Mark Heard

Remembering 'America's Best Songwriter'

Music Features Mark Heard
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On Friday, August 16, 2002, some 35,000 fans from across the world gathered in Memphis, Tenn., to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Aaron Presley. The following night, Pierce Pettis reminded a much smaller crowd at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Ga. (some 390 miles southeast) that Friday was also the 10th anniversary of singer-songwriter Mark Heard’s death. “Mark would have loved that he died on the same day as Elvis,” he added with a chuckle.

Outside of Pettis’ covers, most of the crowd knew of neither the prolific and stellar work of Heard nor his perverse sense of humor. The obscurity of Mark’s legacy persists despite the best efforts of Pettis, who has vowed to include a Mark Heard cover on every one of his albums, and a handful of other supporters. World Café contributed to the cause with an hour devoted to Heard on the fifth anniversary of his passing. Critic Chris Willman selected a Mark Heard song for Entertainment Weekly’s post-9/11 “Songs of Solace.” Also included was Emmylou Harris’ cover of Julie Miller’s “All My Tears,” written as a tribute to Heard. Acclaimed songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who penned his own tribute in “Closer to the Light,” has gone on record as calling Heard America’s best songwriter.

In 1996, the two-disc Orphans of God sought to further recognition (and to raise money for Heard’s widow, Janet) with covers from Pettis, Cockburn, Buddy & Julie Miller, Michael Been (of The Call), Vigilantes of Love, Victoria Williams (with Mark Olson, Tammy Rogers, and the Millers), Tom Prasada-Rao, Olivia Newton John, The Williams Brothers, Chagall Guevara, John Austin, Tonio K., Colin Linden, Marvin Etzioni, Brooks Williams, Kate Taylor and many others. (Strong Hand of Love, the 1994 single-disc precursor to this expanded compilation, was nominated for a Grammy.)

‘The mouths of the best poets’
Mark Heard left behind 16 albums and more than 90 unreleased songs. His earliest work suffered from unevenness in the lyrics and derivative (and consequently dated) music. However, he did display signs of lyrical acumen, and over the course of 20 years, Heard’s songcraft steadily improved. The release of a trilogy of records in the early ‘90s on Fingerprint Records, a tiny label created specifically for Heard, heralded the arrival of an artist at his peak—a challenger for the title of poet laureate of American music—joining the pantheon that includes Dylan, Cohen, Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt. Arguably, no artist has crafted three consecutive albums with both the lyrical radiance and the musical vibrancy to rival Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand, and Satellite Sky.

Sadly, the Fingerprint trilogy was to be Heard’s last original work. While performing onstage with Pettis at the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois, Mark suffered a heart attack. Undaunted, he finished his set. Elated at having seen my new musical hero, I went back to my campsite unaware of the unfolding drama. The crowd on hand to talk with him afterwards suspected Heard was being moody in refusing to come out—until the ambulance arrived. Heard recovered enough over the next two weeks to leave the Springfield hospital in order to fly back to his hometown of Montrose, Calif., for further procedures. He was in his hotel room with his wife, waiting for a flight the next day, when he suffered a second heart attack and entered into a coma. Six weeks after that ill-fated performance, Mark Heard breathed his last. His words from Second Hand (“I Just Wanna Get Warm”) gained new meaning:

The mouths of the best poets / Speak but a few words
And then lay down / Stone cold in forgotten fields
Life goes on in this ant farm town / Cold to the lifeblood underfoot.

‘Just a heart on a tether with a vagabond mind’
In his later work, Heard became a master of language, of imagery and meaning. He could fashion effortless stanzas of beauty and precision: “You see me like a prism sees a candle,” “Penniless at the wishing-well,” “Paper fills the cracks of the Wailing Wall,” “You smear the blame on me like cheap cosmetics.” He could also assault with fervor and density: “Grey dawn filters through steel stalagmites,” “Like the wind-burst of birdwings taking flight in a hard rain / Or like a mad dog on the far side of Dante's Door,” “Ribbon of road hazy ahead in taillight red / Radio on weaving a memory with musical thread.”

However, Heard’s magic was much more than facility with words. It encompassed an unrelenting introspection, an uncompromising social criticism, and an unmasked vulnerability that did more than speak from deep wells of universal experience—it encapsulated that experience and gave it a fresh, vital and prescient voice. His work recalls the experience of a previous generation in its first encounter with the early lyrics of Dylan—that of someone who captured how everyone was feeling but couldn’t articulate.

