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Jesse Winchester 1944-2014

Jesse WinchesterJesse Winchester died today, April 11, five weeks short of his 70th birthday, at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He had been suffering from oesophageal cancer. The most soulful of singer-songwriters, he was held in high esteem by his peers. When some of them tried to lighten the burden of his long illness by making an album of his songs, the cast included Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Allen Toussaint, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Jimmy Buffett, Elvis Costello, James Taylor and Rodney Crowell.

His first solo album, Jesse Winchester, was a very hip one to own back in 1970. Produced by Robbie Robertson for Albert Grossman’s Bearsville label and released on the poorly distributed Ampex imprint, it contained beautifully unadorned versions of such fine songs as “Payday”, “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”, “Quiet About It” and “Rosy Shy”, and a gatefold cover featuring the same stark sepia portrait repeated on each of the four surfaces. It was followed by Third Down, 110 to Go, then Learn to Love It, and Let the Rough Side Drag, each of which brought more great songs, like “Isn’t That So?”, “All of Your Stories”, “Mississippi, You’re on My Mind”, “Defying Gravity”, and “It Takes More Than a Hammer and Nails to Make a House a Home”. Amos Garrett’s guitar was heavily featured, notably on the wonderful cover of Russell Smith’s classic “Third-Rate Romance”.

Born in Lousiana and brought up in Memphis, Tennessee, Winchester fled the draft in 1967, fetching up in Montreal, where his career began. Not until Jimmy Carter declared an amnesty 10 years later was he able to perform in the US. Here’s how he sounded then, singing “Yankee Lady” at the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia that year. And here are some words of his, written at the start of his exile, that seem specially appropriate: “Have all of your passionate violins / Play a tune for a Tennessee kid / Who’s feeling like leaving another town / With no place to go if he did / But they’ll catch you wherever you’re hid…”

* The photograph of Jesse Winchester is from the cover of Third Down, 110 to Go and was taken by Henri Dupond.

Basing Street Blues

Basing StreetWhile driving through Notting Hill yesterday I spotted construction fences erected around a familiar landmark. This deconsecrated church is the site of what was once Island’s first recording studios, and it’s where I lived very happily for several months in 1975, in the apartment behind those three deep windows, created during the conversion of the building a few years earlier.

A great deal of history was made during the 1970s in the two studios that occupied the ground floor and the basement, with their 16-track Helios desks. The Wailers’ early Island albums were sweetened and mixed there (and much of Exodus was actually recorded on the premises, after Bob Marley had fled Jamaica following an assassination attempt). The Stones (bits of Goats Head Soup, I think), Traffic (parts of John Barleycorn Must Die and all of The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys), the Eagles (Desperado), Led Zeppelin (the basic track of “Stairway to Heaven”), Brian Eno (Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World), Jess Roden, Sparks (Kimono My House, produced by Muff Winwood, the studio’s manager), John Martyn (Solid Air), Roxy Music (parts of Manifesto and Flesh + Blood) and countless others worked there during that era. Somewhere I’ve got a rough-mix cassette of a terrific song that Stevie Wonder recorded with his touring band in one late-night session during a British visit and never released.

Old churches used to make good studios, although Island’s architect chose not to retain the high ceiling that gave Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in New York City, a converted Presbysterian church and the location of Kind of Blue, such exceptional reverberance. But both Basing Street studios, especially the basement, had a wonderfully funky atmosphere, very different from the ambiance of the big-label operations like EMI at Abbey Road, Pye in Cumberland Place, Decca in West Hampstead and Philips in Stanhope Place. Olympic in Barnes was its only real rival for dirty-ass rock ‘n’ roll, although a lot of Island’s folkier artists also liked Sound Techniques, off the King’s Road, where John Wood held sway.

My favourite memory of Basing Street, apart from sitting in the window watching Carnival go by in the days when the event was still of modest size and relatively lightly policed, is of the night Chris Blackwell cleared the big studio and held a party for Jorge Ben and his band, who had just finished a week at the Olympia music hall in Paris. They played their full set — “Filho Maravilha”, “Taj Mahal”, “Pais Tropical” and so on — and they were dynamite.

