by David McGowan, The Center for an Informed America, May 21, 2010
Published here: July 3, 2010 @ 8:10 PM
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“[Gene] used to slip into these dream states, which I thought was really amazing. He’d go into these dream states and lay down on the couch and go, ‘I’ll be right back, Patrick.’”
Pat Robinson, a friend and bandmate of Gene Clark
“[Gene] had these multiple personalities.”
John York, another friend and bandmate of Gene Clark
“[Gene] did seem like he had a lot on his mind and would often appear distracted. You’d say, ‘Hey, Gene, what are you thinking?’ and he would go, ‘Huh? Oh,’ like he was being brought back to reality.”
Bernie Leadon, yet another friend and bandmate of Gene Clark
In many ways, the Gene Clark story reads a lot like the Gram Parsons story. Both were considered by their peers to be among Laurel Canyon’s brightest stars, yet both are now largely forgotten. Both of their lives were cut tragically short (though Clark lived considerably longer than Parsons). Both of their deaths were overshadowed to some extent by unusual events that occurred just after their passing. Both were considered pioneers of the country-rock genre. Both played for a time with the Byrds. Both recorded duets with Emmylou Harris, and both employed many of the same musicians on their various solo projects. Both had legions of female admirers. Both had a keen interest in UFOs and believed in alien visitations. Both were notorious drug and alcohol abusers.
Did anyone notice anything unusual, by the way, about that last sentence? Probably not, though there is an obvious redundancy on display. If I had written something slightly different, like “drug and heroin abusers” or “drug and cocaine abusers,” you likely would have picked up on it right away. But because I used a phrase that everyone is accustomed to seeing and hearing, “drug and alcohol abusers,” none of you batted an eye. I have no idea though what my point is here, so let’s just move on.
Harold Eugene Clark was born on November 17, 1944, in Tipton, Missouri, though the year of his birth was frequently reported as 1941. It seems quite likely that Gene Clark himself was the source of that erroneous biographical detail, to avoid questions about the fact that his father was overseas for all of 1944.
Tipton is a small town – the kind of town where everyone knows one another by name. In fact, Tipton is kind of like a big park where the same oversized family reunion is held every day of the year. As Bonnie Clark Laible told author John Einarson, “When I was in Tipton, Missouri, the year my grandfather died, in 1954, I found out I was related to almost everyone in the community. Everyone had married people they knew through the various families like Faherty and Sommerhauser. I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a family member!”
Tipton was founded by Mr. William Tipton Seely, a rather wealthy and influential gent who opened a general store circa 1830. A community soon sprang up around his store, as tended to happen in those days, and Seely named his new little fiefdom Round Hill. A decade or so later, in the 1840s, a group of German immigrant families arrived in the area – the Nieuffers, the Lutzs, the Kammerichs, the Schmidts, the Hoens, the Shrecks and the Sommerhausers. These families proceeded to intermarry to a rather extreme degree.
In the 1850s, Seely lobbied hard to have both the Pacific Railroad and the Butterfield Overland Mail route pass through his little kingdom. Those efforts proved successful, though the railroad was routed a few miles north of Round Hill. Around that new railroad station was born Seely’s second town, tiny Tipton, where Gene Clark would spend the early years of his life.
Meanwhile, just before 1800, a group of Irish families led by a Mr. Edmund Faherty settled in southwestern Illinois. In addition to the Fahertys, the group included the Whelans, the O’Haras and the O’Neills. These families also proceeded to intermarry. Some factions of the family eventually crossed over the border into Perryville, Missouri, where they became slave owners. James and Helena Faherty split from the rest of the Missouri herd and moved to Cole Camp, not too far southwest of Tipton. According to chronicler Einarson, the move was recommended by a “priest who feared too much inbreeding among the families.”
Oscar Faherty, Gene Clark’s maternal grandfather, was born and raised near Tipton, as was the woman who was to be his wife and Gene’s grandmother, Rosemary Sommerhauser. Before long, the Fahertys and the Sommerhausers were intermarrying at a furious pace. According to Bonnie Clark, “The Faherty and Sommerhauser families had double cousins going on.”
