Byrds of a Feather—How Addiction Brought Down Two Rock Legends

By Matthew Greenwald 07/01/15

While Gene Clark and Gram Parsons—both members of The Byrds, one of the most influential groups of the '60s and '70s—had a lot more in common than music, both shared some of the same bad habits.

Gene Clark/Gram Parsons
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Gene Clark and Gram Parsons are two of the most influential musicians/songwriters to emerge from the renaissance that was West Coast pop music from the 1960s and early '70s. While they are not exactly household names, ask anyone in the business from that era (or any music historian, for that matter) and they are usually mentioned in the same breath as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Eagles, etc. They were also both members of The Byrds, one of the most influential groups of the era—although at different times. But they had a lot more in common than music, however, both shared some of the same bad habits, and both died tragically young, leaving a legacy that casts a long shadow on American music. 

Gene Clark

Gene Clark was born and raised in Tipton, Missouri, to a family that would grow to have 12 brothers and sisters. His father made a decent living helping to design and build golf courses, but with so many mouths to feed, the family lived a very simple, rural existence. The Clark farm found Gene doing all manner of physical labor, and the virtues of honesty and hard work informed his character, and this would both help and hinder his later career. He learned guitar from his father, and played all types of country, bluegrass and folk music. Although not extremely well-read, Gene seemed to have a powerful inborn sense of language, and began writing his own songs as a teenager. During this period, he witnessed a horrific plane crash, and this would later have a profound effect on his personal and professional life. 

Following high school, Gene was playing in a folk combo called The Surf Riders who performed at local coffeehouses. Folk music was all the rage in pre-1964 America, and Gene soaked it up like a sponge, and his group, while semi-professional at best, were local favorites. In the summer of 1963, The New Christy Minstrels (then one of the most successful folk acts in the country), passed through Missouri on tour, and happened to be looking for a replacement in their 10-piece group. After seeing a young Gene Clark in his group, they offered him a slot in their group and Clark readily accepted, and was on tour the very next day. 

While The Minstrels offered Gene a decent living and some much-needed professional experience, they had no need for his self-written material, and he was merely a face in the crowd; he was good looking, could play decent rhythm guitar and sang well. Gene’s artistic temperament was developing during this period, and he clearly wanted more out of it, needing artistic expression that The Minstrels couldn’t provide. In addition to this, Gene’s growing fear of air travel was beginning to manifest itself, and he began missing plane flights. During a tour stop in Norfolk, Virginia, Clark apparently spent an entire evening at a coffee shop, loading nickels into the jukebox re-listening to “She Loves You” over and over. He clearly saw that this is where music was heading, and traveled to Los Angeles to see if anyone else had heard the magic.

At the Troubadour in Santa Monica, he found someone. Jim (later Roger) McGuinn—formerly a member of The Chad Mitchell Trio and also a backing musician for Bobby Darin—was working as a solo act, performing folk music tunes crossed with a Beatles beat and feel. Gene and Jim made fast friends and began playing Gene’s songs and writing some new ones. The initial plan was not a full-on band, but more of a Peter & Gordon-styled duet. Soon they were joined by a young David Crosby, who was instantly drawn to what the pair was doing, soon signed on, and eventually Chris Hillman (bass) and Michael Clarke (drums) filled out the band, which was initially called The Jet Set. By Thanksgiving 1964, after much rehearsal and demo recording, the band was called The Byrds and signed with Columbia Records. The current electric pop music politics necessitated all major record labels to have some sort of pop/rock/Beatles-styled band. Columbia had no idea what a “Byrd” was…but they needed one. 

The band’s debut single, Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” went to number one in every English-speaking country, and The Byrds were at the firmament of a new music called “folk-rock.” Although McGuinn’s electric 12-string guitar and voice were at the forefront of the hit singles, Gene was the primary songwriter and sole romantic of the group. His songs were indeed something. Heavily influenced by both Bob Dylan and The Beatles, the original material brought both of these elements together, along with his own unique personal vision, and the compositions were startling, especially when one considered that Gene was all of 20 years old at the time. His song, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” while not a hit single at the time, became something of a signature tune for the group. 

