INTERVIEW: “I felt that Gene Clark has been dealt a bad hand by history – that’s always struck me as being a grave injustice”

New documentary, The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark, tells the fascinating story of one of the founding members of The Byrds. One part hell raiser, one part mystical poet, Gene Clark died in 1991, aged 46, his latter years blighted by illness and drink and drug abuse.  He left The Byrds in 1966, unable to cope with the pressures of fame, and embarked on a solo career. A fear of flying also had a large part to play in his decision to quit the band.

From Beatles-inspired pop, to country rock, folk ballads and experimental, symphonic rock, Clark was a songwriting genius. His solo albums, White Light and No Other, are cult classics, but he’s never had the true recognition he deserves. Could this documentary, which is based on new interviews with Clark’s friends and family and contemporaries, including the surviving original members of The Byrds, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, change all that? I spoke to father and son Paul and Jack Kendall, from Four Suns Productions, to find out how and why they made the film.

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Congratulations on the film. It’s a great achievement. Why did you decide to make a documentary on the life of Gene Clark?  

Paul Kendall: I met up with a couple of guys called Mike Kerry and Chris Hall, who have a company called Start Productions. They’d made a fantastic film about Arthur Lee from Love, which is called Love Story. I thought it would be fantastic to do something like that – to go back to my roots and my love of music and combine that with what I knew about filmmaking, along with my sons Jack and Dan [who are filmmakers]. I thought if I could find the right project, then it would be great to try and get something off the ground.

Have you always been a fan of Gene Clark? Is he one of your musical heroes?

PK: Absolutely. I’m slightly too young to have caught The Byrds in their first flush, when he was still with the band, but I picked up on Dillard & Clark very early on and fell in love with their first album. I then followed his solo career. For the last 10 years of his life, to a large extent, he went off the radar, but he was still writing and recording songs, even though he didn’t have an outlet for them. Apparently there’s a whole wealth of unreleased and unheard material.

What’s your favourite Gene Clark song or album?

PK: The album I’ve listened to most regularly over the years is White Light – I love that one, particularly the song Spanish Guitar. Bob Dylan said it was a song he’d have been proud to have written. No Other is a unique, extraordinary piece of work. Even now, nearly 40 years after it was made, I can’t think of anything else that’s quite like it. The first Dillard & Clark album is a lovely record and arguably one of the first steps into country rock.

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(Left to right: Leland Sklar, bassist on Gene Clark’s No Other, with filmmaker Paul Kendall)

Has Gene Clark been overshadowed by Gram Parsons?

PK: Yes – that was one of my main motivations for making the film. I felt that Gene Clark has been dealt a bad hand by history. I love Gram Parsons as well and he should be remembered and acknowledged, but he’s way up there and Gene Clark is lurking in the shadows somewhere. That’s always struck me as being a grave injustice. Hopefully this film will do something to redress that.

Jack Kendall: I think Gene Clark is someone whom a lot of people like, but no one’s had a chance to hear his story. There hasn’t been a big outlet for him. He hasn’t had any of his songs sung on The X Factor, or used on adverts… He’s got a secret following, which we can tap into.

PK: Next year will be the 70th anniversary of Gene’s birth and the year after, it will be the 50th anniversary of The Byrds coming to prominence. There’s a sense that after years of Gene languishing in obscurity since he died, the stars are starting to align.

He’d have liked that… You actually met Gene Clark in the ‘70s, didn’t you?

PK: Yes. I spent a couple of years as a music journalist in the ‘70s, mainly working for Zig Zig magazine.  I met Gene when he was touring the UK with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman [from The Byrds] in 1977. I spent a very pleasant afternoon with him – the gig got cancelled and our one hour interview turned into a five hour tête-à-tête over a few beers. I feel like I have a personal connection with him, beyond the music.

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(Left to right: Tom Slocum – Gene Clark collaborator – Jack, Dan and Paul Kendall)

Was Gene Clark your first choice as a subject to make a film about?

PK: In 2010, I got given John Einarson’s biography on Gene Clark [Mr Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of The Byrds’ Gene Clark] as a Christmas present, which filled in a lot of the gaps in my knowledge of Gene’s life and it took me back to his records – I re-played them while I was reading the book. I thought that it would be fantastic to make a film about Gene – if nobody had done it already. I did a bit of digging and found out that nobody had.  We had a big stroke of luck early on – I met up with the guys from Start Productions to get some advice and it turned out that they had thought about making a film about Gene as the follow up to Love Story, but in the end they did one about Mott The Hoople instead. They’d got as far as making contact with Gene’s estate, so they gave us the details – we knew we’d need to get the estate on board, right from the start. I had a series of exchanges with the lawyer who runs the estate and also Kai, Gene’s younger son, who is involved in looking after his father’s legacy.

The family were very sceptical at first – they’d had a number of approaches from filmmakers over the years, including some famous ones, but nothing had ever come about. They asked us to prove that we could do something, so we did some interviews with Barry McGuire, who was in The New Christy Minstrels with Gene, and John York [ex-Byrd who played with Gene’s band in the ‘80s]. Barry McGuire is a force of nature – he’s in his eighties and he still goes around the world doing shows – he was one of the prime movers and shakers in the LA ‘60s scene. We met up with Barry and John, who were playing in Frankfurt, shot some interviews and edited in some archive footage. We then sent that to Gene’s family and the lawyer, so they could see that we were serious about it and that knew what we were doing. Thankfully, they really liked it and they gave us their blessing and said we could approach other interviewees. That was in May 2011. From there, it just accelerated. In September of that year, we flew out to LA and spent almost a month running around California and Missouri filming interviews and location footage.

