Home        Lyrics        Musicians        Albums        History        Interviews     Links


The Byrds speak on

Michael Clarke



David Crosby - ByrdWatcher 1998

Yeah, he went down to a grubby death. He drank himself to death, too. And, I think he probably died of liver failure. You know, probably without any insurance to get the transplant that I did get. Because, of course, if you don't have insurance, you die. Interesting little dividing line there. If you have it, you live, if you don't, you die. Again, sad, you know. I mean.... Booze, man. I'm 12 years clean and sober now, and I'm thankful about it every day, because there but for the grace of God go I. I could have been either one of them. Almost was. Repeatedly. I was worse than both of them, because they didn't have the money to get as completely twisted on drugs as I was. You know, Michael frustrated me a lot going out and you know pretending that he had a band and called the Byrds and stuff, that was really... low. But he was just desperate, you know, and it's just sad.

Roger McGuinn - Vincent Flanders 1970

Well, after the big Beatlemania thing sort of faded and the girls stopped rushing the stage trying to get our clothes off and everything, or just touch us or whatever they were after -- I don't remember exactly what it was, something -- that was the gig to Michael. He's turned into a drummer, but at the time he wasn't. Like when we got him off the street he never played traps before in his life. He played conga drums and he was pretty good at it.

He's intelligent and has talent in other areas -- he can draw and so on. He's very good at that. But he had to learn how to play the drums and he learned cold with the Byrds. I thought he faked it pretty well I thought.

We were not very systematic about the formation of the group. It happened very naturally. Gene (Clark) and I just sort of blended together one night (McGuinn was singing Beatle songs at the Troubadour, an LA club) and decided to form a duet. And the very same night, within ten minutes after we had gotten our thing together with some songs that we both collaborated on -- like (we'd) written a couple of songs in two minutes, right? -- David Crosby comes along and says, 'Can I sing harmony?' and we said 'Sure' cause I'd known David from 1960 when I was out on the coast working with the Limelighters. And so there was David singing and we had a trio.

David took us over to Jim Dickson who had a gig at World Pacific Jazz. Dickson started us off when we were all broke, busted out on the street before the days of 'Any spare change?' If you said 'Any spare change?' to somebody back then, you'd get your mouth busted in. We just scuffled. Dickson supported us. One hamburger a day was our diet -- we got emaciated but we worked hard and everything.

We saw Michael (Clarke) on the street man, and he just looked right. David had met him up in Big Sur playing conga drums and he said, 'Hey man, you wanna be a drummer?' and Michael said, 'Sure.' so we all got together and did it.

David was originally going to be the bass player and Gene was going to be the rhythm guitarist. Well, David didn't want to learn to play the bass and Gene's timing wasn't that hot at the time -- he's got it together now, but his timing on the rhythm wasn't together -- he was a little slow on the beat. So as I said, David swiped the guitar away from Gene and we had to get a bass player so we got Chris (Hillman).

That (hiring Chris) was Dickson's idea. Dickson found Chris working at a place called Ledbetter's which is owned by Randy Sparks who started the New Christy Minstrels. Chris was playing mandolin at the time with a group called the Greengrass Group, I think. It was a horrible, watered-down, Disneyland kind of version of bluegrass. Chris was just in it for a steady $100 a week and all the beer you could drink at the club or whatever. So that was it.

He (Michael) was unhappy with it (the Byrds). It wasn't happening for him. He didn't dig the way things were going and it was a low point in our career. I say 'our' collectively -- the Byrds as an institution rather than a group of people. When Michael left it was really sort of down. The record we came out with during that point was nice (The Notorious Byrd Brothers), but it hadn't been released. That was the last record Michael was on.

Roger McGuinn - Guitar News Weekly 2000

We lost the legal rights to the band name about five years ago, when we sued Michael Clarke's band, and the judge favored him because he was using it and we weren't. Then he (Michael Clarke) died and left it to somebody. I don't know who has got it now, but they have the legal name . . . which is, you know, stupid, but that's the way it is. . .

Roger McGuinn - Reveries 2001

He looked like Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He wasn't a drummer at all. He didn't play drums, as far as I know. Some people backpedal there and say, "Oh, no, he used to play drums in high school." But I don't think so. He did learn, though.

