Tambourine Man: Gene Clark – Part 9

Roger White showed up in Champaign on his motorcycle, a good thing. Gene played all the new songs in a semi-fugue state. Like he was all alone up there, singing, testifying before God.

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photograph by Ted Barron

Gene said, I wrote some new songs just recently. Lessee if they have the strength of strings.

Well Goddamn, so that’s what the song means, said Duke Bardwell later and tapped my shoulder. Did you get that for the book? I had my own spiral notebook a little one that fit in the pocket of my coat with a pen for easy access.
Roger White pulled in the parking lot on his fancy motorcycle with his guitar strung across his back like some unsung hero, like some Easy Rider Captain America. And he was in his own mind. White was the hired gun. He could finger pick on acoustic guitar. He could also play the bottleneck style. This was featured on White Light, with Jesse Ed Davis, and No Other with Russ Kunkel and Skunk Baxter. Neither of these guys were up for a bare bones tour, but Roger White who did not have the session chops of the others, was available.

The bottleneck thing begs elaboration. It’s a special skill among guitar players as it requires a special amount of skill. The bottleneck is something that comes right at the heart of rock n roll, for those who believe the music is the real and true integration of white and black styles. You don’t meet a lot of white blues singers and fewer black folk players. The bottleneck was used by both as a semi-pro way to augment either sound. Where Muddy Waters meets Woody Guthrie and bore the love child Elvis Presley,
You can actually play it with the long neck of a whiskey bottle. This is hard because if you hold the bottle your hand is pretty far from the strings. You really have to watch what you’re doing, or be able to feel the neck of the guitar as an extension of your own body. You can also sit the guitar in your lap like a baby and play it like a country or lap steel guitar. Another way to do it, is to slip a small prescription pill bottle over one’s finger and slide on the strings that way. Also there are professional sliders made of metal. Glass is the best, though with a little wax on the strings to make them slippery. In fact Clarence White’s famous string bender was a variance of this.

What you get is a more versatile guitar sound, a whine that you can draw out and slide from key to key. This comes from using the bottleneck like a bow on a violin; it’s a totally different sound then pucking with a pick or even fingerpicking. A bigger sound, like the sound of leaves in the wind.
If tuned right with the harmonica, it’s a poor man’s orchestra.
Especially when a voice like Gene’s is added. David Crosby has gone on record about a lot of things. He’s the kind of fellow where everything he says is a bit of a proclamation. One thing he said is that Gene Clark had the most purest pitch of any singer he’d ever heard. This is interesting because by modesty Gene preferred to sing with others and to collaborate when he could on songwriting. He was famous for giving song credit to anyone who helped him the least bit. See Doug Dilliard and Bernie Leadon.

Tambourine Man: Gene Clark is co-published with the East of Bowery blog.