I’m not sure what that means exactly, nor do I really want to know, but it can’t be a good thing.
On the summer solstice of 1920, Rosemary Sommerhauser Faherty gave birth to Mary Jeanne Faherty, Gene Clark’s mother. After completing elementary school, Mary Jeanne was sent away to work as a “domestic servant” for an unnamed wealthy family living near Kansas City, Kansas. The Depression years were pretty rough, from what I hear, but selling off your barely-teenaged daughter seems a bit harsh.
The other half of Gene Clark’s family tree is, curiously enough, shrouded in mystery and secrecy. As chronicler Einarson notes, “Unlike Jeanne Faherty Clark’s well-documented family history, the lineage of Gene’s father, Kelly George Clark, is far more murky and mysterious.” Indeed, Einarson’s extensive research turned up little more than the fact that Kelly Clark was born on November 11, 1918 in Lenexa, Kansas, and that, according to family lore, there might be Native American blood in the family tree that has been concealed.
Or maybe Pop Clark’s history is murky for other reasons. Maybe he wasn’t even Gene’s dad. What we do know is that Kelly Clark apparently quit high school and went to work for the parks department as a groundskeeper. While tending the grounds at the Milburn Country Club, he met young Jeanne Faherty, who apparently was taken there fairly frequently by her ‘employers’ – because most wealthy people, I think we can all agree, take their young servants with them to the country club.
After a relatively brief courtship, the two married on May 29, 1941 and promptly started a family. Bonnie Clark was born on March 13, 1942, just 9½ months after the couple exchanged vows. Kelly Katherine was to be the couple’s second child, but she was, alas, reportedly stillborn – on the summer solstice of 1943. Nothing suspicious about that. Nor about the peculiar fact that, while Gene and other members of the family would be laid to rest in the Sommerhauser family plot at St. Andrews cemetery in Tipton, “Kelly Katherine’s is a solitary stone at the far south end of the cemetery.”
A few months after Kelly Katherine Clark’s curious death, Kelly George Clark was called up for radio and gunnery school. Following training, he was assigned to a unit that served as General George Patton’s mop-up crew. Clark’s crew landed at LeHavre, France and steadily made their way towards Germany. By May of 1945, immediately following the fall of the Third Reich, Clark was in Berlin.
Meanwhile, the third Clark child, Gene, was born in November 1944. Officially, Jeanne Clark was impregnated while her husband was briefly home on leave, presumably in February 1944, though it seems unlikely that he would have been at home at that time. In any event, Gene spent the first years of his life in a house at 304 Morgan Street, directly across the street from a funeral home.
Kelly Clark returned home at the end of World War II and promptly impregnated his wife once again; Nancy Patricia Clark was born on July 19, 1946. The family would continue to grow until there were no fewer than 10 Clark siblings, all living in a tiny house far off the beaten path. As a former classmate and friend recalled, “You had to take a dirt road up and it was the only house back in the woods, way up high. I couldn’t believe the first time Gene took me there … It was kind of spooky in a way.”
As Bonnie Clark has acknowledged, the Clarks “were known as a very strange family in the community.” I can’t imagine why, though it may have had something to do with the family’s rather unusual choice of recreational activities, such as throwing knives at laundry detergent boxes: “Gene was very good at it. We both were. This was one of the things we did as a family function,” noted Bonnie.
Gene would have a lifelong fascination with knives – and guns. According to friend Joe Larson, after Clark began making money with the Byrds, he “started buying guns.” In the cover photo for one of Gene’s solo albums, he is sitting on a picnic table. As brother Rick Clark has noted, “there are bullet holes in the table where we would shoot at cans and bottles from the back porch with Gene’s guns.” One of those guns was an antique rifle given to Gene by fellow gun aficionado David Crosby.
