Movies: The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark (2013)

This newly released documentary on the ex-Byrds singer-songwriter Gene Clark is not only very much welcome, but long overdue. The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark (Four Suns Productions) explores the years from his birth in 1944 in Missouri all the way up to his premature death of 1991 thorugh some revealing recent interviews with the surviving Byrds: Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman are all here.

Crosby’s essential, very confessional interviews can be seen both as a tribute to Clark’s Byrds legacy and to his role as a forefather of Americana music. From Chris Hillman: “He sang from his heart and he had great songs. Why didn’t it work? That’s the question.” Also welcome is latter day Byrds’ bassist John York (1968-69), who is also interviewed. Clark’s own family is present too, including his younger brother David, eldest sister Bonnie, Gene’s loving ex-wife Carlie and their two sons Kelly and Kai Clark. Fellow musicians like Taj Mahal, Carla Olson, Barry McGuire, former solo band members, and the Long Ryders’ Sid Griffin make contributions, too.

Career opportunities would come and go throughout Clark’s life. Having said that, there’s no doubt and this documentary makes it clear all over again, that his tendencies toward self destruction and self sabotage continually reared their ugly heads. Big money and drugs did not do the man any good. A lack of confidence would occasionally come up as well, amid the pressures and strains of fame. It would all explain as to why Gene’s own career was fractured at many points during his life. His refusal to promote and tour behind his albums obviously created a negative effect towards that end.

Archival audio interviews featuring Clark are interspersed throughout the film, helping a great deal in portraying his story as accurately as possible. That said, I was quite surprised that more time and attention wasn’t given here to Gene’s superb 1967 debut recording, Gene Clark with The Gosdin Brothers. However, The Byrd Who Flew Alone does a good job of examining other solo albums like White Light (1971), Two Sides to Every Story (1977) and, especially, what’s considered his best album No Other (1974) — as well as the band Clark formed with Doug Dillard, the Dillard and Clark Expedition (1968/1970). A pre-Byrds New Christy Minstrels live film clip from 1964 with Gene singing briefly in their line-up is an interesting find.

Amongst the revelations in the film is an admission by Clark himself from a 1984 audio clip concerning his resignation from the Byrds in February 1966: “Falling out of the Byrds was really a mistake. It was not on purpose, by anybody’s purpose. It only had to do with a bunch of guys who made it so big when they were 19, 20, and 21 years old that they could not possibly fuckin’ handle it.” This is something I think long-time Byrds fans privately guessed, but it holds a lot more weight coming from the man himself. Gene was also the first Byrd to earn a lot more money than the others, initially due to his prolific songwriting on the first two Byrds albums and the song “Eight Miles High” for the third.

The DVD extras include a director’s commentary, extended interviews and two exclusive Gene Clark performances: one of a solo acoustic TV studio presentation of “Silver Raven” from the early 1980s, and another live performance of “Silver Raven” with the short-lived band Cry (featuring York) from 1987.

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Steve Elliott

Steve Elliott has written for Shindig, Twist and Shake, Garage & Beat and Ugly Things. A big fan of all things rock and roll - especially the British Invasion, garage rock, psychedelic, new wave, folk rock, surf and power pop - he was a consultant on Sundazed Music's reissue of 'The Best of Butch Engle & The Styx: No Matter What You Say' in 2000, and has also provided liner notes for Italy's Misty Lane Records. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.