Now, Gene was penning most of the original material for the albums as well as the b-sides of the hit singles. Due to this, when the royalty checks started coming in, Clark’s wallet was decidedly fatter than the others, and apparently this caused some consternation in the ranks. By early 1966, following other huge hits such as “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Eight Miles High” (which was clearly ahead of its time as a "psychedelic" record, and one that Gene co-wrote), he was exhausted from the entire punishing schedule of being a pop star, as well as the seemingly endless air travel. By March 1966, he left the band. 

According to the excellent Gene Clark biography, Mr. Tambourine Man (by John Einarson), David Crosby commented on Gene’s departure from The Byrds. “I can completely understand that. Think about it: country boy from Missouri, 12 siblings, then suddenly L.A. and stardom - BAM! So no, he wasn’t ready for it. I think it was a complete culture shock coming to California in the first place, and showbiz. Real culture shock. And I think that when we started to get successful and make money, it got very complex for him. And Gene wasn’t a complex guy.”

Gene’s drinking and drug use were, by all accounts, not a major factor in his life at the time, and in fact, due to his sensitive nature, he tended to shy away from drugs for the most part. His post-Byrds career began with a very fine solo album for Columbia, which was unfortunately released during the same week as The Byrds Younger Than Yesterday. The album contained several country-soaked songs, showing Gene to again be ahead of his time musically. The album received virtually no promotion from Columbia Records, and by mid-1967 he was off the label. 

In early 1968, Gene signed with A&M records, and after a couple of false starts, produced The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, with banjo virtuoso Doug Dillard, as well as future Burrito Brother and Eagle, Bernie Leadon. It was an exquisite album, again, just about a year ahead of its time. While the record received excellent reviews, Gene did very little to help promote the record, and the performances he did put on were negatively affected by alcohol and drugs. While Doug Dillard was an excellent musical foil for Gene, the pair had a penchant for alcohol and other drugs. This was the first sign that Gene had a substance abuse problem. By the end of 1969, he left the band.

During early 1970, Gene Clark made an excellent move that came very close to saving his life and career. Still quite comfortable with Byrds' royalties still coming in (as well as other songwriting credits), a newly-married Gene moved up to Mendocino, California. The town was a departure from the hustle and bustle of L.A., and Gene’s rural roots had a chance to flourish. Commuting back and forth between L.A. to record, Gene settled down for once in his life. He met up with Native American guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who helped Gene produce his outstanding A&M solo debut, White Light. No less than Bob Dylan commented about one of the album’s standouts, “Spanish Guitar,” that he or any other songwriter would have been proud to write. 

Davis was another powerful musical right-hand man for Clark (he had just come from working with George Harrison and Taj Mahal), but while the music was exquisite, the pair had a mutual love of alcohol and drugs, and this effected both of them adversely. It was also another album that Gene refused to promote. By 1973, he left A&M to participate in an ill-advised Byrds' reunion album. Although the record was mediocre, Gene’s originals shined, and Asylum Records head David Geffen offered Gene a solo deal. Again, Clark found a great musical partner in producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, but once again, substance abuse—particularly alcohol and cocaine, were ruining both men’s lives. The resulting album, No Other, is considered a classic amongst many of Gene’s fans (not this one). Gene was also going through a painful divorce, and his life was falling apart. 

The next several years were a series of one-off deals for different record companies, and none were particularly successful. Gene’s alcoholism and drug use spiraled out of control, and by the early '80s, he was rapidly becoming a has-been. However, in the mid '80s, he cleaned up, and recorded an excellent duo album with ex-Textones' leader, Carla Olsen. The video evidence shows Gene Clark to be in excellent shape, and his songwriting was back with all of its strength and power. 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last. In 1987/8, Tom Petty (a huge Gene/Byrds fan) recorded Gene’s Byrds' classic, “I’ll Feel A While Lot Better” for his excellent solo album, Full Moon Fever, which sold over four million copies. The cover brought back great appreciation for Gene, but it also brought in a humongous amount of publishing money, which sadly came at a bad time. Following this and The Byrds induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Gene’s drug and alcohol abuse knew no bounds. He died in May of 1991, apparently of a cerebral hemorrhage, but there can be no doubt that this was brought on by his substance abuse. 