Has anyone else noticed, by the way, that a lot of those peacenik hippie types in Laurel Canyon seem to have been packing heat?
Shockingly enough, most of the members of that “strange family” living in the backwoods did not fare so well as they grew into adulthood. As of the time of the writing of Einarson’s Mr. Tambourine Man (2005), one Clark sibling had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic (which is, in reality, an arbitrary ‘diagnosis,’ but let’s not get into that), another suffered from severe bouts of clinical depression, another was homeless due to untreated mental illness, another was on psychiatric meds most of her life before dying suddenly in 1987, another was bipolar, and yet another was diagnosed with severe mental retardation.
Even more shockingly, mysterious father Kelly Clark was said to be a raging alcoholic who suffered from severe mood swings!
Gene’s formal education began in 1949 at a strict Catholic school in Raytown. According to big sister Bonnie, “there were truly some abusive people [there]. I can remember some of those nuns being real nightmares.” By 1960, the family had moved to Bonner Springs, Kansas, where Gene attended high school. He was known to hang with a rough crowd during his high school days, and a few of his buddies from those years ended up serving prison time.
On August 12, 1963, Gene Clark, still a few months shy of his nineteenth birthday, was inexplicably offered a spot in the New Christy Minstrels vocal group; he was on a plane to California the very next day. The Minstrels were a very busy touring group, averaging some 300 dates a year, so Gene would spend a lot of time on airplanes during his six-month tenure as a Minstrel. Curiously though, fear of flying would be cited a couple years later as Gene’s reason for leaving the Byrds.
One of the gigs the group played, on January 14, 1964, was at the White House as special guests of Lyndon Johnson, who had taken office less than two months earlier following the assassination of John Kennedy. After the performance, Gene and other Minstrels (including Barry McGuire, who, as was discussed in the last chapter, released Eve of Destruction a couple years later) went out on the town and partied with Johnson’s two daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, who were just nineteen and sixteen at the time.
As the story goes, Gene quit the New Christy Minstrels a couple of weeks later, in February of 1964, after hearing the first album released by an obscure British band known as the Beatles. Clark immediately headed out to Los Angeles, as would so many others, where he regularly hung out at the Troubadour, just off the Sunset Strip. It was there that he met one James Joseph McGuinn III, who had, curiously enough, once been in the New Christy Minstrels himself, for exactly one day.
The two quickly formed a folk duo and began writing songs, hoping to soon get bookings at the Troubadour and other local clubs. But according to McGuinn, the pair “never got to the stage of performing as a duo … Crosby came along quite quickly.” McGuinn was initially quite wary of the interloper, but the three nevertheless became a trio known at first as the Jet Set. With Crosby, of course, came Jim Dickson, who would transform the trio into the Byrds.
According to Vern Gosdin – who, along with his brother, Rex, played with many of the Laurel Canyon musicians – it was Jim Dickson who “put the Byrds together, you might say. If I’m telling the truth, this is what I think: I don’t think the Byrds had any ideas whatsoever, and Jim Dickson put it all together for them.” Dickson originally envisioned the band as a Beatlesque quartet, with Gene as lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist, Roger on lead guitar and vocals, and Crosby on bass and vocals (ala Paul McCartney).
This arrangement proved unworkable, however, since Crosby was reportedly unable to sing and play bass at the same time. This then led Dickson to recruit mandolin player Chris Hillman to take over bass duties, leaving Crosby with little to do other than provide harmony vocals. That didn’t sit well with Lord Crosby, so he began a relentless campaign aimed at eroding Gene’s confidence in his own guitar playing. Crosby’s constant ridicule paid off and he soon enough took over rhythm guitar duties.
The five-man band was by then complete: Gene would provide most lead vocals and bang the tambourine, Jim/Roger McGuinn would provide the band’s signature 12-string guitar sound and harmony vocals, Crosby would provide serviceable (at best) rhythm guitar work and harmony vocals, and Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke would pretend (initially at least) to play the bass guitar and the drums.