Towards the end of the decade it was bought by Jill Sinclair and Trevor Horn, and became Sarm West. Their ZTT label had its HQ there, it became the site of the Band Aid recording, and other layers of history were added. Now there are new plans. There will still be studios in the basement at Basing Street, but the above-ground building is being reconfigured to include “high-quality duplex apartments behind the retained and restored Romanesque facades”, according to the developers’ signs attached to the fencing. Given the way property prices have gone in Notting Hill over the last 20 years, I suppose the only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner.

Down from the Canyon

Judith OwenThere was a lot of history ranged alongside Judith Owen on the small stage in the basement room of the St James Theatre in London last night. The collective recording credits of the bass guitarist Leland Sklar, the guitarist Waddy Wachtel and the drummer Russ Kunkel include Tapestry, Sweet Baby James, Blue and Ladies of the Canyon, For Everyman and The PretenderHeart Like a Wheel and Hasten Down the Wind and other cornerstone works of the 1970s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement. Not the kind of rhythm section you might expect to find on an average March night a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.

The gig was a showcase for Owen’s new album, Ebb & Flow. Her eighth, it is released next month and was recorded with these same musicians in Hollywood last year: a bit of a dream come true for the Welsh singer-songwriter, who will be known to some as a participating singer in some of Richard Thompson’s projects, including the 1,000 Years of Popular Music show. She’s a gifted writer, an extremely fine singer and an excellent pianist, her playing meshing perfectly with the de luxe work of her accompanists: Sklar’s purring bass lines, Wachtel’s deft melodic fills and turnarounds, Kunkel’s majestic underplaying and sense of texture. Visually, too, they were a treat: Sklar with an elegant white beard almost long enough to get tangled in his strings, Wachtel with mad grey curls and granny glasses, and Kunkel, shaven-headed and neatly suited and wearing shades, looking rather alarmingly as though he had just finished a stint guarding the door of an Essex nightclub.

Some of her new songs, such as “Train Out of Hollywood” and “Some Arrows Go in Deep”, are good enough to keep company with the work of her 1970s inspirations: Joni, the young Elton John and so on. I was sorry she didn’t do “About Love”, a featherweight jazz waltz darkened by the undertow of an irresistible descending chord sequence. When she announced that she was going to do James Taylor’s “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” with the bass player and the drummer from the original record, Sklar cracked: “We finally get to do it right.”

Owen is married to Harry Shearer, the American actor and comedian who played Derek Smalls in This Spinal Tap and is the voice of Mr Burns (and many other characters) in The Simpsons. She is the daughter of an opera singer and has an ageless and unusually flexible sort of voice — listening to her blind, it’s impossible to guess her age, which is, shall we say, somewhere between Laura Marling and Carole King — and she’s not short of a sense of humour herself. Her “subversive” covers included a sultry, slowed-down version of Mungo Jerry’s laddishly lecherous “In  the Summertime” (reminding me that I was in Pye’s old Marble Arch studios — now demolished — when Ray Dorset and his colleagues were putting the finishing touches to that song in the spring of 1970). Approaching it, she said, she thought to herself: “What would Joni do? She’d do it about an older woman checking out the boys of summer.” So she did.

You could see why a singer of Owen’s type might love playing with these musicians, whose principal devotion is to the song they happen to be playing at the time. Musically, their discretion is absolute: when she gave them each an eight-bar solo on the final number, none of them did much more than they’d been doing in accompaniment, and it was perfect. To see them play live was to get an idea of how, like all the finest session musicians, they can create arrangements as they go along, out of experience and imagination. It was lovely to watch. And if you’re the kind of person who’s worn out numerous copies of Tapestry and Sweet Baby James, Ebb & Flow is a grown-up record that won’t disappoint.

That old suburban voodoo

Paul CarrackWhen I saw Paul Carrack at Ronnie Scott’s just over three years ago, he did a shrewd thing by beginning his set with “How Long”, the hit that brought his voice to public attention back in 1974. It’s a song everybody loves, he still does it brilliantly, and it put everybody in a good mood. The whole club seemed to relax and open up to him.

