He was 19 when a kid named David Crosby offered him a ride home from a weekend at Big Sur.
In the back seat, Michael Clarke slapped a conga drum to Crosby's soulful strumming on a beat-up acoustic. The lanky drummer closed his eyes and smiled, grooving on the harmony.
When Crosby told him to come to L.A., the drifting 19-year-old packed his drum and hitched south along the coast, hoping for a steady gig.
And what a gig it was. Together with Crosby, Roger McGuinn on lead guitar, Chris Hillman on bass and Gene Clark on vocals, Clarke became a member of arguably the most influential American band in rock history _ the Byrds.
"We just loved the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan," he says now. "We wanted to do their songs and accomplish whatever it was we were supposed to. Mostly, we were out to accomplish not having two day jobs."
Thirty years later, Clarke's accomplishment _ according to his definition _ is still on a steady course. While the band's original members disbanded at the advent of the '70s, Clarke continues to tour as the lone original Byrd, reviving the group's classics while mixing in a handful of new compositions. The latest Byrds _ Terry Rogers on vocals, Jerry Sorn on lead guitar and Ed Cain on bass _ join Clarke for a show at 8 tonight in a benefit for Easter Seals.
"It's timeless music," Clarke said this week. "It's Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, the Bible (a reference to the Ecclesiastes verses of Turn! Turn! Turn!). . . . There are people who love it, children who get off on it whose parents got off on it."
From the jangly folk rhythms of Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man (the band's first hit) to the acid-laced imagery of Eight Miles High, the group produced 11 albums in nearly a decade, redefining a British-influenced beat to markedly stateside lyrics and coining it "folk rock."
Before their 1972 breakup over "creative differences" (largely McGuinn's press for artistic solitude and Crosby's persistent drug habit), the Byrds left as their legacy a sound as distinctive as any in pop.
Speaking from the Treasure Island beachfront condo he shares with his British wife Lee, Clarke praised the original group's 1974 reunion disc _ and downplayed the bitterness and infighting between its members since then (a factor that makes another reunion unlikely).
"Because Gene's been dead for over a year and a half," Clarke explains, "there could be no real Byrds reunion again, anyway."
These days, what's making Clarke feel a whole lot better is a burgeoning part-time career as an artist ("In oils.
. It's hanging in slews of galleries and selling for not a few bucks"), his home studio ("Just a little four-track set now .
. nothing kosher, but it suffices"), and the songwriting he shares with Lee.
The music from Clarke's past remains a potent force as well. Twenty-eight years to the month since Mr. Tambourine Man hit No. 1, the work of the original five _ highlighted by McGuinn's effervescent 12-string Rickenbacker, Crosby's composing and harmony skills and Clarke's light, punchy drumming _ continues to be a wellspring for power pop musicians, from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Elvis Costello to R.E.M.
"It's an interesting thing, all the people that were extremely influenced by the Byrds," he says. "It still makes you feel very good."
Clarke isn't just resting on past Byrds success, however, noting that five new songs have been penned for his recent shows.
With original drummer Michael Clarke, in an Easter Seals benefit at 8 p.m. Friday at the Tierra Verde Resort Concert Hall, 200 Madonna Blvd., Tierra Verde. Tickets $13.50 (at the resort) or call Ticketmaster (287-8844).