The band released its first single as the Beefeaters. The record was produced by Jim Dickson, who would go on to guide the Byrds’ career, and Paul Rothschild, who would go on to guide the Doors’ career. The single, released by Elektra Records, went nowhere. By November of 1964 though, the band, renamed the Byrds, was signed with Columbia Records. Just two months later they would record Mr. Tambourine Man and become huge stars. But there was a hurdle to overcome first; as Einarson notes, “[Gene] had received his draft notice. Roger and Michael had already dodged that bullet; now it was Gene’s turn.”
Not to worry though; Gene was able to dodge that bullet as well. According to Einarson, Gene was deemed unfit for military service due to an “old football disease,” which is identified as “Osgood Schlatter’s Disease.” For the record, Osgood Schlatter’s is not a “football disease.” I’m not at all convinced, to be perfectly honest, that Osgood Schlatter’s is a disease at all. I was diagnosed with the same thing when I was a kid and the only difference between me and other kids was that I had a ‘disease’ while they had ‘growing pains.’ According to the medical community though, it is a real childhood disease with no known treatment that one ‘outgrows’ as one approaches adulthood.
Luckily for Gene, it apparently didn’t prevent him from playing football, but it did keep him out of the service – which was probably a good thing, because, after all, what use does the military have for a big, strong, powerfully-built former athlete who knew his way around a variety of weapons?
And now, with that out of the way, a correction is in order; regrettably, I claimed in an earlier chapter that Clark was a very good but not a terribly prolific songwriter. That is actually far from the truth (the fact that no one has alerted me to that egregious error, by the way, illustrates how little-known Clark is today). Without question, Gene was an astoundingly prolific songwriter. I had assumed otherwise due to the fact that relatively few of his compositions appear on Byrds’ albums, which instead feature a lot of covers.
The truth though is that Gene had more than enough songs – and reportedly good songs – to fill the early Byrds’ albums. Even Crosby has acknowledged that Clark “was prolific. He would show up every week with new songs and they were great songs.” Crosby wasn’t so generous though with his assessments of Gene’s talents back in the day. According to most accounts, it was the jealousy of Crosby and McGuinn that kept Gene’s tracks off the records.
In those days, there wasn’t a lot of money to be made by performing and recording music. The real money was in song royalties, so Clark was paid considerably more than the rest of the band. As McGuinn put it, “Gene was into Ferraris and we were still starving.” That disproportionate compensation quickly drove a wedge between Clark and the other 2/3 of the original trio. At times, Gene even shared writing credits on his songs just to get them onto albums. The classic Eight Miles High, for example, was written by Gene but credited to Crosby and McGuinn as well (Crosby reportedly contributed just one line of lyrics and McGuinn handled the arrangement of Gene’s composition).
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
“There was this persona and the rest of Gene was somewhere in there. He was hard to get to know … He could be very warm and loving, but that could change in a heartbeat.”
Bonnie Clark, Gene’s sister
“In later years, toward the end, he would have really bad nightmares. He would wake up in the middle of the night screaming …”
Kai Clark, Gene’s son
“It is often difficult for those who knew him – even family members – to reconcile the two Gene Clarks: the cheerful, engaging yet shy loner with the vibrant imagination, and the frustrated, moody recluse who was sometimes prone to violence.”
Chronicler John Einarson
As has been noted previously, Vito Paulekas played a key role in the early days of the Byrds. And so it is that we find references to Vito and his entourage in Einarson’s telling of the Gene Clark story: “Vito and Carl were legendary hipsters on the L.A. scene and were into LSD long before anyone else. It was at their studio that Gene believed the Byrds truly found their magic as a group.” According to Morgan Cavett, the son of Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Cavett, “They had this group of hippies before that term came into use. Somehow they had hooked up with the Byrds.”