Last night at the Cadogan Hall off Sloane Square, closing his UK tour, he went to the opposite extreme and performed it as the final number before the encores. This didn’t work as well. By starting the set with less familiar material, he had to work harder to build a rapport — particularly since the hall, although a beautiful and comfortable concert space with excellent acoustics and sight-lines, is a rather formal setting for what is, in essence, music best suited to a club environment.

It didn’t really matter because it’s always a pleasure to hear his great voice and listen to his excellent six-piece band as they run through 40 years’ worth of fine songs. “Tempted” and “Another Cup of Coffee”, from his days with Squeeze and Mike and the Mechanics respectively, are modern classics; the latter band’s “Over My Shoulder”, which he wrote with Mike Rutherford, is eternally irresistible. I’m only sorry that he doesn’t find room in the set from a song or two from his second solo album, 1982’s Nick Lowe-produced Suburban Voodoo, such as “A Little Unkind” or the sublime “Always Better With You”.

There were also several songs from his new album, Rain or Shine. One or two of the originals, like “Life’s Too Short” and “Time Waits For No Man”, are a little on the lacklustre side, but the deeply soulful “Stepping Stone” is a beauty that should find a permanent place in his repertoire. The album also features several covers, including lovely versions of “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right”, written by Homer Banks, Carl Hampton and Raymond Jackson for Luther Ingram in 1972, and Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine”, in an arrangement inspired by Ray Charles. An unexpected highlight came in a heartfelt and properly respectful treatment of Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind”, which he recorded on his 2012 album, Good Feeling.

I suppose what I respond to in Paul Carrack, apart from his vocal and instrumental talent, is his unpretentiousness and his deep affinity for the music he loves (demonstrated in the choice of music played over the PA before the start of the gig, including Doris Troy’s “What’cha Gonna Do About It” and Irma Thomas’s “Time Is On My Side”). In between songs last night he told a story of getting a call from his daughter during that afternoon’s sound check. “She’s in New Zealand,” he said, going on to explain that when she told him she was planning a trip through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and other exotic places, he’d expressed anxiety. “Dad,” she responded, “when you were 17, you were getting in a van and setting off for Germany, to play in Hamburg…” That was 45 years ago. You’d have to say he’s used the time rather well.

Springsteen / Mandela

Bruce Springsteen and the expanded E Street Band played their first South African concert in Cape Town last Sunday night. Here’s the official film of how they kicked it off, with their version of “Nelson Mandela”, written 30 years ago by Jerry Dammers for the Special AKA. It’s a good example of why so many of us feel such enduring affection for Springsteen. This isn’t something slung together on a whim. It’s a gesture, perhaps for one night only, but he’s made sure to prepare it as carefully as the arrangements of his own songs. The bringing of the backing singers to the forefront, the horn riffs, the percussion, the solos from Jake Clemons on tenor and Tom Morello on guitar and the brilliant false ending make it one more entry in the cavalcade of memories he’s provided over the years.


A hipster’s life and times

Donald Fagen

Of the many, many entertaining passages sprinkled throughout Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen’s slender volume of memoir and musing, one in particular caught my attention. Looking back on his teenage years, the co-founder of Steely Dan recalls the experience of taking a girl to a jazz club in the mid-Sixties, hoping to share with her the experience of listening to some of the music to which he is in thrall. They’re on a date: the boy in a preppie blazer, the girl in a little black dress.

Imagine a split-screen, Fagen writes. On the left, the kid’s eyes are wide, his face is flushed; he’s transfixed. He can’t believe he’s finally in a real jazz club twelve feet away from the great John Coltrane, who’s blowing up a storm. His date, on the right side of the screen, is in hell. Although she’s heard her boyfriend talk about jazz, this is her first real exposure. She’s been in this tiny, smoky, smelly room for almost an hour now, nursing screwdrivers and being forced to listen to four Negroes creating a din that sounds like nothing imagined on God’s earth. She’s got her head in her hands down on the table because it hurts, a real pounder behind the eyes. Most humiliating is the fact that her boyfriend has forsaken her for a black man who seems to be using his silver horn as a satanic instrument of masturbation. The two sides of the screen merge when she finally pulls on her date’s arm and demands to be escorted out. In the clubs, this classic scene can still be glimpsed today, always interesting, always poignant.

