This article was published in the October 1998 issue of Record Collector
magazine. It is presented here for scholarly discussion purposes only.

Flying High
Polydor 540 727 2, 2-CD
©1998 Record Collector

Gram Parsons is the Byrd most commonly tagged as the father of country
rock, a label that even in his short lifetime he was keen to disown. But
other members of the Byrds family have at least as strong a claim to this
dubious privilege, like Chris Hillman, the bluegrass raised mandolinist and
bassist who first dared to suggest that America's Beatles might cover a hit
by the rhinestone suited salesman of Nashville country, Porter Wagoner.

And then there's Gene Clark"under rated, as Hillman now admits, by the
Byrds themselves, ridiculed and pressured out of group at the height of
their initial success, and then marginalised for the rest of his
increasingly traumatic career. In keeping with the Gram Parsons tradition,
Clark died in the early 90s, a martyr to the myths of alcohol and
narcotics. But whereas Parsons has received posthumous validation up to and
even beyond what he earned, Clark's reputation has been a trade secret
among the small coterie of admirers who shared his bafflement at his
inability to reach an audience worthy of his talents.

"Flying High" is the much delayed, long awaited launch of Gene Clark's
critical rehabilitation, a career wide retrospective that samples his work
from the first incarnation of the Byrds to his final 80s sessions with the
likes of Textones vocalist Carla Olson. Inevitably, you can debate the
choice of tracks (not forgetting that licensing problems for non A&M
material may have got in the way). Personally, I regret the omission of
"Echoes" from his first solo album"the pinnacle of his first collision with
an orchestra"and would rather have had more from his masterpiece, "No
Other", perhaps at the expense of the suite of songs from the earlier
"White Light" album. Others may have preferred the opposite, of course.

In terms of rarities, "Flying High" only touches the surface of an archive
which is reliably rumoured to hold dozens of unheard titles (once again,
there are tough legal obstacles to overcome before most of this material
can be released). But much of what has been prised out of the vaults is
superb, not least a wonderfully precise country rock cover of Dylan's "I
Pity The Poor Immigrant" from around 1968, and the powerful, paranoid ode
to "Los Angeles" which dates from the same era. Though it's not listed as
such in the PR blurb, the mix of the early 70s Byrds reunion track, "One in
A Hundred", sounds different to these ears from the one on Clark's
"Roadmaster" album (check that extra Crosby harmony out of the verses).

Most of the rest will be familiar to aficionados, who will probably have
picked up the scarce "American Dreamer" (the worst song Clark ever wrote?)
on the original soundtrack LP, or Raven's Australian retro CD. But if
you're coming to Clark for the first time, aware of his initial work with
the Byrds and not much else, what will you find? A songwriter indebted to
Bob Dylan but not overwhelmed by him, despite what the harmonica playing on
"White Light" might make you think. A lead singer whose voice conjured up a
vision of a man maintaining his dignity in the face of overwhelming odds.
And a musical imagination which encompassed country rock, art pop and, on
"No Other", a sublime blend of both those strange hybrid genres, to create
a record as mystical as anything in the 70s rock canon.

Much of the impact of "No Other" is lost when just three of its songs (and
not the strongest) are sandwiched between less weighty offerings from
"Roadmaster" and "Two Sides To Every Story". But with "No Other" itself
currently out of print, any recognition of its power is welcome. "Flying
High" proves once and for all that Gene Clark wasn't just a bitplayer in
the Byrds story, but a potential star who was sidelined both by his own
frailties and by his bandmates' apparent jealousy of his genius. It's true
that if he had remained a Byrd through 1966 and beyond, then there mightn't
have been room for Chris Hillman and David Crosby to develop as writers in
the way they did. you can argue the pros and cons of that debate among
yourselves. What matters now is that whether or not he was a member of the
Byrds at any particular time the music that Gene Clark created was always
the equal of what his former colleagues were producing, whether they were
still with the parent band or spiralling off into units like the Flying
Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash. That fact automatically places
Gene Clark into the pantheon of American rock, regardless of how you
classify the man and his memory. (PD)