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Michael Clarke 12/1993

michael clarke byrdsDecember 19, 1993 – Michael Clarke was born Michael James Dick in Spokane Washington on June 3, 1946. His father was an artist and his mother was a musician. Clarke ran away from home when he was 17 years old and hitchiked to California to become a musician. In legend, Clarke was said to have been discovered by Byrds’ founder David Crosby while playing bongos on a beach. Reality is that he was discovered by singer-songwriter Ivan Ulz, in North Beach, San Francisco and was introduced to other group members by Ulz to the musicians who would become The Byrds in 1964.

Clarke was not an accomplished musician prior to joining The Byrds and his only previous musical knowledge was rudimentary piano lessons he received in his youth. He had never played drums and, after joining The Byrds, not having a drum set, practiced on a makeshift kit of cardboard boxes and a tambourine, but he did have real drumsticks. According to Roger McGuinn, Clarke was hired by McGuinn and Gene Clark (no relation) for his resemblance to Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones. Actually he had Brian Jones’ hair and facial features and Mick Jagger lips)

Clark was the least talented of the five members that were on the Byrds’ 1965-1967 5 album recordings, as unlike the others, he did almost no songwriting. His drumming was basic and, for the most part, appropriate for the Byrds’ needs, although he was sometimes replaced by sessionmen. Still, he fit in well with the band visually, and proved that his drum skills were not marginal via subsequent hitches in the Flying Burrito Brothers and Firefall, along with session work for several of the ex-Byrds’ solo projects.

Like all of the Byrds,  he had little experience playing electric rock & roll music when the band, at that time called the Jet Set, formed in 1964. At least the other four members had a good deal of professional experience as acoustic folk musicians; Clarke didn’t even have that.

Clarke’s strength as a drummer however should be illustrated by his jazz-oriented playing on The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”, on the Fifth Dimension album. It has sometimes been written that session musicians played much of the music on the Byrds’ early recordings, but with the exception of the “Mr. Tambourine Man” single (on which McGuinn was the only one to play an instrument), research has indicated that the group did in fact play their own instruments in the studio. Suspicion has been directed at Michael Clarke as the least talented of the Byrds’ musicians, but even numerous bootleg tapes have his voice coming in loud and clear with comments and responses as the Byrds work out arrangements. The best of his drum work is certainly contained on “Eight Miles High,” where he pushes the band with a relentless, jazz-like verve, especially during the guitar solo.

In August 1967, during the recording sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers album, Clarke walked out of The Byrds and was temporarily replaced by session drummers Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine. Clarke had become dissatisfied with his role in the band and didn’t particularly like the new material that the songwriting members of the band were providing. However, Clarke continued to honor his live concert commitments with the band, appearing with them at a handful of shows during late August and early September 1967. Clarke returned from his self-imposed exile in time to contribute drums to the song “Artificial Energy” in early December 1967, but was subsequently fired from the band by McGuinn and bass player Chris Hillman once The Notorious Byrd Brothers album was completed.

After a year hiatus with a trip to Hawaii, he was back in the studio for a stint with Dillard and Clarke, followed by several years with the Flying Burrito Brothers after their first album, a reunion album with the Byrds, a numbers of years with softrockers in Firefall. In the early 80s he joined Jerry Jeff Walker. After that time he joined ex-Byrds singer Gene Clark for a series of controversial shows billed “A 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Byrds.” Many clubs simply shortened the billing to “the Byrds,” and the pair soon found themselves involved in acrimonious court battles with Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman over usage of the group’s name. The Byrds set aside their differences long enough to appear together at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in January of 1991, where the original lineup played a few songs together.

Michael continued to tour with a group called “Byrds Celebration”, but his health declined as his drinking accelerated.

He died from liver failure due to more than three decades of heavy alcohol consumption on Dec 19, 1993 at the age of 47.

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