When the band launched its first national tour in July 1965, “Along for the trip were L.A. scene-makers Vito and Carl and their entourage of crazed hippie dancers whose uninhibited gyrations caused quite a stir in the heartlands of America.” Actually, Vito stayed home while Carl Franzoni led the faction of the troupe that hit the road with the Byrds. Assisting Franzoni was Byrds’ roadie Brian McLean, who shortly thereafter would beat out Mansonite Bobby Beausoleil for the rhythm guitarist position in Love.
As troupe dancer Lizzie Donohue would later recall, many of those in America’s hinterlands “thought we were from outer space. In Paris, Illinois, they actually threw us off the dance floor.” Gene Clark would later remember that the band “could have played out of tune all day. Nobody ever heard us anyway.” According to many accounts, the band oftentimes did play out of tune all day. And all night as well.
When the band followed up its first national tour with a tour of the UK, they were not well received – in large part because they were notoriously unable to keep their instruments in tune. Often the band would spend more time tuning their instruments between songs than they did actually playing those songs. And by most accounts, the boys made virtually no attempt to forge a connection with the audience. Gene did though forge a bond with the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, whose life would be tragically cut short a couple years later.
Sometime after that tour, members of the Byrds famously met with members of the Beatles and they all dropped acid together. Some accounts hold that this meeting took place in the Cielo Drive home where Sharon Tate would later be butchered, but it appears to have actually taken place in another home in Benedict Canyon, one that may have been formerly owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Laurel Canyon stalwart Peter Fonda was reportedly in attendance, and legend holds that it was he who supplied a very high John Lennon with the line “I know what it’s like to be dead.”
In March of 1966, a press release announced Gene Clark’s departure from the Byrds. McGuinn has alleged that Dickson and co-manager Eddie Ticknor encouraged Gene to split from the band so that they could exploit his solo potential. If so, then they must have been greatly disappointed, as Clark never came close to living up to that potential.
One of the first offers Gene received upon his departure from the Byrds was from drummer Dewey Martin, who invited Clark to join the newly-formed Buffalo Springfield. Clark declined, choosing to form his own band, the first of which was dubbed the Group. As Einarson explains, “Six weeks after rehearsals began, Gene Clark and the Group debuted at the Whisky-A-Go-Go on June 22 for a two-week stand, on the heels of a dazzling six-week stint by new group Buffalo Springfield.” One of the opening acts during the Group’s two-week engagement was a local band known as the Doors.
Around that same time, Clark began having an affair with Michelle Phillips, who lived with hubby John Phillips just a couple of blocks down the canyon (Gene at the time was living at 2014 Rossila Place, which appears to have been either renumbered or mowed down). Also living with John and Michelle Phillips, of course, was daughter MacKenzie Phillips, who some of you may have seen working the talk-show circuit not long ago, plugging a book about her incestuous relationship with her father.
Following what were reportedly unproductive recording sessions, Gene’s first post-Byrds formation broke up. On July 10, he was signed as a solo artist and he entered the studio the next month accompanied by doomed guitarist Clarence White, Brian Wilson handler Van Dyke Parks, our old friend Glen Campbell, the ubiquitous Chris Hillman, and Vern and Rex Gosdin, who had gotten their start alongside – who else? – Chris Hillman in the formation known as the Hillmen.
In January of 1967, Clark’s first solo album was released as Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. Like many of the other records we have stumbled upon while on this journey, some fans and critics regard the record as the first country-rock album (released a year-and-a-half before the country-rock forays by the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield). The album, unfortunately, was quickly overshadowed by the Byrd’s own Younger than Yesterday, which Columbia released just two weeks after releasing Gene’s solo effort.
By March of 1967, Clark had put together a new version of the Group, which debuted at the Whisky with Clark, Clarence White and two members of the Mamas and the Papas touring group, whom Gene had met through his paramour, Michelle Phillips. At the tail end of 1967, Gene briefly rejoined the Byrds, replacing the fired David Crosby. The reunion lasted only a few weeks but it was long enough for Gene to contribute to The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released in January 1968.
