Any fool can be happy. It takes a man with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.
― Clive Barker (English writer, film director, and visual artist)
The above quote captures the essence of Gene Clark’s brilliance as a songwriter. Gene did not have the easiest of lives, yet he turned his misfortunes and disappointments into stunningly beautiful lyrics and melodies that will stay with you forever once you’ve heard them a few times. He wasn’t just a lyricist, he was a poet. And he wasn’t just a tunesmith; his melodies were like perfectly balanced paintings where light is used to full effect. There was great harmony in them, even though Clark’s chord sequences weren’t always the most common ones.
With Clark, the real tragedy is that much of the bad luck and drama that seemed to follow him throughout his life, he brought on himself. Coming from simple country values, a large family and a childhood that was rather innocent, raising chickens and milking cows, Clark was perhaps slightly ill-equipped to deal with stardom. Yet, being one of The Byrds, he was propelled into stardom in just a matter of weeks after the release of their debut single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Never at home in a group that suffered from constant power struggle and never at ease with the corporate games of the music industry, Clark quit the Byrds quite unexpectedly after just two years with the band. The fact that he was the group’s chief songwriter made his decision to part ways with them all the more baffling at the time. His exit was, of course, the result of his acute fear of flying. The Byrds boarded a plane nearly on a daily basis and the long and short of it was that Gene couldn’t handle it.
In his 2017 interview withMojo Magazine, another Byrd, Roger McGuinn, argues that Gene’s fear of flying was just one reason for his departure:
Many years later Jim Dickson (The Byrd’s manager)...told me a story of him and co-manager Eddie Tickner taking Gene aside with the idea of going solo, making him another Elvis or something. So maybe there was more to it than fear of flying ...."
Be that as it may, the fact of the matter is that Gene did leave and while he never became another Elvis or even a big star on his own, he released a string of excellent solo albums between 1967 and 1987. Our track of the week, Clark’s stunningly beautiful “Blue Raven” comes from his second to the last album, Firebyrd, released in 1984.
“Blue Raven” is a love song but as with most love songs Clark wrote, the words are esoteric, painting images and evoking feelings rather than telling a story.
I thought you knew that all of those songs I wrote were about you
Star crossed and sold somehow our harmonies went out of tune
This time the raven is not silver; this time the raven's blue
We were the midnight dancers; we spun around the silver moon
We were the stone romancers and we had all the answers too
This time the raven is not silver; this time the raven's blue
These are beautiful lines and offer us the priceless hook, “This time the raven is not silver, this time the raven's blue.” This is obviously Clark referring to another tune he penned for his mid-seventies masterpiece “No Other.” Since “Silver Raven” was about Carlie Clark, his wife at the time, or more specifically about her silver platform shoes, we have every reason to assume that “Blue Raven” is written with the same woman in mind. I, for one, always thought of it as Gene’s final farewell to the love his life. Gene and Carlie weren’t married anymore when “Blue Raven” came out but if one is to hazard a guess, this is Clark taking a walk down the memory lane, fully well knowing there is no turning back. His health was deteriorating rapidly (he would die in 1991) and he knew that there was no way to reconcile with Carlie. What a beautiful goodbye the track is with its exquisite and bittersweet imagery.
Musically, the track stands among Clark’s best work. It’s a pleasing, elegant, baroque pop tune with more than a touch of romance in the delivery, something that always defined Clark’s best efforts. If anyone could play the part of the brooding lover to perfection, it was Gene Clark. And what’s more, on “Blue Raven” Clark’s tenor is still intact and he delivers a great vocal performance. Listen to his voice when the melody finds its way into the lower registers, during the above-mentioned hook and tell me he doesn’t mean every syllable of what he is saying. Other highlights include Greg Douglas’ smooth slide guitar and Bud Shank's exquisite flute work.
Letting go of a love that once burned bright, even after it has turned sour, is not easy. Whoever has done this, knows the indecision and pain involved in the process. In a strange way, we carry every meaningful relationship we’ve ever had with us until the very end, the moments we’ve shared, the kisses, the smiles. Regardless of what we say or do, at some level, after a certain level of intimacy has been achieved, people are bonded for life. Past lovers become part of our history, our story, it’s just the way it is.
I once knew an older chap who lived in the same apartment complex as me in Chicago. We usually met by the mailboxes downstairs, in the lobby of the building. Whenever we would meet, after pulling out all the mail, he carefully placed a letter in the mailbox (to be mailed out).This happened every time we came across one another. I always wondered who the letter was for. Sadly, the old man passed away during the time I lived in Chicago.
When his children were emptying his flat, I offered to help with the furniture. I had met them a few times before in the parking lot and a couple of months prior, on a Fourth-of-July picnic. It took us a few hours to empty the apartment and another two or three to clean it up. We were done around eight o’clock at night. Our only concern was that the door to the walk-in-closet of the master bedroom was locked and no one seemed to know where the key was. We had no other option but to call a locksmith. He came in, worked with the door for about two minutes and opened it for us.
As we looked in the closet, all our jaws hit the floor. It was stacked with letters. All the shelves, each and every inch was filled with neatly stacked letters. Baffled, the old man’s son pulled one envelope out randomly and opened it. Inside the envelope, there was a letter. He read it out loud. I remember it starting with, “Dear Beth, Your grandson started school today. You would have been so proud.” As we kept reading the letters out loud, way past midnight, drinking wine in the candle light, we smiled and we cried. They were beautiful letters, filled with love and warmth, written to a deceased spouse, documenting everything that had happened to my neighbor during a nearly twenty-year period. “I’ll be damned,” my neighbor’s son stated. “I knew my mom was the love of his life but this…for two decades…I had no idea,” he continued.
I remember thinking how some matches really are made in heaven. After that incident, I have been convinced that there is such a thing as true love. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s next to impossible to find.
Track Sponsor Of The Month: You Are The One by The Impersonators
It was there from the start
When you took my hand
Something no-one could fake
No-one could have planned
You are the one
Your heart is shining down on me
You are my sun
Be mine eternally
You can learn more about Gene Clark here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.