Indeed it can. And how exquisitely Fagen recalls the tumult of emotions that many of us must have shared on such occasions, before we acquired sufficient pragmatic wisdom to know that this music and most (although not all) girlfriends were better kept apart.

Eminent Hipsters is a surprise and a joy. The first half consists of essays illuminating the various youthful enthusiasms and some of the people and events that would shape his life: the route into jazz provided by the music of Henry Mancini, the programmes of the jazz disc jockey Mort Fega (the model for the protagonist of The Nightfly, Fagen’s first solo album), his days at Bard College and the fateful meeting with Walter Becker, who would become his partner in Steely Dan.

Some of these have been published before, in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar and Jazz Times; one that hasn’t is his reminiscence of the devotion of his mother, a night-club singer, to the Boswell Sisters. If, like me, you know them only by name, Fagen’s description of their recordings will sent you straight off in search of the moment, during their 1932 version of “We Just Couldn’t Say Good-bye”, when a sudden key-change from F major to F minor makes us feel, in Fagen’s description, as though “we’ve been instantly transported from the sleepy Delta to Times Square on a Saturday night.”

With page 86 (of 159), however, the book executes an abrupt key-change of its own. The essay format is abandoned and for the rest of the volume we’re into an intimate diary of the two-month tour undertaken in the summer of 2012 by Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, calling themselves the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue — a successor to the shows presented by the same singers almost 20 years earlier, when they called themselves the New York Rock and Soul Revue.

I don’t think I’ve read a more unvarnished and punishingly self-aware expression of the sensations experienced by a musician of Fagen’s age and standing while on the road and experiencing what he calls Acute Tour Disorder (ATD), a syndrome that tends to magnify every small irritation into a source of major annoyance. Hotels, venues, audiences and his own performances are mercilessly criticised. We hear how Scaggs and McDonald save money by passing up the various Grand Hyatts and Four Seasons, choosing instead to sleep on their upholstered, blacked-out and soundproofed tour bus in the venue car-parks. “I’ve tried that a few times,” Fagen remarks. “It felt more like the lifestyle of an insect than a human.”

Fagen frets about his health, in particular a spider bite that he fears will turn necrotic, swallows painkillers and sleeping pills, listens to Stravinsky in his room, and spills the beans on “privates”: those high-paying gigs undertaken by major recording artists for corporations celebrating success or individuals celebrating birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Everybody of his generation seems to do them nowadays, as a result of the discovery that album royalties can no longer be guaranteed to maintain them in accustomed luxury, but a certain amount of consequent self-loathing is involved.

“The worst are corporate gigs where the band is hired to perform in front of several hundred or a hundred or even fifty suits at a convention or company party,” he writes. “They usually sit at tables, dinner-theatre style, maybe with their wives or, just as often, hired escorts, and consume a lot of hard liquor. If they’ve hired a top band, it means they’ve had a good year and the leadership has invested in a real blowout, a wang-dang-doodle, although they never look as though they’re having much fun. The hookers like to get up and dance.”

Occasionally real life makes a painful intrusion. He’s in Orange Beach, Florida when he learns of the death of the son of his wife, the singer Libby Titus, whom they have been unable to save from his addictions and suicidal impulses. Anyone who has spent a part of their life on the road, in whatever circumstances, will identify with that, and with the solution: deal with it, and carry on.

* The photograph of Donald Fagen, taken by Danny Clinch, is from the jacket of Eminent Hipsters, published in the US by Viking Penguin and in the UK by Jonathan Cape. 

Playing it straight

Under the CoversOK, I’ll admit it. I’ve got a soft spot for Susanna Hoffs. It might be traceable to the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants”, a great Jules Shear song and one of the best pop singles of the 1980s. And perhaps also to the fact that she’s always reminded me of the sort of dark-eyed girl you might meet at a party when you’re 17 or 18, the one who steals your heart and eventually hands it back with a crack that can never quite be repaired. And I’ll stop that line of inquiry right there.