David Crosby - Musicangle 2004

Well the drummer couldn't play...never could. He looked right but he never was a very good drummer, he was a nice guy. That's one of the reasons I learned to play that chop and smack kind of rhythm because I had to learn how to play drums on the guitar. Somebody had to do and so it was me and Chris.

Chris Hillman - Full Circle Magazine 1994

He was a friend of mine
Michael was the eternal kid, the bad boy, the charming loveable man-child. In another era he would have been cast as one of the bowery boys.
He was my pal during the glory years of the Byrds 1964/1966. He was the guy who loved collecting and listening to old blues records with me.
He was the only other Byrd who truly appreciated the 'real music', be it Howlin' wolf or George Jones. I had some fantastic adventures with Mike in the Byrds and later in the Burritos.
He had so much raw talent and so little discipline that it sometimes made me very angry to see him wasting so much of his life.
In 1988/1989 I tried to encourage and focus him on his art (he had talent and he could have become a fine artist). He painted two landscapes for us which we display proudly in our home today.
I was also aware of his ongoing problem. But there was nothing I could do. (I'd already been through this movie with Gram).
I do remember David Crosby at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame dinner, offering to help Michael as we all struggled to interact around the table that night.
I'd heard from someone that Michael was seriously ill. I called his house early that Sunday morning (December 19). His ex-wife Robin answered. I said -Hello, is Michael home?. Who's this? she said. It's Chris, I replied. Oh, honey, he just passed away in his mothers arms. I haven't cried like that in a long, long time. I miss him.
Chris Hillman

John York - Full Circle Magazine 1994

Michael Clarke loved to play the drums. He created his own style. The floor around him would be covered in splinters from his drumsticks. He needed new ones every gig. He bled on his snare drum. His hands were often bruised and blistered from the way he played those drums. He always needed band-aids. He played with the reckless abandon of a young boy on a playground. He was always adjusting and makeshift repairing because he really hit those drums!
To Michael a band was not unlike a pirate ship. He wanted the chance to be Captain. When he said -Johnny, it's every man for himself-, I think he meant it. He could be exasperating-and very charming. We always called him the Robert Redford of Rock and Roll.
I have many memories of my adventures with Michael Clarke, but in my mind I always go back to the start of a tour in Tulsa, when Michael showed me slides of his exquisitely sensitive watercolour landscape paintings.
When all is said and done, I am grateful to have known Michael Clarke. I will always cherish the memory and the thrill of playing music with him.

Chris Hillman - John Einarson, Hot Burritos, 2008

One night Hank Thompson, the big country star sat in with us (the Flying Burrito Brothers). He's a wonderful singer. So he did one of his big country hits and Michael was on drums. By that time of night Michael was feeling no pain. He wasn't playing the shuffle the song required so Hank turned to Michael and shouted, 'Drummer! Shuffle!'. Mike yelled 'Fuck you!' back at him. I just shrugged and thought to myself, 'Aw, perfect. There's that Burrito attitude',

Michael Clarke - a letter, 2002

Dear Young Friends,

You don't know me, but I am in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. I was the drummer for "The Byrds." We were almost as popular as "The Beatles." Back in the '60s everyone knew who we were. Your parents will remember, I was a famous rock 'n roll superstar. My band performed for millions all over the world. Our songs, "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Eight Miles High" and "Turn, Turn, Turn" are still played constantly on the radio. Our concerts were often sold out. I made a lot of money and had everything going for me including a problem I want to share with you. I was a drunk. Alcohol killed me on December 19,1993 when I was only 47 years old. It's embarrassing to have to share with you my stupidity that resulted in my death. But you need to know that what happened to me can happen to you. Honest to God, it can. Dying of alcoholism is not an easy death. You have a right to know the truth. Really, you need to know the whole truth. 

