SIGIHT (Song I’m Glad I Heard Today): Gene Clark “Strength of Strings”

One of the great tragedies of rock and roll was that founding Byrds singer/songwriter Gene Clark never sold any records outside of his all-too-brief membership in one of America’s pioneering rock bands. One of the great stories of redemption for Clark is that his 1974 solo masterpiece “No Other” has become something of a “cult classic” album. It’s a storyline not unlike that of Nick Drake, who was incredibly underappreciated until after his death (Clark died in 1991, just months after performing one last time with The Byrds at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.)

“No Other” resides in the same spot as former bandmate David Crosby’s “If I Could Only Remember My Name” and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue” in the many musical subfolders in my brain. It’s hard to determine what the greatest song is from the lush, reflective, sometimes melancholy and sometimes hopeful “No Other.” “Life’s Greatest Fool” has a nice gospel tinge, “Silver Raven” has a trace of the country-rock the Byrds and Clark were known for in the sixties, and “Lady of the North” is breathtakingly beautiful; one of the great album closers.geneclark_r-1409915-1217704285

The song that always grabs my attention the most is “Strength of Strings.” I can’t figure out lyrically if this tune is a lyricist’s lament, or a statement of awe on the power of notes over words. Maybe it’s a bit of both. The backing vocal arrangement is powerful, Gene Clark’s vocal earnest and urgent, the guitar solos sing like seabirds; this is the sort of song that should have been an airplay monster of FM album oriented radio in the 1970s. Alas, the label apparently sunk big bucks into its recording and thought the end product too non-commercial to promote (thanks, David Geffen.)  Most music critics and biographers agree that Clark never recovered from the undeserved failure of this ambitious effort.

Fortunately, a small handful believed in the power of “Strength of Strings”, including the well-regarded 80s collective This Mortal Coil, who resurrected many great 60s/70s obscurities and interpreted them through their own dark lens.

I also stumbled upon a video of a recent live performance of the album, featuring an all-star cast of musicians including Iain Matthews and Robin Pecknold, the singer of Fleet Foxes, who sings lead vocals on their take of “Strength of Strings”.

“No Other” was the perfect listen for a sun-kissed, between-snowstorms afternoon. It put my head in a wonderful place. Then immediately afterwards, Asia’s first album came on.  Bad iPod.

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