What Hoffs is up to now is a series of albums with Matthew Sweet, titled Under the Covers and released on the Shout! Factory label.  Vol 1, which came out in 2006, contains cover versions of songs from the ’60s, Vol 2 appeared in 2009 and deals with the ’70s, and Vol 3, just out, takes us into the ’80s. The basic parameters are defined by the sort of music that provided the inspiration for power pop: jingle-jangle folk-rock with gentle excursions into psychedelia, country-rock, sunshine pop and, on the most recent disc, the dreaded prog.

Don’t expect anything radical. On the face of it, these are not much more than superior versions of those cut-price cover 45s that Woolworth’s used to sell on their Embassy label. They aren’t re-interpretations. All they do is play the songs, very much as they were originally recorded, just as a bar band would. Hoffs and Sweet alternate the lead vocals, and it’s their own voices that make the difference, along with the fuller sound allowed by modern technology. Anyway, there’s something in these records that makes me play them a lot, and it’s probably a quality deriving from the sound of enthusiasm at work.

I loved Vol 1 most of all for their version of the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum”, a song that Hoffs was born to sing (without in any way invalidating the job Linda Ronstadt did on the original). Other highlights were “Alone Again Or”, “Sunday Morning” and “Care of Cell 44”. I wasn’t quite as fond of Vol 2, probably because I could quite happily go through the rest of my life without hearing “All the Young Dudes” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” again, although Sweet’s version of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl” is a beauty, and Hoffs’ treatment of “Everything I Own” makes me look on Bread with a kinder eye.

Vol 3 is better, starting beautifully with Sweet singing REM’s “Sitting Still” before handing over to Hoffs for a driving gender-bent version of Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk”. She also does a good job with Chrissie Hynde’s “Kid”, on which Sweet pays note-perfect homage to Jimmy Honeyman-Scott’s classic guitar solo. His version of the Bongos’ “The Bulrushes” is exquisite, and the two voices blend well on another favourite Petty song, “Free Fallin'”.

Not every record that works its way into my affections has to be a masterpiece. These are great records to play in the car, and that’s enough. As far as I’m concerned, Sid ‘n’ Susie — as they like to call themselves in this context — can carry on turning them out for as long as they like.

* The photograph of Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet is from the cover of Under the Covers Vol 1 and was taken by Henry Diltz.

Back into the arms of Venus de Milo

TV 1The muffled tolling of church bells prefaced last night’s performance by Television at the Roundhouse in north-west London, a lovely noise that filled the purple-lit dome of the old engine shed. When the band appeared, they began their set with an episode of seemingly random tuning-up that slowly transmuted itself into a series of guitar phrases that sounded like calls to prayer, punctuated by sustained ensemble power-chords. And then, with the distinctive riff of “(The Arms of) Venus de Milo”, came the first cheers of the night.

Tom Verlaine seemed to be in a benign mood and good voice as the quartet worked their way through all eight tracks of their 1977 debut album, the classic  Marquee Moon, scrambling the running order and interspersing the songs with a handful of others, including “Little Johnny Jewel”, their first single, and “1880 Or So” from their fantastic 1992 reunion album. There were two songs I didn’t recognise. One was a long excursion into the realm of raga-rock, its meandering tune sung by Verlaine in unison with his guitar line, the instrument’s notes shorn of their attack through his manipulation of the volume control. The other, the second of the two encores, took the surprising form of a country-soul ballad that could have been plucked from the repertoire of Percy Sledge, and might have been called “I’m Coming For You Someday”. Perhaps those two songs were among the 16 they are said to have recorded in a New York studio six years ago, and which have never seen the light of day**.

Generally they’re sounding much as they did at Hammersmith Odeon in 1977, when they were at the height of their hipster vogue and were supported by the emerging Blondie. A little chunkier, perhaps, in the contribution of Fred Smith’s bass and Billy Ficca’s drums, but still sounding like a band searching for the infinite spaces between the 13th Floor Elevators and the John Coltrane Quartet. Purists will claim to miss the blend of Verlaine’s guitar with that of Richard Lloyd, but Jimmy Rip — who replaced Lloyd in 2007 — illuminated “Prove It” with a magnificently dramatic solo and acted as the perfect foil for Verlaine’s flights of invention.