Don't stop reading my letter yet. What I am about to tell you is real serious. It is no lie. It is time for you to be told the facts of drinking too much beer, wine or distilled spirits. You need to know the facts about the horrible death I suffered and the excruciating pain and embarrassment I went through at the end. I did not die of too many drugs like coke or pot. I died of too much alcohol, which is really the most lethal drug of all. Trust me, this is no jokel When I died I weighed only about 75 pounds. I had been a great looking teen and handsome man who was 6'2" and my normal weight was 175 pounds. I was a real lady's man and women loved me when I was healthy, but right before I died I was a horrible mess. My face was unrecognizable to my family and friends. You would have shuddered from the sight of me, I looked like a walking skeleton. I was so weak, I couldn't even smile. 

I started drinking alcohol when I was 14 years old and until two weeks before I died, I could hardly remember ever being sober again. Sometimes when I was drunk I was mean. I am sure some of my friends could no longer stand me. I am lucky I did not kill anyone driving drunk and wind up in prison. For years, I would drink a 2 liter bottle of vodka almost every day and while I was performing I would drink beer on stage in between songs. When I was young I did not care about what would happen when I got older and just kept drinking, but believe me, when you grow up you want to live a full life. I know I did, but I robbed myself of about 30 years that I could have had fun with my fame and money and I cheated my son out of having his father. Please believe me when I say, "I wish I had never taken the first drink. I wish I was alive today." I got hooked, that's right hooked on alcohol. It is addictive just like crack cocaine and many people like myself find it impossible to stop. We are called "alcoholics." And for people who start and get hooked and cannot stop, it is a fatal disease and can lead to other serious problems like teenage pregnancy, child abuse, crime and premature accidental death. For a young person alcohol is an illegal drug. Alcohol is more harmful than all the other illegal drugs combined. I know you can get it easily; I did. But don't be stupid like me. Too many beers or other alcoholic beverages can ruin your life. If you get hooked you may not finish school and get a good job, you may lose your health and friends and family. I did other drugs too, but none like alcohol. Alcohol is so addictive that I warn you if you get hooked you may not be able to stop by yourself or even if you get help. It is that powerful.                                      

Right before I died, my liver disintegrated inside my body. You could see pieces of it breaking off in my guts with a special type of x-ray picture taken called a sonogram. When I died my liver was the size of a dime. My pancreas and kidneys were also affected by my drinking. Because I destroyed my liver with alcohol, my wastes had no way to leave my body and as a result my testicles swelled up to the size of a basketball. You can't even imagine how painful they were. It was like someone took a sledge hammer and hit them about 1000 times and wouldn't stop. My chest, stomach and legs swelled up so huge I was the size of a summa wrestler. I could hardly move. My eyes turned yellow and my skin was discolored from the toxic wastes in my body.

I had to go to the hospital so the doctors could drain the poisonous fluid from my abdomen to keep me from exploding. They inserted a catheter into my bladder through my urethra to draw off the urine into a plastic bag attached to my leg with an elastic strap. I screamed with the pain. I lost all my dignity and there was nothing more they could do to save me, so they sent me home to face death. All of my vital organs stopped functioning and my body started to shrivel from the inside. The pain was so unbearable that even the morphine they gave me didn't help. I couldn't eat and I felt nauseated all the time. They gave me suppositories for the nausea but they did no good at all. I knew I was soon going to die. Believe me when the end comes, it is not like you think. I didn't want to go. Two weeks later I died.

Before I died I made my soulmate, Susan Paul, promise me to get this message to you. Please, please I say to you with tears in my eyes, say no to alcohol the worst drug of all and if you already have a problem with it, plead with your parents, your doctor or friends to get you help. If you are drinking at your age you are abusing alcohol. Let me warn you that you face a crisis in your life. You might live to be 47 like me and then die a nightmarish death like I did, or you could be killed or disfigured today in an alcohol related crash. And if you drink too much alcohol in one sitting, alcohol poisoning will shut down your breathing and you will die. Alcohol is a bad drug and a bad trip. Please think about what I have told you. Look what it did to me. It could happen to you too. So if you drink, stop! If you can't stop do everything in your power to get help. If you haven't started drinking yet, don't even take the first drink. My first drink eventually killed me. I don't want to see what happened to me happen to any of you. Trust me, you don't want to suffer like I did, really, it's no joke. 

God Bless you all, With all my love,
Michael Clarke
Drummer for The Byrds



around 1990


last photo when he was 47