Imagine a hall of fame for comic actors that neglected Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin. Or an academy for film directors which excluded Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. To say it might lack credibility would be an understatement. I feel much the same about the continued absence from the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame of Gene Clark.
If Clark had penned nothing else in the class of She Don’t Care About Time – an appropriately timeless song he wrote in 1965 when he was 19 – he would still qualify for a ‘club’ to which Freddie Mercury, Sting and Cyndi Lauper have received successful nominations alongside Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.
Lest you are unfamiliar with the name, Missouri-born Harold Eugene Clark was a founder member of The Byrds. His writing credits, soulful vocals and tambourine rattling peppered the first LPs by the American folk-rock giants over half a century ago. He also created an enduring body of solo work, including the cult album No Other, the Dylan-approved White Light and pioneering country-rock records. With the arguable exception of Hibbing, Minnesota’s finest he was the early Byrds’ principal songwriter. Unarguably, he was their finest lead vocalist.
Clark died in 1991, aged 46. His passing was symptomatic of a life in music as blighted by misfortune as it was characterised by gorgeous melodies and intriguing lyrics, inspired by The Beatles and Dylan. Having got himself clean of addictions to booze and drugs, he came into a small fortune from the royalties for Tom Petty’s treatment of his signature song, I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, on 1989’s Full Moon Fever. He was promptly lured back into using hard drugs. Since he already had throat cancer, the outcome was sadly predictable.
But he left an extraordinary array of songs. Quite apart from the one Petty took to a new audience, and some dazzling Byrds tracks (including the monumental Eight Miles High, Here Without You, I Knew I’d Want You, Set You Free This Time, One In A Hundred and The World Turns All Around Her), you may be familiar with Train Leaves Here This Morning, his co-write with Bernie Leadon which appeared on the Eagles’ debut album; So You Say You Lost Your Baby, on which Death in Vegas and Paul Weller collaborated; and Through The Morning, Through The Night and Polly Come Home, highlights of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s acclaimed Raising Sand set.
For me, picking a Gene Clark favourite is no contest. She Don’t Care About Time, preposterously, was left off the Byrds’ second album Turn! Turn! Turn! Instead it became the B-side – a bloody B-side! – of the single of the title track. That earned him enough to buy a Porsche (as well as earning the envy of colleagues Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke; as Clark was quoted as saying in John Einarson’s biography Mr Tambourine Man: ‘Animosity was growing amongst the group. Especially about me, because I was making a lot more money than anybody else from royalties.’)
The song begins with a riff that encapsulates the classic Byrds sound, as if the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar intro to Mr Tambourine Man had been fused with the jangle that kicks off The Searchers’ wondrous reworking of Jackie DeShannon’s When You Walk In The Room. It is a majestic, up-tempo opening.
Then in breezes Clark with a lyric fairly bursting with romanticism. The wordplay, at once ornate and condensed, conjures an idealised lover: constant yet carefree, beautiful, elegant, serene, modest, fair-minded and passionate.
Her eyes are dark and deep with love, her hair hangs long and fine
She walks with ease and all she sees is never wrong or right
And with her arms around me tight I see her all in my mind
And she'll always be there, my love don't care about time
McGuinn’s guitar break in She Don’t Care About Time – once heard, never forgotten – is a lift from Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Crosby provides his trademark ethereal harmony. And there’s a lovely nod to Dylan in the way Clark uses ‘don’t’ rather than ‘doesn’t’ in the title line. It’s The Byrds at their brilliant best – and the jealousies of 50 years past have given way to admiration.
Hillman, whose Petty-produced album Bidin’ My Time saw the former bass guitarist reprise the song last year, said: ‘Gene writes of a fantasy love existing “out on the edge of time” – wonderful imagery wrapped around a dream sequence. Amazing to be able to write with such depth and substance at such a young age.’ Crosby called it ‘a brilliant thing’ and McGuinn often professes his love for the song.
There’s another fine, countrified version, featuring Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel and Byron Berline on fiddle, on Clark’s Roadmaster album, but for me the Byrds’ rendition is more fully realised.
Clark’s music lives on, championed by online devotees such as #GetGeneIn and by musicians. Teenage Fanclub had a song called Gene Clark on their album Thirteen; Marissa Nadler has a haunting track (featuring Sharon Van Etten) titled I Can’t Listen To Gene Clark Anymore; and Richard Ashcroft’s latest album includes We All Bleed, the work of a man who has plainly been immersed in No Other.
It’s a peculiar anomaly that another hugely gifted ex-Byrd who succumbed to his addictions, Gram Parsons, remains so much better known despite having been involved in only one album by the group. Clark’s talents are also less vaunted than those of contemporaries such as Tim Buckley, Nick Drake and Tim Hardin. I contend that his legacy, with She Don’t Care About Time the prime example, is more substantial.
When David Crosby was inducted to the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame the citation noted his co-authorship of Eight Miles High, a composition to which he and the other Byrds contributed minimally. Time, surely, for this grand-sounding institution to rectify its most damning oversight and give Gene Clark a long overdue break.