For me the best moment came when “Torn Curtain” was wrenched by Verlaine’s long solo out of its somewhat leaden beginning and into the realms of the sublime. The song was rounded off with a gorgeously delicate coda, the kind of soaring crystalline structure created from the contrasting timbres of two Fender guitars — the glassy sound of Verlaine’s Strat and the metallic twang of Rip’s Tele — reminiscent of Television at their finest, while also suggesting that their work might not yet be done.

* Sorry about the quality of the photograph (although I kind of like it). If you want to know what Tom Verlaine actually looks like in 2013, go to Dave Simpson’s Guardian review of the Gateshead show here.

** Thanks to http://www.setlist-fm, via my friend Tony Paley, for the information that the raga-rock tune is called “Persia” and the country-soul ballad is called “I’m Gonna Find You”.

Still melting in the dark

Jimmy WebbJimmy Webb has been giving interviews to promote his new album, and when someone asked him which he considered to be the best of the countless recorded versions of “MacArthur Park”, I was pleased by his answer. “Richard Harris,” he said, clearly harbouring no resentment over the Irish actor’s insistence on rendering the title as “MacArthur’s Park”, despite attempts by the 21-year-old composer, arranger and producer to correct to him during the sessions in 1968 for A Tramp Shining, the album from which the seven-minute track would be plucked to become a huge hit.

Forty-five years later, the composer sings it as he originally intended in the version included on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, in which he recruits a bunch of guests to help him on the album’s 14 tracks. Lyle Lovett appears on “Sleepin’ in the Daytime”, Joe Cocker on “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”, Art Garfunkel on “Shattered”, David Crosby and Graham Nash on “If These Walls Could Speak”, and so on. Mostly, these aren’t real duets: the guests either add background vocals or, like Rumer on the title track, pop up to deliver a verse or two. Webb is unquestionably at the centre of the stage, ensuring the album’s overall coherence, something assisted by Fred Mollin’s production, which is full of banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dobros on top of a de luxe rhythm section: the epitome of LA-goes-to-Nashville polish.

The tracks I like best include the singularly beautiful “Elvis and Me”, in which he touchingly outlines the story of his real-life meetings with Presley, assisted by the Jordanaires (recorded before the death of Gordon Stoker, their last original member, earlier this year), and the duet with Keith Urban on “Where’s the Playground, Susie?”, a lovely song which didn’t do quite as well for Glen Campbell in 1968 as its trio of Webb-composed predecessors, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. But the pick of the lot is the remake of the thoroughly eccentric song that turned a wayward thespian into a star of the pop charts.

The wonderful choice of guest on Webb’s new version of “MacArthur Park” is Brian Wilson. We’re given the full seven minutes and 21 seconds of this extraordinary song, all four movements, without the lavish orchestration of the original but with an arrangement that more subtly reproduces the full dramatic range and makes marvellous use of Wilson’s celestial harmonies, stacked behind and around the lead (and we won’t ask how they were achieved: just enjoy the result). The third movement, originally the orchestral interlude, is now opened up to feature a majestically soaring dobro solo from the master of the instrument, Jerry Douglas, as the rhythm team races alongside him.

There’s always an extra dimension of poignancy that a composer with even half a voice brings to a performance of his or her own song, and Webb sings his great lyric — what an opening: “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / It ran one step ahead / As we followed in the dance” — as well as it has ever been sung. His homespun delivery makes him sound like a modest sort of chap. But in the future, if anyone asks him which he considers to be the best version of “MacArthur Park”, he can say: “Mine.”

* The photograph of Jimmy Webb is from the insert to Still Within the Sound of My Voice, and was taken by Jessica Daschner.

The Byrd who fell to earth

Gene ClarkSomehow Gene Clark never looked young, even when “Mr Tambourine Man” was hitting the charts before he had turned 21. Unlike the other members of the Byrds, or of their rival groups breaking through on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965, he didn’t look like a boy. He had a face that seemed to have seen things, a face of premature experience.