When Gene had left the Byrds, by the way, he had done so empty handed. Not so with Crosby, who was given a substantial settlement upon his departure. He used that money to purchase a yacht, which he dubbed the Mayan. Crosby thereafter was known to spend extended periods of time aboard the Mayan, sailing to and from various locations. He was not the only canyon musician to own and operate such a vessel. John Phillips had one as well. So did Dennis Wilson. All three of them also had a passion for controlled substances. And guns. I wonder if there’s some kind of connection there?
Following his brief reunion with the Byrds, Clark composed the original score for Marijuana, a short anti-drug film hosted by Sonny “watch out for that tree!” Bono. His next project, dubbed the Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark, featured Gene, Doug Dillard (formerly of the Dillards, from whom Buffalo Springfield, it will be recalled, had obtained their instruments), Bernie Leadon (who had been a peripheral member of San Diego’s Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, alongside Chris Hillman, and who would later become an Eagle), and, of course, Chris Hillman.
By this time Gene had married and his wife, Carlie, was an avid reader of occult literature, particularly, as she recalled, “this lady named Madame Blavatsky.”
Circa 1971, Clark was approached by his friend and fellow Canyonite, Dennis Hopper, to compose songs for the soundtrack to Hopper’s American Dreamer. Around that same time, according to Einarson, “Gene’s running buddies included David Carradine and John Barrymore.” A rather curious group of friends, to say the least.
According to authors such as Craig Heimbichner (Blood on the Altar), Martin P. Starr (The Unknown God), and John Carter (Sex and Rockets), Dennis Hopper and David’s dad, John Carradine, were both members of the infamous Agape Lodge of the OTO, alongside doomed rocket scientist Jack Parsons, actor Dean Stockwell, and doppelgangers L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein (who was also, it will be recalled, a Laurel Canyon resident). According to Gregory Mank (Hollywood’s Hellfire Club), John Carradine and John Barrymore were also members of the so-called “Bundy Drive Boys,” a group that engaged in such practices as incest, rape and cannibalism. And according to Ed Sanders (The Family), among the upscale homes visited by a Process Church work group “was the John Barrymore mansion, located at 1301 Summit Ridge Drive.”
Of course, just because Clark’s inner circle seems to have been drawn from various nefarious occult groups doesn’t mean that we should leap to any conclusions about Gene himself, even if his wife was an avid occultist, and even if he was the product of a multi-generational cult town, and even if his sibling was sacrificed stillborn on a major occult holiday, and even if his first home was right across the street from a body drop funeral home.
Moving on then, the year 1972 saw yet another brief Byrds reunion, with another record released in February of 1973. Gene next began recording sessions for a new solo project, financed by his friend Gary Legon, the husband of porn star and Ivory Soap model Marilyn Chambers. Joining Gene on some of the tracks was Emmylou Harris, whose hubby Tom Slocum – a descendant of famed explorer Joshua Slocum – was a member of Gene’s inner circle.
After relocating to Albion, California for a time with his wife and kids, Clark moved back to Laurel Canyon, where he moved into a home on Stanley Hills with his new girlfriend, Terri Messina. Born into a considerable amount of money, Messina was the daughter of a prominent area physician. In 1963, she had enrolled in theater arts at UCLA, which quite likely would have placed her in the company of a couple of other UCLA theater arts students – Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek.
She and Gene moved in together in the summer of 1977. According to Einarson, Messina “laterally work[ed] in film editing, [but] she was better known in exclusive circles as a supplier of cocaine.” And heroin. As has been previously discussed, during that time period the “entire Laurel Canyon lifestyle revolved around cocaine,” and “Gene fell into line, becoming a legendary partier.”
Canyon resident Ken Mansfield recalled those dark years: “That particular point in my life, and most of us, was the craziest time of all, when we were all into drugs the most. Tommy’s (Kaye) house was one of the houses we hung out at a lot. David Carradine was my neighbor in Laurel Canyon. Our two properties were side by side. David had a group called Water. I could tell you some wild canyon stories … Looking back it’s not a nice memory. Even though we thought we were having a good time, I don’t think we really were. Shortly after Tommy Kaye’s little girl, Eloise, died in an unfortunate accident, it just seemed like everybody’s life got dark and we all kind of lost hope there for a while.”