The whole project took two and a half years to complete. Was it easy tracking all the interviewees down? Are a lot of them still hanging out in LA?

PK: No. I thought they would be, but they’d fled LA and headed to the coast and the hills. We had to travel the length and breadth of California to get all the people we wanted and then we went to Missouri, where Gene hailed from, to meet up with his family and an old friend of his. We also interviewed Taj Mahal in Missouri – he was playing a gig there. We had one opportunity to speak to him.

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How easy was it getting The Byrds – Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman – to get involved and to talk about Gene?

PK: Once we’d got one – Chris Hillman – to come on board, I knew we’d get the others. They wouldn’t want to have been left out and have the others talking about them. They were very happy. Hillman, in particular, gave us a very good interview. I’d heard, through the grapevine, that he can be a bit prickly if you get him on the wrong day, but he was very gracious and was very open and insightful. McGuinn was slightly more guarded. There have been all sorts of talk over the years about relationships in the band – not just with Gene, but with all of them. There’s been various fallings out and issues. I think McGuinn is conscious that he’s taken some flack about the way in which Gene was treated by the other members of the band – particularly him and Crosby. Both McGuinn and Crosby were very happy talking about The Byrds and how the band started and their rise to fame, but trying to talk to them about things after that became a little bit more difficult.

For me, Crosby is one of the highlights of the film. I love his recollections and his delivery – he’s like a wise old man.

JKThere were so many great Crosby moments. While we were editing, we thought he was slowing the pace down, but we loved it…

PK: We interviewed Crosby in Bristol, while he was in the UK, playing with Graham Nash. We made it by the skin of our teeth – the interview was scheduled for the day after we got back from America. The whole US shooting schedule was finely tuned – if anything had gone wrong, we’d have had a problem – but it all went very smoothly. However, we came within seconds of missing our flight back to the UK, as Jack had lost his passport. But we found it – with seconds to spare.

Was there anyone that you wanted to interview for the film, but couldn’t get hold of?

PK: We had Bob Dylan on our wish list, but I got as far as talking to his manager…. I also wanted Tom Petty, but he decided he wasn’t available. I spoke to Doug Dillard [Dillard & Clark] and Bernie Leadon [Dillard & Clark, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles], on the phone,  but Doug was too ill – he died seven or eight months after we went to the States to do the shoot – and Bernie was reluctant to do it, as he’d done a similar thing for a Gram Parsons documentary and he didn’t like dredging up the past. He said that he didn’t want to do it.

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Any good anecdotes from your filming trip to the States?

PK: There was a really spooky moment while we were shooting in Kansas City, in Bonner Springs, at the house Gene lived in when he was in his teens. We were filming wind chimes that were hanging from the porch and a hummingbird flew into shot and hovered, looking down the camera. Someone told me that hummingbirds are –  if you believe in that kind of thing – the souls of people who’ve passed away. So that was probably Gene coming to keep an eye on us.

If it had been a silver raven [the title of a Gene Clark song], that would’ve been even stranger…

PK: Well, a while later, I was sitting in the back garden, having a beer at the end of a busy day and a black raven flew past, perched on a branch and eyeballed me…

After Gene died in 1991, there was lot of bitterness and wrangling between his friends, girlfriend and family, wasn’t there? It ended up being quite a nasty situation, didn’t it?

PK: Yes and it dragged on for ages. We decided that we weren’t interested in that. Our story was going to be about Gene Clark’s life and his music and a celebration of it. There is a story to be told about what happened after he died, but it would be difficult to get to the bottom of it.

I must admit that I cried at the end of the film, when there’s amateur video footage of Gene playing I Shall Be Released…

PK: As soon as we found that, we knew we had to use it at the end. It’s a lovely version of the song – especially the harmonies. There’s real feeling to it. I like the fact that Gene’s presence throughout the film – in the footage and archive audio – is almost spectral. There’s something ethereal about it, which works. Between him leaving The Byrds in early ’66 and doing McGuinn, Clark and Hillman in ’79, there is literally no footage.

From making the film, what have you learned about Gene Clark?

PK: He was clearly a man with at least two sides to his story – there was Gene, the shy, retiring mystical poet guy and then there was the Gene Clark who could be an out of control nightmare. He was a very complex man and if you’d put him in front of a psychoanalyst, they’d have had a field day. Great artists invariably are very complex people.

What’s the reaction to the film been like?

JK: Everyone seems to love it.

PK: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had people in their twenties and thirties who’ve heard of The Byrds, but know nothing about Gene Clark, coming up to me and saying they’re going to find out more about his music. The whole motivation for the film wasn’t to preach to the converted – it was to try and spread the word and get Gene more of the recognition he deserves.

The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark will be available on DVD in November.

To order a copy and for more information on the film, please visit:  http://foursunsproductions.com/

2 comments on “INTERVIEW: “I felt that Gene Clark has been dealt a bad hand by history – that’s always struck me as being a grave injustice”

  1. Ingrid says:

    Just discovered this film last month, it’s a wonderful film! Watching this rekindled my interest in Gene’s music and it’s been really satisfying to discover his amazing archive of work. Nice interview, thanks so much for posting!

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