Graded on a Curve:
Gene Clark, No Other

Talk about your impeccable resumes. Not only was Gene Clark a founding member of jangle rock pioneers The Byrds, he was also half of alt-country band Dillard & Clark and a great solo artist to boot. But not even this list of accomplishments could win Clark’s 1974 album No Other—which he considered his masterpiece—an audience. To be blunt, No Other was a flop, mainly because Asylum Records declined to promote the LP, both because they didn’t see any hits on it and because they were appalled by the time and cost it took to produce the record, which featured such notables as Chris Hillman, Jesse Ed Davis, Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, and Butch Trucks. Indeed, by 1976 Asylum had deleted No Other from its catalogue altogether.

It even took the critics a long while to realize that No Other—a lush, lovely, and even visionary work—was worth every dime and hour spent to make it. Clark—a psychedelic kinda guy who hung out with the likes of Dennis Hopper and David Carradine—was said to have ceased feeding his head when he composed the songs on No Other, but they’re spiritually deep nonetheless. They’re also disparate in terms of influence: this was no pure country rock LP, but an agglomeration of folk, country, rock, gospel, even R&B and funk. And to think it was initially intended to be a double LP, until Asylum head honcho David Geffen blanched at the $100,000 the project had already cost.

As I noted above, No Other has a deeply spiritual feel to it—it possesses the gravity of a work only possible by an artist who has opened his head and journeyed to the 5th Dimension, ultimately emerging wiser as he returned to our far more prosaic world. Which may sound like hippie bullshit, and may even be hippie bullshit, but I buy it, Clark’s fascination with Carlos Castaneda, Theosophy, and all. Far more ornate than his three previous solo records, due in part to his pairing with “spare no cost” producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, No Other features lush and unusual arrangements; backup vocals from the likes of Clydie King, Claudia Lennear, Shirley Matthew, and Vanetta Fields, amongst others; and lots of overdubs.

But despite a very uncountry rock “exploration of the studio space,” as Christopher Walken would say in the SNL “More Cowbell” skit, No Other is, above all other things, highly listenable. In other words, Clark and Kaye—the latter of whom saw the LP as his “answer to Brian Wilson and Phil Spector”—never let the possibilities of the studio stand in the way of a good melody. In short, Clark was no Van Dyke Parks, and this album, which was written off as being not commercial enough, is pure ear candy.

“Life’s Greatest Fool” is a lovely country rock tune, featuring some wonderful guitar, lush harmonies by no less than seven female backing vocalists, and lots of enigmatic lyrics, such as “Do you believe when you’re all alone?/You held the key to your destiny gone/Do you believe, deep in your soul/That too much loneliness makes you grow old?” Hell, I love it for the female backing vocals and the ringing guitar alone. “Silver Raven” is also a country rock tune, and a brilliant one at that. Somber and dark in tone, its loveliness lies in Clark’s vocals and those sublime gospel backup vocals, and it’s no wonder it became a Clark standby. The guitar solo is subdued but crystal clear, like a clear mountain stream by god, and I don’t know about you but I’m amused by the fact that Clark wasn’t singing about a real bird at all, but, to repeat his words, about “a news story that was about some satellite, or something, they had discovered. They said they couldn’t figure out where it came from. It was beyond our solar system. They were getting signals from it that they said were about 100 years ahead of our technology.” It seems one of the unavoidable side effects of heavy psychedelic use is an abiding belief in UFOlogy.

The title track is no country rock tune, that’s for sure. It draws more from psychedelic rock and funk, which some chalk up to the fact that Sly Stone was recording in the next room during the sessions for No Other. The melody could be by Steve Miller, and the song’s sound is heavily indebted to some great percussion by Joe Lala and one super-funky organ by Michael Utley, which are joined by a psychedelic guitar and the usual female backing vocalists. As for “Strength of Strings,” it opens on a blues note, with guitar and some scat singing, and reminds me uncomfortably of something by, say, my bête noires, CS&N. But then the melody kicks in, heavy on guitar and piano, and said melody is lovely indeed, as are Clark’s vocals, and I groove on the mescaline depth of the lyrics, which run to such couplets as “Hear the strings are bending in harmony/Not so far from breaking on the cosmic range.” Right you are, Gene, just as you’re right when you sing, “Now I see that my world has only begun/Notes that roll on winds with swirling wings/Bring me words that are not the strength of strings.” Like, wow, dude. Deep.

The title “From a Silver Phial” makes me think of cocaine, the country rock drug of choice come 1974 and one that would bedevil Clark, but it’s not; I’ve parsed the lyrics, and have no idea what the damn song is about. But who cares? The tune is epic and beautiful, and as good or better than anything the Eagles were producing at the time. More pop than country rock, it features some masterful organ and piano work by Utley, to say nothing of lots of great drumming by Russ Kunkel and mandolin by Chris Hillman, and listening to Clark’s sorrowful vocals you forget all about the seeming lyrical gibberish emanating from his mouth. As for the guitar solo, it boasts hints of wah-wah cool and is a joy to hear. I especially love the organ-guitar jam at the end.

“Some Misunderstanding” is a long and contemplative track, which features Clark at his vocal best and reminds me, for some reason, of one of the more spiritual songs from The Basement Tapes, “Nothing Was Delivered” say. “But I see my life before me,” sings Clark, “And I’d like to make a try/Maybe someone knows what fate is/Maybe someone knows just why.” All is not right he tells us with the lines, “We all need a fix/At a time like this,” and then there comes one spacy and haunting guitar solo followed by some luscious piano work, by Utley again. Speaking just for myself, I hear the Band, but the Band at the top of their game, and I can only wonder what the Band’s own harmonies would have made of it. Anyway, a lovely song, simply lovely, from its beginning to the second guitar solo that takes it out.

“True One” is an accounting of sorts of living the psychedelic life, played country rock style. The melody is lovely, somebody plays what sounds like pedal steel guitar, and Clark adds up the costs, singing, “Changes come so quickly, easily it can seem bizarre/They say there’s a price you pay for going out too far/You can buy a one way ticket out there all alone/And you can sit and wonder why it’s so hard to get back home.” This one sounds like an Eagles song only better, more authentically country, and it doesn’t matter much if I can’t make heads nor tails of the chorus: “There’s always a reality in what you are doing/Sometimes it’s so hard to see which one is the true one.” And I love the false ending followed by some beautiful piano, delicate pedal steel guitar, and what have you. “Lady of the North” is a slower and more ethereal number, but the melody is sweet, and Clark is in contemplative mode as a guitar plays it psychedelic and some violins and cello make the tune even sweeter. Craig Doerge’s is a delicate miracle and it pushes the song forward as somebody plays wah-wah guitar and Clark’s voice soars, before a luscious instrumental section with subtle psychedelic funk overtones takes things out.

There isn’t a single weak track on No Other, and I’ll be damned if I know how this one didn’t go gold. I can only surmise that ears were calibrated differently in 1974. Sure, the female backing vocalists add an initially jarring touch to what is primarily a country rock LP, but to my ears they add, rather than subtract, from such songs as “Life’s Greatest Fool.” The same goes for the occasional psychedelic and funk flourish. It’s said Gene Clark never got over the commercial and critical failure of No Other, and I can understand why. He gives his all on tracks such as “Silver Raven,” and in return he got dissed by Asylum and David Geffen, who probably wrote it off while sitting in his hot tub, high on cocaine, with those frauds the Eagles. Oh well. Such is life. Like Clark sang, “Sometimes it’s hard to see which one is the true one.” Well, No Other is as true as they come. It’s as sweet as wine and as true as your dog and I can’t, can’t, recommend it highly enough.


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