There seems to have been a little bit of a problem with little kids in the ‘60s and ‘70s dying in “unfortunate accidents” in Laurel Canyon. I wonder if Eloise fell through a skylight?
Circa 1978, Clark teamed with former bandmates Hillman and McGuinn for a contrived reunion tour. An album followed in early 1979, with a second released in early 1980. During that time, according to brother David Clark, Gene “was hanging around with these really gross characters who were just a bunch of burnouts and he wasn’t much better. Cathy Evelyn Smith was there.” Not long after, Smith would attain a certain amount of notoriety for her involvement in the curious death of John Belushi at the Chateau Marmont, at the mouth of Laurel Canyon.
Following the release of the second reunion album, Clark and a close friend, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, left LA for Oahu, Hawaii, supposedly to get clean. They returned at the end of 1981, with Gene once again settling into his favorite canyon. Among his close friends at that time were former child star Kurt Russell and his then-wife, actress Season Hubley, who had also taken up residence in Laurel Canyon.
Gene’s solo career sputtered on for another decade, though no one really paid much attention. In January 1991, the original members of the Byrds came together for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Clark died just four months later, reportedly of a heart attack. He was just 46 at the time. Three years earlier, his one-time sidekick Jesse Ed Davis had dropped dead on the summer solstice of 1988. He was only 43.
The circumstances of Clark’s death remain murky to this day. As Einarson has noted, “What transpired over the last three days of Gene’s life remains clouded by controversy … conspiracy theories abound; accusations have been leveled.” For the most part though, Gene has now been all but forgotten. His vast stockpile of unreleased material, however – much of which mysteriously disappeared after his death – likely lives on, albeit credited to others.
According to Einarson, Clark had been fighting to stay sober, but it “is agreed that he began drinking again on the evening of Wednesday, May 22 … What happened next depends entirely on who is telling the story. [One witness] claims he searched the house for drugs and did not find any – contrary to claims by others that drugs and drug paraphernalia were present in the house … there are those conspiracy theorists who continue to insinuate that drugs and certain characters were, indeed, present that night, and that Gene’s death was a result of misadventure, necessitating a panicked clean-up campaign that morning.”
There were apparently numerous people present at Clark’s home on the morning of May 24, 1991, as Gene lay dead on the living room floor. One of those people was Saul Davis, who “took it upon himself to contact the media with the news, another bone of contention with some, given that Saul was not serving as Gene’s manager at the time.” Another was the manager of the property, identified as Ray Berry, who had served during World War II in Special Ops. While people milled about the house, “arguing over the spoils … Gene’s body continued to lie on the living room floor, face up.”
Days later, David Carradine caused quite a stir at Gene’s open-casket memorial service. Former bandmate Pat Robinson remembered it well: “When Carradine came up, he wasn’t as much drunk as he was on acid, I think, and his girlfriend and business manager at the time was there with him. And we’re standing there and Carradine says, ‘You cocksucker …’ and grabs Gene by the lapels. When you pull somebody up from a coffin and they have nothing inside for guts they bend higher up. It was really shocking to see that. And Carradine goes, ‘You pissed on my daughter when she was thirteen.’ And he said it pretty loud and then he says, ‘I saw him snicker, boys, heh heh.’ Oh, man, that was weird.”
You think so? Perhaps weirder still is that many of those who were in attendance remember hearing something a little different: “You fucked my daughter when she was thirteen.” Maybe Carradine had mistaken Clark for Roman Polanski. Or John Phillips. Or maybe that’s just what everyone was doing in Laurel Canyon.
In any event, none of the original members of the Byrds bothered to attend the service. When it was over, Gene was laid to rest in tiny Tipton.