Former British PM Maggie Thatcher supposedly said that any man who found himself sitting on the bus over the age of 26 years old could consider himself a failure. This may or may not be true, but it is classic Maggie to remain aloof to the possibility that some people feel quite affectionately about failures, right up to the spectacle of the puffing, panting, belching, and spewing bus itself. Most of the buses I ever had to take were meandering and unreliable. Although the rage builds up when you’re standing there checking the time, when the bus finally arrives you’re so happy to see it that you immediately fall in love with the sweet chariot, simply ‘cos it’s there to pick you up and take you where you need to go.
I think there are songs too that have that effect. Songs that work well on journeys taken through not particularly spectacular countrysides, or at the end of long hard days involving flight delays and hardship at the hands of low fare European airlines because of rumbling volcanoes that won’t stop passing smokes between northerly isles. Okay, perhaps the latter experience isn’t so universal after all, but instead, if it helps, think of your dad switching a cassette tape in the car when you were in the backseat on a long family trip, and then think of him playing Gypsy Angel: The Gene Clark demos.
Most of the demos were recorded in 1990, the last year of Clark’s life, when he was preparing to make his first album with Carla Olson since their successful 1987 record, So Rebellious a Lover. The remaining four were recorded at various times throughout the 1980s. Though the compilation is threadbare (if it was actually made of fabric it would smell a little like dog), each song has its torch-like moments which can be attributed to Clark’s melodic abilities. He was the main songwriter for The Byrds during his stint with them (from 1964 to 1966) and wrote hits like “Eight Miles High” and “Here Without You.”
The melodies on songs like “Dark of my Moon” and “Pledge to You” are real tear-jerkers, and without these standouts, the album would deteriorate into little more than the ramblings of a broken down old folkie. The songs are too long, often nodding off into extended dozes of steel string’d prevaricating. Even so, the occasionally soporific atmosphere actually adds something to the album. The lyrics genuinely sound as if they are delivered by an old timer who talks in clichés but means what he says. I’m also a fan of the relatively boring guitar background — it is simple and mostly unaccompanied steel strumming that’s far from virtuosic, but has a lovely, sincere tone.
If old man heartbreak is what you’re looking for, then you might consider Gene Clark over Johnny Cash when you’re feeling low but resigned about your mood. Crawling slowly overland in the back of trucks and buses is not everyone’s ideal way to travel these days, but it gets you there in the end. Likewise, if you listen to Gypsy Angel in a patient mood — and there is definitely some kind of kinship between patience and melancholy — you will find yourself transported in a ramshackle but trusty vehicle to a place where every romantic failure contains the seed of a new song.
Clark is happy to paint himself as the fool who keeps forgiving his woman no matter how many times she runs off on him. As a result, he looks less foolish and more sage when he advises the girl he loves to chill out and quit runnin’. This approach is not as patronizing as it sounds, because it’s cut with a fair dose of residual pain; however, it is grandfatherly enough to be soothing on those days when even a late bus is breaking your heart.