a lovely laid back country ballad, With Tomorrow is soft and intimate and Where My Love Lies Asleep is rich and engaging with some wonderful bottleneck guitar, deep ponderous bass and some of the best harmonica playing you’ll ever hear.  This really is an album to be enjoyed as a single, cohesive piece of work.

The enigmatic artwork of the album cover conveys little indication of the delights to be found within.  The front cover photograph is a silhouette of Gene against a setting California desert sun and the back of the album sleeve comprises a picture of a haggard and harassed-looking Gene glancing thoughtfully through a window.  It’s almost as if he was foreseeing the undeserved failure of the album.

The ensuing years provided a bumpy ride for Gene Clark.  In late 1972 he participated in an ill-fated reunion of the original line-up of The Byrds, a venture that culminated in the release of the critically distained (yet, ironically, commercially successful) Byrds album.  Perhaps the main saving features of the Byrds album were Gene’s songs Full Circle and Changing Heart and it is likely that these paved the way to Gene joining David Geffen’s Asylum Records roster in 1974 and to the release of the No Other album, a piece of work that is only now receiving the critical praise that was always its due. 

Further albums, reluctant tours and on/off reunions with various members of The Byrds followed, as did spells of alcohol and narcotic dependency.  Sadly, Gene died in May 1991, at the age of 46, apparently from natural causes, aggravated by a bleeding ulcer.  It was later revealed that, at the time of his death, Gene was suffering from throat cancer.

Gene Clark’s talent deserved far greater reward and recognition than he was able to claim during his lifetime.  His story may be considered by some to be a tale of under-achievement and missed opportunities, but his legacy speaks for itself and, amongst the treasure that he left behind (a hoard that includes all those marvellous Byrds songs and the superlative No Other album) is the album that I consider to be the very best of all those that made 1971 the Annus Mirablis of the rock album: White Light.  Gene Clark, I salute you.

Listen to For A Spanish Guitar from Gene Clark’s White Light album here:

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