We learn a lot about the background to the way he looked in The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark, a two-hour documentary  by Jack and Paul Kendall, released on DVD this week, in which the two English film makers talk to just about everyone involved in the story of a great singer-songwriter who didn’t begin to receive proper attention as a solo artist until after his untimely death in 1991. Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby from the Byrds, the producer Larry Marks, the record company president Jerry Moss, the singer Carla Olson, his wife Carlie, members of his family and many others are among those providing testimony, interspersed with snatches of music from the various phases of his career.

Gene Clark’s face turns out to have been that of a person who grew up in a small community in rural Missouri, in circumstances described by one his brothers as “austere”. He began playing in bands at the age of 14, moved to Los Angeles while still in his teens, joined the New Christy Minstrels, and decamped to the fledgling Byrds in 1964. Just over a year later he was receiving a first royalty cheque. Because he wrote songs that the group recorded as B-sides and album tracks (such as the wonderful “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Set You Free This Time”), he earned more money than the other four members. That first cheque was for $47,000. The others got $4,000 each. “The rest of us were still taking buses and walking around LA,” Roger McGuinn remembers, “and he had a little MG. That created a bit of tension.”

The MG was followed by a Porsche and then a very nice maroon vintage Ferrari. And there were other factors. “You take a group of young men, very different young men, give ’em some money, introduce them to drugs… I don’t think there was anything wrong with the fact that we all of a sudden got laid a lot… but the money and the drugs… that’ll do it every time,” says David Crosby, one who knows whereof he speaks.

Clark’s departure from the group and the various chapters of his solo career are dealt with in fascinating detail. I always loved the two Dillard & Clark albums, particularly The Fantastic Expedition, and it was sad to listen to the reasons behind the disintegration of that pioneering project in 1969, followed by many more false starts.

“He had great songs,”  Hillman says, “and he sang from the heart. Why didn’t it work? That’s the question.” Chronic indiscipline when under the influence of drink or drugs seems to have been the simple answer. Perhaps the happiest period of his life began in 1970, when he moved out of LA to Mendocino with Carrie McCummings and enjoyed a return to his roots in rural surroundings. It was there that he wrote the songs for the album White Light, produced by Jesse Ed Davis and released in 1971, which I consider to be the highlight of his career: the recording in which his gifts find the best balance and the most sympathetic environment.

Many of his admirers would nominate No Other, the album that followed in 1974, recorded for David Geffen’s Asylum label and produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye with a huge budget and a cast of thousands. It’s a cult classic, to be sure, and it contains some fine songs that only Clark could have written, but I find it overproduced, overarranged, overplayed, overpackaged — just overwrought in every direction. Its commercial failure more or less put an end to his prospects of once again experiencing the success he had all too briefly known with the Byrds.

He wasn’t entirely finished. I wouldn’t be without the album he made with Olson, called So Rebellious a Lover, released the year after his death and containing two real classics: his own “Gypsy Rider” (“Crank her over once again / Put your face into the wind / Find another road where you’ve never been”) and the most gorgeously compelling version of “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” I’ve ever heard. But the life did for him when he was only 46.

There are some sad and illuminating reflections in the course of the film. “I watched him go from an innocent country boy to road-weary and just… tired of it all,” McGuinn says. Marks, who produced his first solo album, says: “You couldn’t help but just feel the energy that Gene put out whenever you were with him. It wasn’t all good. That energy carried some danger with it.”

Luckily, bits and pieces of his music continue to emerge. The latest is Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, released on Universal/A&M’s Omnivore label, containing bare-bones versions of some of the great songs — “For a Spanish Guitar”, “The Virgin”, Where My Lover Lies Asleep” — plus others than didn’t make the cut, including the lovely “Here Tonight”, which turned up on the restored version of an abandoned album called Roadmaster, which was to have been his next A&M release after White Light. The demos are touching in their plainness. You wouldn’t swap them for the original album, but they’re very welcome. And the documentary is highly recommended.

* The photograph of Gene Clark is from the insert with Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, and was taken by Henry Diltz.