The context: In 1966, Gene Clark left The Byrds abruptly and at the peak of their popularity, an odd move for the group's frontman and one of its prime tunesmiths and voices. He subsequently released a string of solo albums and collaborations that were as beautiful as they were bewilderingly ignored, from his baroque-folk debut Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers to The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark, a 1968 masterpiece that partnered Clark with bluegrass star Doug Dillard and future Eagle Bernie Leadon.
By 1971, though, things were looking up for the former Byrd. During a wave of interest in singer-songwriters like Neil Young and James Taylor, Clark recorded White Light with ace guitarist-producer Jesse Ed Davis, as well as members of The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Steve Miller Band. Clark's personal life was on an upswing at the time: Newly married, he'd recently assumed a rustic, idyllic existence in upstate California, far from the substance abuse and rock excess of his L.A. days. But in spite of tons of critical praise, White Light sank without a trace—compounded by Clark's infamous reluctance to fly and tour.
Clark's career never recovered from its nosedive. A poorly executed Byrds comeback in 1973 was chased by the big-budget No Other, another stunning solo album that went nowhere. Following many more setbacks and releases that ranged from decent to deplorable, a broke, crack-smoking, and cancer-ridden Clark died in 1991 after a three-day alcohol bender—a mere four months after participating in a triumphant Byrds reunion for the group's induction into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Regardless of renewed acclaim for his music, White Light remains out of print and beyond legal download in the U.S., available only as an import CD—or for the lucky, a moderately priced piece of used vinyl.
The greatness: Coming from a decade not known for aesthetic understatement, the cover of White Light—a stark, brooding shot of Clark sitting on a rooftop, silhouetted by the setting sun—is immediately striking. It also perfectly indicates the music within: Without the barest hint of slickness or sophistication, the album is predominantly acoustic, adorned with sparse bits of electric lead, organ, harmonica, and percussion. The lack of vocal harmonies—one of The Byrds' trademarks—proves beyond any doubt that Clark was the strongest singer of the legendary band. Throughout White Light, Clark's lush, haunting baritone fills every empty corner of the songs. It also embodies the many contradictions of the man himself, a poor, unlettered country kid thrust into a cultural maelstrom while still in his early 20s. Pure yet complex, his voice dominates yet nurtures the skeletal arrangements of tracks like "The Virgin," "With Tomorrow," and "1975," all packed with Clark's poetic turns of phrase and elegantly simple strumming.
Although often painted as an originator of country-rock on par with Gram Parsons, Clark never fully embraced the genre, instead sticking to a more classic sound that never lost sight of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The closest White Light comes to country-rock is the track "One Hundred Years," but the song's original version, which went unreleased until 1972's import collection Roadmaster, shows that producer Davis and his twangy guitar licks turned the tune from a Byrds-esque jangler into a sound closer to the style The Eagles would soon popularize. It's hard to understand why White Light didn't make Gene Clark at least as popular at the time as, say, Gordon Lightfoot. Were his lyrics too cryptic? His music too elemental? His image too encumbered with all the baggage of The Byrds? The most likely reason is Clark's innocent, starry-eyed nature—even if his inability to shrewdly keep up with the times is what ultimately makes White Light so durable and haunting.
Defining song: Clark does justice to Dylan via White Light's gorgeous cover of "Tears Of Rage," but Clark's composition "For A Spanish Guitar" is a song that Dylan publicly admitted he wish he'd written himself. The most riveting track on White Light, "Spanish Guitar" opens with flickering acoustic guitars that cast light on a swaying, shanty-like waltz over which Clark croons of free men, slaves, and "the dissonant bells of the sea." In an agile, effortless leap of poetic grace, he segues from daydreams to sharp autobiography with the lines, "And the workings of sunshine and rain / and the visions they paint that remain / pulsate from my soul through my brain / in a Spanish guitar." More than just a heart-stopping five minutes of folk-rock perfection, the song is an insight into Clark's sensitivity, his creative process, and his very essence as a person—three elements that were inseparably intertwined on White Light.