Gene Clark’s Irish Catholic roots uncovered

Johnny Rogan recalls the early life of The Byrds’ Gene Clark

The Byrds (from left): Chris Hillman; Dave Crosby; Mike Clark; Jim McGuinn; and Gene Clark. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

The Byrds (from left): Chris Hillman; Dave Crosby; Mike Clark; Jim McGuinn; and Gene Clark. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images


In Volume 1 of Byrds: Requiem For The Timeless. I wrote about the history of the group from formation to dissolution, along with later attempts at reunification, including such ventures as McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. Essentially, this was a group biography. This meant that I could develop the characters of the individual members only so far without seriously derailing the narrative. The arc of the story in Volume 1 could not embrace the Byrds’ solo work or countless extracurricular projects.

Writing Volume 2 allowed me the luxury of focusing on the deceased members of the Byrds, while studiously avoiding the stories already detailed in the previous work. This meant completing a second volume which served as six books in one. The 1,264 pages might seem daunting but as each of the six biographies are the equivalent of a book in themselves, the result is a pacier read than might be assumed.

The book’s subtitle emphasises both life and death. Four of the Byrds were ravaged by alcohol abuse, Clarence White was the victim of a drunk driver and Skip Battin suffered an early onslaught of dementia. Gram Parsons’ fate, complete with tales of a fatal heroin overdose and a kidnapped corpse which was burnt in the desert, became part of rock legend. What interested me far more than these eventful ‘rock star’ excesses were the lives of the various characters before they found fame with the Byrds. All of them were fascinating characters with great stories. Indeed, the pre-Byrd tales reveal much about these complex personalities.

As an introduction to Volume 2, I thought I’d provide a snapshot of Gene Clark’s early life and upbringing. In the summer of 1964, he was plucked from a Kansas club by the New Christy Minstrels. One year later, he founded the Byrds in California. This is all epochal stuff, but I was equally fascinated by his formative experiences growing up in a large Catholic family in Missouri. This exclusive extract reveals, for the first time, some of the Irish influences that informed his childhood and adolescence.

When relaxed, Clark was a fine raconteur, but not always a reliable narrator. Sometimes he would dispense with strict fact when telling a good story and not everyone was aware when he was simply joking. There was an elliptical quality to some of his musings and he was guarded or vague about aspects of his personal life and family history. When filling out his lifelines for the media, Clark listed his birthdate as 1941 and next to the column for ‘brothers and sisters’ wrote ‘none’. He never explained why. Even his associates in the Byrds knew relatively little about his background, though the same could be said of each of them. In the mid-Sixties every member of the group lived in the moment. Michael Clarke’s history was similarly vague at the time, simply because nobody was that interested in delving into the past. When journalists questioned Bob Dylan about his early life in Hibbing, he fabricated an adventurer’s autobiography. Fantasy was always a convenient refuge for an imaginative troubadour.

Jim Dickson, who shared his house with Clark for a time and worked with him over the decades, was acutely aware of his contradictions. His early life emerged in episodic asides which were not always consistent. “My first impression was that he was a farm boy who worked as a lumberjack and he was certainly strong enough for that to be believable. I didn’t know how much of that was true. It turned out that his father wasn’t a farmer but a designer of golf courses. I only found that out in Gene’s last year. He also said his father was part-Indian. The Indians, like the Celts, have that B-deficiency. It’s genetic. Many have that problem with alcohol.”

His flippant claim in 1965 that he was an only child disguised a complicated family history. He was actually one of 13 surviving children

Clark’s asides contained a lot of truth, but often you had to read between the lines. His flippant claim in 1965 that he was an only child disguised a complicated family history. He was actually one of 13 surviving children. His mother Mary Jeanne Faherty, a descendant of Irish and German immigrants, was born on 21 June 1920, and raised in Tipton, Missouri. While working as a domestic at Milburn Golf and Country Club in Overland Park, she met and married Kelly George Clark, born 11 November 1918. Jeanne was still 23 days shy of her 21st birthday, but wasted no time in starting a large family. First-born Bonita [Bonnie] was followed by a stillborn child, Kelly Katherine, after which the father was drafted into the US Army. Jeanne conceived again during one of his spells on leave while she was staying at her grandmother Rosemary’s house in Tipton. They christened their first boy Harold Eugene Clark in honour of his uncle of the same name who had been killed in action in August 1944. “He never even made it to the ground,” says Gene’s sister Bonnie of the fighter pilot.