So many of Gene Clark’s career and personal problems seemed rooted in the fact that he was, aside from his awesome talent, a simple, down to earth soul. His upbringing was a solid, almost Grant Wood-ish American gentleman push, where your word is your bond, you look people in the eye and fucking people over is not a part of your constitution. Sadly, it doesn’t always work that way in the Los Angeles entertainment environment, and Gene Clark was chewed up and spit out by Hollywood.

From Mr. Tambourine Man by John Einarson, former Byrd Chris Hillman, who worked with Gene on almost all of his solo albums, had the last word on Gene Clark and his career: "If there was ever a classic Hollywood bad novel, where the character gets eaten up and spit out, that’s Gene,” he notes “He wasn’t equipped to survive…”

Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons had no such economic problems growing up like Gene Clark. His family owned one of the largest sections of orange grove acreage in Florida (where Gram was born), and his childhood was surrounded by alcoholism, tremendous wealth, suicide and madness. If Gene Clark’s youth was like a Norman Rockwell painting, Gram’s was more akin to a Tennessee Williams play. His father committed suicide when Gram was a teenager, and his mother apparently drank herself to death just prior to Gram graduating from high school. Despite the family money (he had a large trust fund throughout his life); his family life was extremely unstable.

As young Gram grew up, he began playing piano and guitar, and was soon developing a near-encyclopedic knowledge of country music. Gram not only knew how to play the music, but he had an intrinsic ability to deliver the emotion and soul that the music promised. In this light, many say, he had no equal. 

By 1965, following a brief run in a folk act called The Shilos, who were influenced by The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen, the group played the Greenwich Village, N.Y., folk scene, but never really went anywhere. During this period, Gram was known for his refreshingly unconventional manner; he also was befriended by legendary songwriter Fred Neil (writer of "Everybody’s Talkin'”), a notorious junkie who shared some of his bad habits with Gram, who was apparently no stranger to heroin. After the band broke up, Gram briefly attended Harvard where he studied theology for one semester. During this period, he was beginning to become heavily influenced by contemporary country music, particularly Merle Haggard and George Jones. This, along with the current British Invasion of rock and roll, led to Gram forming his first real band, The International Submarine Band. The group, sounding a little like The Kinks crossed with Bakersfield country, were interesting, but clearly ahead of their time. Their L.H.I. Records' debut sank without a trace, but Gram and the group—having relocated to Southern California—were becoming known in town. 

By late 1967, David Crosby and Gene Clark had both left The Byrds, who were down to a duo of Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. Unsure of their musical direction, they were planning to expand into the jazz-based psychedelia that had informed their music since 1966. Needing a keyboard player, Gram auditioned for the band through Chris Hillman. Amazingly, after faking his way through a few blues/jazz-based piano passes, he was hired. However, when Gram and Chris started to play acoustic guitars together, they found a mutual love of country music. The pair convinced McGuinn and Byrds' producer Gary Usher to make the next Byrds album swing into a country music direction, down to cutting the record at CBS’s Nashville studio.

The result was the startling 1968 album, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Although the record sold poorly, it was clearly a sign that country music was going to be a part of the pop music scene in a big way. The only problem with the sessions was that Gram was apparently still signed to L.H.I. Records, and it limited his participation on the record until clearances could be obtained, resulting in McGuinn having to re-record some of Gram’s lead vocals. Nevertheless, the finished album was a brilliant pronouncement. 

