Gene Clark was the heavy presence of The Byrds, and on stage didn’t even strap on a guitar. He wrote or co-wrote many of their best singles, and left the group in 1966, although he poked his head in and out of the band until they hung it up in 1973. His solo records have the intensity of a Bob Neuwirth or Townes Van Zandt album, and don’t have catchy singles. Instead he takes you on a trip.
Not Lame records asked me to pick a Gene Clark song to cover for a tribute album being organized by Eric Sorensen. I did not want to pick a Byrds song. Local music writer Kurt Wolff suggested “From A Silver Phial” from No Other and I figured it was good advice since I barely knew the material from any of the handful of Gene Clark records out there.
I’d been recording at a new studio in the Tenderloin called “Story Road.” The quotation marks were part of the name, and completely superfluous. The guy who ran the studio slept in a room behind the tracking room, so he was around quite a bit whenever I worked there. He’d convinced the city to give him money to equip his place so that he could employ local homeless people. I can’t think of a less appealing vision. The studio was already in need of a lady’s touch- upon entering the place, you smelled a ham stewing in a crockpot, right next to a cloudy, putrid aquarium in which a few hardy fish survived.
I believe the console was a Neve 8108, with an ‘80s-era style brightly colored microprocessor matrix control touch-panel that could hold all audio signals hostage if it’d decided to. It was the perfect mating of mixing board and microwave oven. I thought it sounded pretty good, it was a step up from what I’d been using, and I got a lot done in that funky place between April and September of 1999. I may be one of the very few people who recorded there despite the low rates. I made the Sportsmen and Tom Heyman records there on ADAT recorders before convincing the owner to fix the 2” tape machine, a Studer A-80 with a bent take-up reel spindle. Our test session on tape was with Map Of Wyoming, but that was cut short when the owner realized we were recording for real, and started giving us drunken producer directions over the talkback mic, a la Murry Wilson. It would be not much longer before the studio closed.
I brought in Tom Heyman, Rob Douglas, and Derek Ritchie to track just this one song. I played the Gene Clark version for them, and Derek, in his typical cavalier attitude and lingering Scottish brogue, said, “Gentlemen, it’s a piece of piss, let’s knock it out.” Whether or not Derek had the patience to stay very long this day, we got it in two takes, the first being the keeper. Tom’s solo is some of his best guitar playing on record. I used a wah wah pedal on my electric guitar, leaving it stuck in one position for a particular filtered tone.
I still had my home studio, and the next door neighbor was a dentist. His home office had a 7’ Bechstein grand piano in the reception area, so I strung cables and mics from my house through an open window and overdubbed myself on the piano. In my studio, Rob Douglas pressed the buttons, but was mostly chatting up my housemate.
I had no idea what this song was about when I recorded it. Of course the first thing I had to learn was that phial is another form of the word vial. The tune attracted me, but I never had much of a drug life even though many friends have been taken down into it. The romance and intrigue of sex and substance abuse work well in song, as in the lore of rock music life. Gene Clark battled his own demons to the end, sadly dying in 1991 at 46 years old.