Kelly George Clark’s brief military stay provides some telling parallels with the self-defeating, topsy-turvy career path of his eldest son. The father was a robust, dynamic figure who rose to the rank of sergeant, only to be demoted to private. His downfall was precipitated by an inebriated incident and an indignant assault upon a superior officer. “That’s not just a tale,” Bonnie contends. “I have pictures of him with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve. I was told he and some guys got into a wine cellar in France. A commissioned officer then got into his face about it. My dad was a little bulldog. He snapped back and was busted.” Alcohol never suited Clark Snr and while under the influence his personality could change from friendly to hostile. In later life, Gene shared that same Jekyll and Hyde curse.

By 1949, Gene’s family had moved to Swope Park, where his father worked at the municipal golf course. The large urban park area included a small house in which the Clarks lived, initially without running water. The Swope Park period lasted 11 years, covering Gene’s childhood and early adolescence. It was a time of austerity and the simple virtues of hard work. Kelly’s employment as a golf course groundskeeper was not enough to provide home comforts and the family had to be self-sufficient. They raised chickens, milked cows, churned butter, picked berries, canned vegetables, and learned many practical skills, including carpentry. Once the chores were completed the children were free to roam through the expansive woods and orchard surrounding the property. They swam, climbed cliffs, explored caves, played with canoes in Blue River, flew kites, built makeshift forts and scaled the back fence into Swope Park Zoo to see the animals.

Not all the family’s pastimes were innocent. In later years, friends marvelled and shuddered when Clark indulged in knife-throwing competitions with his musician friend, Jesse Ed Davis. They appeared to be acting like Indian braves, straight out of some Fifties western. But those games could also be traced back to Gene’s childhood when the more adventurous members of his family would collect empty boxes of washing powder which were placed on trees and used for target practice. The Tide brand’s bright white logo provided the perfect bull’s-eye at which to aim.

Occasionally, the children’s uproarious play would be interrupted by the sound of the Kansas City Southern, the train line that Clark would later immortalise in song. Memories of Swope Park also featured in his ecological ballad, ‘Something’s Wrong’, which portrayed a pastoral idyll of joyous fields, later blighted by ‘neon brambles’, a bitter allusion to the demolition of his home for the modern wonder of the Interstate 435. David Clark maintains that his brother’s storybook childhood had a profound effect on his songwriting and world view. More than anything, it inspired his imagination. In everyday play, he found a kind of deliverance.

Time passed slowly in Swope Park. When he wasn’t playing with his younger brothers, Gene would sometimes wander through the woods alone, away from the household bustle. There was a warm security amid the serenity, an enveloping feeling of calm in which silence itself took on a strange and powerful significance. The rural tranquillity allowed Clark to lose himself in the labyrinthine corridors of his imagination where, for brief moments, everything felt in harmony. These heightened experiences were like evanescent moments of transcendence, which he later attempted to recapture, most thrillingly in the nature imagery employed on songs such as ‘For A Spanish Guitar’ and ‘Lady Of The North’.

Clark’s schooling was traditionally Catholic. After arriving in Swope Park, he was enrolled at the recently opened Our Lady Of Lourdes. Gene’s mother was a lifelong devout Catholic and later a member of the Altar Society. While all the family attended Mass every Sunday, as required by the Catholic Church, she also took the time to attend on several weekdays, generating grace with the same dynamism with which she produced children. All the Clark clan aged over seven took Holy Communion on most Sundays, having fasted since before midnight on the Saturday evening. On the altar they could see the Tabernacle, a majestic gold box that resembled an ornate safe, attached to which was a golden key. Therein lay the Sacred Host, the literal body of Christ made whole by the miracle of transubstantiation and consumed by the supplicants in the act of communion. Nightly decades of the rosary were also recited at home, the more so when one of the family, Ada Rebecca, was afflicted with a non-malignant tumour in her skull which affected her mental development. She was later subject to sporadic fits and convulsions. The prayers of intercession did not produce a miracle cure, but she survived.

My Catholic upbringing was important in many ways. It must have influenced my songwriting too. There are questions and mysteries in there

Gene’s own Catholic upbringing had a significant and beneficial effect on his life and work. While preparing for Holy Communion and Confirmation, he was grounded in the Catechism and presented with complex theological concepts such as the nature of the Holy Trinity and the mysteries of faith. Catholic teaching did not shy away from the big questions, but embraced them. ‘What is God?’ ‘What is man?’ ‘What are angels?’ ‘What is faith?’ ‘What is hope?’ ‘What is despair?’ ‘What is eternity?’ These heady concepts were punctuated by many teasing theological conundrums: ‘Has God a beginning?’ ‘Why did God create Hell?’ ‘Can anyone get out of Hell?’ ‘What is sanctifying grace?’ “My Catholic upbringing was important in many ways,” Clark told me. “It must have influenced my songwriting too. There are questions and mysteries in there. You know those words and phrases.” Indeed, Clark’s best work is full of abstruse allusions, typical of a Catholic imagination. His songs include references to eternity, angels and souls, while many of his love ballads dramatize a moral complexity, with protestations of guilt, remorse and the need for forgiveness. Even an innocuously titled song such as ‘So You Say You Lost Your Baby’ contains some fantastical imagery and casually conceived cosmological concepts, not least the Catholic allusion to ‘Tabernacle hillsides’. Many other songs, from ‘Echoes’ through to ‘White Light’, ‘Strength Of Strings’, ‘Feeling Higher’ and ‘Communications’ address arcane or esoteric subject matter. The tone and diction are sometimes deceptively simple, with jaw-dropping abstractions nestling alongside everyday speech, as if unnoticed by the composer. Extracting explanation, let alone meaning, from Clark was always an impossible undertaking, as might have been expected. But the symbolism and complex imagery resonate with each fresh listening and much of it can clearly be traced back to his childhood education when the Catechism addressed profound questions of theology with the simple conviction and authority of an instruction manual.

