Though he’s been and continues to be the subject of numerous reissues and releases, Gene Clark still remains somewhat of an enigma. The founding member of The Byrds (1944-1991) only released six solo studio albums within his too-short lifetime, bolstering a discography also containing group and collaborative efforts. But he left behind what seems like scores of unreleased tracks, much of which has been mined in the years since his death. In 2013, the Omnivore label issued his demos for the A&M album White Light, and now the label has tackled the holy grail of Clark’s demos – a 1967 acetate entitled Gene Clark Sings for You. An expanded edition of the original acetate has been joined on CD by A Trip Through the Garden from The Rose Garden, a group which enjoyed Clark’s support and patronage.
The eight recordings on the original Gene Clark Sings for You were recorded near the end of 1967 at West Hollywood’s Larrabee Studios and the venerable Gold Star Studios. Clark, accompanying himself on guitar, was joined by simple instrumentation including calliope, Chamberlin strings (a keyboard device similar to the mellotron) and electric piano. Alex del Zoppo of Sweetwater played the piano, though the other musicians’ identities remain a mystery. One track boasts strings, leading to speculation that it may have come from an earlier session led by Leon Russell as arranger-conductor. All of the songs reveal a young, talented singer-songwriter at the crossroads, with plenty of talent and ambition but perhaps lacking a clear vision as to how to best deploy those gifts. The result is a set of original songs in the best sense of the word, even if they may not have been commercial enough to attract an interested label. It’s also worth noting that Clark never released any of these songs, a testament to his prolific nature as a songwriter.
The Dylan influence so evident in The Byrds’ recordings is also clear on “Past Tense,” though Clark’s own evocative poetic sensibility comes into its own with “Past My Door.” Eschewing the expected, Clark also employed a tempo shift midway through. Violins – perhaps arranged by Leon Russell – appear on “That’s Alright by Me,” adding a note of elegance to the folk-rock track.
Clark conjured San Francisco on many of these demos including “On Her Own,” about a beguiling girl he found there, and the mournful “Down on the Pier” (featuring atmospheric, ironic calliope). The similarly doleful “Yesterday, Am I Right” (previously recorded for Hugh Masekela’s Chisa label but unissued) features Clark’s drawl at its most vulnerable. Clark’s well-documented country leanings come to the fore on one track alone: the twangy, laconic “7:30 Mode,” on which he adds harmonica and is accompanied by an unknown guitarist.
This first-time commercial release of Gene Clark Sings for You is bolstered with an additional six tracks intended for The Rose Garden – a five-song acetate and one more demo. The troubadour first encountered the band at the Ash Grove, joining them onstage for a set of Byrds tunes. The awestruck band were thrilled to work with, and receive songs from, their hero. The acoustic tracks on the acetate (which has never been heard outside of band circles) include the Dylan-ish “On Tenth Street,” the upbeat love song “Understand Me Too,” and the moving “A Long Time,” which The Rose Garden opted to cover on the band’s sole album. Two full-band performances were also presented to The Rose Garden: the blues-rocking “Big City Girl” (complete with wailing harmonica) and “Doctor, Doctor,” the most produced and Byrds-esque track on the acetate with double-tracked vocals and harmonies. “Till Today,” also recorded by The Rose Garden, is included here in a Clark demo.
The Rose Garden is the subject of A Trip Through the Garden, the first-ever anthology dedicated to the band. And what an anthology it is, appending 16 tracks (14 previously unreleased) to the group’s lone 1968 album. The band is, of course, best remembered today for the opening track of that LP, “Next Plane to London.” The top 20 hit still gets airplay today, and earned The Rose Garden the “one-hit wonder” tag. But as with most artists given that moniker, there was more to the group than just that one tune.
The Los Angeles-area band (John Noreen, Jim Groshong, Bruce Bowdin, and Bill Fleming) was enamored with The Byrds, which made it all the more fortuitous when Clark dropped into their set the Ash Grove. (They went by The Blokes at that time.) With the addition of singer Diana De Rose, The Blokes gained a gal and rechristened themselves The Rose Garden (a play on their newest addition’s surname.) A showcase at hot spot Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip landed the still-underage band a deal with Buffalo Springfield managers Charles Greene and Brian Stone. They got The Rose Garden signed with the Springfield’s label, Atco, and set about producing their first album.
The Rose Garden is an amiable folk-rock effort with heavy pop leanings and a solid dose of Byrds-esque chime (courtesy of Noreen’s Rickenbacker) and sparkling harmonies. Notably, while emphasizing vocals over instrumentation in Greene and Stone’s production, the band played on the record as a self-contained unit, without any intervention from the Wrecking Crew or other studio aces. The liner notes reveal that the album’s repertoire was selected from songs picked by Greene and Stone as well as the band members. (Only one track is credited to the band: “Flower Town,” a flower-power adaptation of the folk ballad “Portland Town.”)
In addition to Kenny O’Dell’s obviously catchy “Next Plane to London,” featuring Diana’s enjoyably burnished vocals, The Rose Garden offered a trio of songs by future Redbone founder Pat Vegas: the slow “I’m Only Second” (which somewhat recalls “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”), the bright Byrds-meets-Mamas-and-the-Papas confection “February Sunshine,” and the jangly “Coins of Fun” with strong duet vocals from Diana and Jim. (The latter isn’t as trippy as its title would indicate, though.) The group’s lustrous harmonies were also in evidence on the folk adaptation “Rider.” An attractive cover of the Bob Dylan ballad “She Belongs to Me” led by Groshong joined Clark’s “Till Today” (slightly evoking The Fortunes’ “You’ve Got Your Troubles” in the band arrangement) and “Long Time,” which gained a Motown-style bassline. Bob Johnston and Wes Farrell penned the exquisite, soft ballad “Look What You’ve Done.”
Omnivore’s expanded edition now has a running time of nearly 80 minutes, with an impressive array of bonus tracks. Kenny O’Dell’s gorgeous “If My World Falls Through” was backed with the uptempo “Here’s Today,” co-written by John Noreen for a follow-up, non-LP single. The B-side is a surprisingly commercial track that could have held its own as a A-side. These are heard in both mono and stereo versions. They’re joined by tracks for a proposed second album that was never completed, including a take of Neil Young’s “Down to the Wire” performed by Young, Stephen Stills, and Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack. The crunchy backing track was presented to the band by Greene and Stone due to their Buffalo Springfield connection. The illustrious triumvirate of Bob Crewe, Al Kooper, and Irwin Levine supplied “The World Is a Great Big Playground,” which is charming but falls short of the team’s other accomplishments.
Of interest to Gene Clark fans will be two additional appearances of “Till Today”: a rehearsal with Clark himself, and an acetate alternate. Five live songs captured onstage at West Hills, California’s Chaminade High School round out the set: “Next Plane to London” and an array of covers not recorded in the studio by The Rose Garden including The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and Clark-penned “She Don’t Care About Time,” Sonny and Cher’s “It’s the Little Things,” and Bo Diddley’s “You Don’t Love Me,” also by way of Sonny and Cher. The sound is better on these tracks than might be expected, and they offer a taste of what the band’s strong live sound.
John Einarson, author of Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of The Byrds’ Gene Clark, has penned the erudite liner notes for both releases, with the story of The Rose Garden proving particularly fascinating. Gene Clark Sings for You and A Trip Through the Garden are essential snapshots of the unparalleled creativity of the L.A. music scene in the late 1960s.
Both titles are available now:
Gene Clark, Sings for You
The Rose Garden, A Trip Through the Garden: The Rose Garden Collection