The band went to England to do a short tour prior to a two-week engagement in South Africa. While in London, the band reacquainted themselves with the Rolling Stones, and Keith Richards and Gram struck up a friendship that would last until Parsons’ death in 1973. Keith always appreciated country music, but by this time, Gram happily reintroduced him to the form, and this would have a profound influence on the Stones' records for several years. The pair also shared a mutual fondness for opiates.

During one conversation, Richards mentioned that his band had been asked to perform in South Africa in the past, and they wouldn’t due to the political state of affairs and apartheid. This was clearly enough for Parsons, who announced the next morning while the band packed for the trip that he wouldn’t be accompanying them on the trip, and was indeed leaving the band, which pissed off The Byrds immensely. While the stance Gram was taking was indeed valid, it was also true that he preferred to spend time hanging out with Richards and sundry English pop tarts.

Upon returning to the States, Gram hooked up with Chris Hillman a few months later, Chris also having left the Byrds in October of 1968. The pair healed their wounds, and set about forming The Flying Burrito Brothers, an ambitious project that would combine country music along with soul and some rock. It was also Gram’s hope that this would unite the two diverse audiences. It very nearly happened. 

Signing with A&M, the band recorded an excellent debut album, but when the time came to perform live, the lack of rehearsal and generally carefree attitude—especially Gram’s—affected correctly promoting the record. They did indeed tour, certainly more than label-mate Gene Clark, but it was definitely half-measures. A lot of this had to do with the fact that Parsons was…well, lazy. According to Chris Hillman, “Gram got $50,000 twice a year; and he knew how to spend it.” His trust-funded lifestyle led to a general malaise; if he didn’t play live gigs, he was still going to survive just fine, as opposed to the rest of the band, all of whom had to gig in order to survive. Gram was also developing a serious heroin habit, and this didn’t help at all. By 1970, following a second, somewhat inconsistent album, Gram left the band he had founded. Prior to his exit, however, he helped record a version of Jagger/Richards' “Wild Horses,” which the pair wrote after meeting Gram, and could rightfully be known as the result of Gram and Keith’s musical union. This was also several months before the Stones recorded it for Sticky Fingers. 

By 1971, Parsons was somewhat adrift, and heavily addicted to heroin. During the summer of that year, the Stones had moved to France as tax exiles, and Gram spent a lot of time there, hanging with Keith, and generally influencing the Exile On Main Street album, particularly the country-influenced cuts such as “Torn And Frayed” and “Sweet Virginia.” It has long been rumored that he sang back-up on these songs. Eventually, however, he was asked to leave, partly due to his drug usage. It must have been pretty bad when in 1971 Keith Richards says you have to leave the party. 

Returning to the States, Gram cleaned up to some degree, and signed a solo deal with Reprise, recording a pair of excellent, if poor selling albums, G.P. and Grievous Angel. These albums also featured the talents of Emmylou Harris, who was just starting her career. The pair had a gorgeous vocal blend, and the recordings, in a way, influenced the multitude of male/female country duet albums that would follow. 

Gram’s death in September, 1973, was sadly a classic in terms of junkie deaths. He had cleaned up for the recording sessions for Grievous, but upon completion of the record (it had just been mixed) he decided to spend a few days at Joshua Tree State Park, a favorite spot of his. Already a little loose from alcohol, Parsons had brought a stash of morphine with him, and mistakenly took a “normal” dose thinking he could handle it…and of course, he couldn’t. 

Gram’s musical legacy is extremely solid. His influence can easily be heard in much of “alt-country” music and rock, from Ryan Adams to Wilco and beyond. Many more mainstream country artists such as Waylon Jennings speak fondly of Gram and his influence in modern country and rock. Without him, it is doubtful that there would have been the “country outlaw” movement from the late 1970s. 

Both Gene Clark and Gram Parsons clearly left their mark on American music. Both were innovators and visionaries whose music was usually ahead of its time and had a boundless emotional sensibility that beguiles the heart as well as the ear. 

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California. He last interviewed Grace Slick and her daughter China Isler.

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