The Catholic Church also provided an outlet for his singing. He joined the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph Choir and his rich, deep voice won plaudits from the local Irish bishop

The Catholic Church also provided an outlet for his singing. He joined the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph Choir and his rich, deep voice won some unexpected plaudits from the local Irish bishop. His mother must have been thrilled by the commendation as church and children brought the greatest purpose to her life. “His mother was very Christian,” recalls Jack Godden, a former classmate at Our Lady Of Lourdes. “She was so devoted it was unreal. And so was Gene. I went to Mass with him a bunch of times. Gene was a devout Christian then, and his family made sure of that. Maybe later he might have skipped a Mass. I’d done the same, but you didn’t let your parents know! The whole family loved Gene more than the world . . . and they treated me like one of their own. But, I tell you, they struggled. They had to have shifts in eating almost, as the mother had to feed up to 13 kids.”

Outwardly, Gene Clark was strong, healthy and confident, the quintessential All American Boy, straight out of the pages of a Mark Twain adventure. He was a fearless fighter with a hunter’s lack of squeamishness. When the family prepared meals, he was the beheader of chickens, unbothered by blood and guts. But, inwardly, he was sensitive and highly strung, characteristics that would later leave him prone to inner demons and various neuroses.

On 25 May 1957, the Ruskin Heights Tornado struck Missouri, causing untold devastation. The stark statistics read 39 dead and 531 injured, but thousands more were traumatized. A trail of destruction over 71 miles long cut through Williamsburg, Kansas, moving inexorably through Martin City, Missouri, then onwards into Ruskin Heights and Raytown. Along the way, trees were uprooted, power lines felled and cars strewn like toys. It was as if nature itself had turned physics on its head. One car hit the top of a water tower and you could hear the sound of a freight train literally passing in the sky. An entire shopping centre in Ruskin Heights was levelled, along with the local high school and junior high. By the time it was all over the landscape resembled a war zone. The National Guard were brought in and martial law was declared. Families forlornly searched for children who had been grabbed by the tornado, like Dorothy in a darker version of The Wizard Of Oz.

The Clark family were caught up in the drama. Gene’s mother had taken a couple of the children to Our Lady Of Lourdes, while David stayed at home with several of his younger siblings. Bonnie Clark, who was 15 at the time, was attending an outing organized by a local prayer group. “I had acquired a boyfriend who was Protestant, which wasn’t making Mom too happy anyway. They wanted me to go on this picnic so they all showed up to see Mom. She couldn’t look like the bad old witch so she let me go out that day. It was raining so hard that we had to have all the windows rolled up and it was packed with teenagers.” Bonnie then witnessed a frightening sight. “The thunderstorm actually darkened the sky. It was pitch black. You could see a funnel cloud on the ground from where we were in Raytown. I said, ‘Oh my God . . .’ We bailed out of that car and into the first house that had a garage door open. We ran into the basement of some people that we didn’t even know. I remember looking out the back door and watching the power lines pop and all the debris. I tried calling home but the lines were jammed. We had to take everybody else home before me – and, oh, did I get chewed. ‘Why didn’t you let us know where you were?’ I said, ‘Mom, I tried to call, I couldn’t get through.”

Gene, meanwhile, was missing. He had left that morning on a trip with his scout troop and was last seen in the Loma Vista neighbourhood of Kansas City. They had sought sanctuary from the torrential rain in a church, but falling masonry had blocked the front door, trapping them inside. As darkness descended, Gene became more agitated, overwhelmed with claustrophobic thoughts. By the time, the authorities evacuated everybody he was in a desperate state. Medics supplied him with a sedative until his father arrived to take him home. In his absence, his mother had conducted a prayer vigil at their house, handing out rosary beads to his siblings, who were told to implore God for his safe return.

That night, Gene suffered hallucinations as he tried to sleep, re-enacting the events of the day and uttering semi-coherent sentences. His bunk bed was saturated with the perspiration of terror. His mother cooled his forehead with cold water and provided a change of clothes. Eventually, he fell into a deep sleep.

The terrible spectacle haunted Gene’s dreams for some time. “He would wake up screaming after that,” his mother recalls. Night terrors were to remain a constant throughout much of his life. While living with Jim Dickson during the early days of the Byrds, he would awake in a sweat and tell of bizarre nightmares in which he was rolled up in a carpet filled with prickling tacks and broken glass. He also acquired a lasting fear of tightly enclosed spaces. “He became extremely claustrophobic,” his brother David says. “The first time I realized this was after the tornado in 1957. Before then, he’d always hung out in the cellar with the doors closed. After that he would hardly go down there. Then he got stuck in a scout trailer. The door closed, and I was off doing something else. When I found him, he was in total panic.” Years later, Gene suffered a far more severe panic attack when he was trapped in a lift during a troubled return to the Byrds in late 1967.

Another epochal incident occurred when Clark witnessed a plane crash in his home state, which may have been the source of his much documented fear of flying. During his time in the Byrds, he confided in McGuinn that he had been ‘freaked out’ by the spectacle. He seldom mentioned the tragedy or provided any accompanying details beyond saying that he was 14 years old at the time. Later, he alluded to the incident in brief conversations with his mother and his sister Bonnie. She believes it occurred at a downtown airport in Kansas City which onlookers could observe from nearby Cliff Drive, across the river. “Cliff Drive used to be a bad boy hangout, so he wasn’t supposed to be there. He said that it was a plane that crashed and people were on fire, running away from it. I don’t think that’s something he made up.”

Nevertheless, aviation records provide no information about any commercial airline crashing, let alone one involving burning passengers fleeing from the scene. Extrapolation aside, the most likely explanation, judging from press coverage, is an accident that took place in December 1958 involving a private plane. A pilot, Halton Friend, and his wife Jeannette, were flying home to Illinois, having stayed in Grand Junction, Colorado. The plane stopped off at Kansas City Municipal Airport for refuelling but, two miles north of the airport, the engine caught fire. The pilot attempted to carry out an emergency landing, but the plane was engulfed by flames. The couple were instantly killed and the wreckage scorched and damaged a house, having fallen within five feet of a property where two children were sleeping.

Between 1957-58, Clark was enrolled at Raytown High School, along with a sizeable number of adolescents from Our Lady Of Lourdes. By now, his Elvis fixation was deep. His slicked-back raven hair, a natural colour unlike Presley’s black dye, made him stand out. Swanning around Swope Park, he looked like a cross between James Dean and Marlon Brando, complete with the obligatory mood swings. Clark never had to fabricate teenage angst for effect; it was already part of his personality. Briefly, he fell in with some roughnecks, seemingly a step away from being a JD, but that was most likely a pose. Never a slacker, Clark worked hard at home and continued to assist his father with manual work during the school recess. In Raytown, Clark joined his first band after hanging out with a new friend, Joe Meyers. Gene was impressed. “He was an accomplished and quite educated player, the son of a jazz musician. I believe his father played in some famous big bands alongside the greats of that era.” Meyers was the first serious musician Clark had ever encountered and he wasted no time in enlisting his assistance.

It was not long before the duo decided to form a band. Joe’s brother, Mike, played bass and, after an extensive search, they settled on a high school drummer, Eddie Hitchcock. In deference to their most experienced member, they named the band Joe Meyers & The Sharks. According to Godden, who was employed as road manager and soundman, Gene switched to upright bass for a spell, in addition to singing lead. “He had a voice out of heaven, and everybody loved him.” A repertoire was soon compiled consisting of the standard radio hits of the era.

The Sharks owed their start to the power of the Catholic Church. The CYO (Catholic Young Organization) arranged hops and church hall dates so welcomed the teenage musicians. Their chief supporter was Father John Giacopelli, a priest respected by old and young alike. In his pastoral capacity, he encouraged sport and music and helped Clark’s friends with bookings and transport. He was even credited with inspiring divine intervention on one fateful evening. “The whole band almost got killed by Father John,” Godden remembers. “We were all in the car and he was showing off. We got on to 87th Street, which is straight downhill, with hair-bend curves, and it seemed like he was going at 80 miles an hour. He lost control and the car flipped over several times. People were saying, ‘Everybody’s dead in that car’ but nobody was killed or hurt, except for Joe, who got a scratch on the leg. It was amazing. The car looked like a smashed sardine can. Everyone said it was a miracle because a priest was driving. God was on our side.”
Extracted and adapted from Johnny Rogan’s new book, Byrds: Requiem For The Timeless, Volume 2, which Peter Murphy reviews this Saturday, August 26th, in The Irish Times

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