Further, the consistent intensity of these qualities distinguishes Heard’s work. Cockburn asserts, “That vulnerability really set him apart from listening to a whole bunch of Bob Dylan records, for instance, where you get flashes of brilliance but you don’t get the sense that you’re being invited into a person’s intimate thoughts and feelings.”

On World Café, David Dye described Heard as “an unassuming man whose unflinching songs illuminated the beauty in our day to day lives.” His power to unearth from the mundane that beauty along with bittersweet longing and sorrow elevates his music to landmark status. Pettis attributes such timelessness to his emulation of the Platonic model of art: beauty, truth and goodness. As his friend and manager, Dan Russell, told me, “There’s something very special when you discover an artist like Mark that touches you deeply because pop culture seldom gives you that opportunity.”

‘The friction born of living’
Pettis once asked Heard what made him write. He dryly responded, “The phone bill, the gas bill ….” The struggle to make a living, to be true to his art and to avoid the numbness that can result from being caught “in the way as the big wheels roll” occupied much of Mark’s music. As he writes in the liner notes to Second Hand, “Most usual are the days you wish you could feel anything. You wish that you could care more than you seem to be able to, or could focus on something beyond the mundane little dance steps involved in the busywork of subsistence.”

His journal adds, “I wish sometimes that I just didn't have to think about any of this, and could drone away my life. It would be easier. I have worked in a factory, and one becomes a bit hypnotized after some time to the point where all one can think about is going home, watching TV, having a beer and going to bed—so the cycle may be repeated …. But when you are able to catch a glimpse of your true self, of the beauty you have felt and the despair you have been burdened with, that is something that transcends the antiseptic responsibility of making the daily ends meet.”

This struggle surfaced eloquently in his songs:

I could swear that we're swimming in the workweek
Deep divers to treasureless wrecks
… Let's go to the movies or something
Before time gets the best of us both
And we resemble those bitter old souls
We swore we'd never become
-“Talking in Circles” (Second Hand)

There are things I should remember
But I have forgotten how
I'm all tied up with no time
Trying do too much
And the thoughts that I've avoided
Are the ones I need right now
Like a warm wind and love's hand
And I just want to be touched
-“I Just Wanna Get Warm” (Second Hand)

Sun comes up
Like a yellow bus
Tracking over oceans of dust
One day's miracle is another day's rut
But day keeps breaking like it always does
-“A Broken Man” (Satellite Sky)

Oh to find love’s hiding place
We are beggars and bootleggers
Fading embers caught out in the rain
Wondering what’s it take to burst into flames
And meanwhile hammers fall on anvils of grief
Molten souls in madmen’s cauldrons
-“Fire” (Dry Bones Dance)

Part of this friction stemmed from his failure to find commercial success or even a record label (outside of Fingerprint) that would allow him to create unmolested. To open a vein and simultaneously elevate your craft to something truly exceptional, only to have your work go unappreciated by all but a small cadre, can’t help but to take a toll. "I could tell he was really frustrated at how kept down he had been by the business, every aspect of the business,” Tonio K. recounts. “And I didn't know what to tell him. 'Cause it's a bitch, the business.”

‘Damn the cool-headed and the setters of goals’
Mark responded to the aesthetic-assaulting commercialization in the industry and the consumerism of society in general with great integrity and more than a little bit of righteous anger. “He was one guy who could not be bought,” Pettis declares. This rejection of industry and the vaunted “American dream” approached vitriol in the words of one of his characters:

“He says ‘Damn the cool-headed and the setters of goals
who can feel no evil, no heat, no cold
And who wouldn't know passion if it swallowed them whole
To whom true love is a left-brain risk
For whom the giving of life is a needless myth
Who cover their graves with monoliths
Cool heads prevail, and we'll become extinct
Mutants too unfit to wish’”
-“Big Wheels Roll” (Satellite Sky)

Such sentiments were not always well-received. “Great art, on some level, offends us,” Been says. “It holds a mirror up to what we really are …. He didn’t mince words and that was very frightening, very threatening for most people.”

‘A profane saint’
Much of Heard’s frustration and anger stemmed from his reluctant involvement in the ghetto (his term) of the marketing monstrosity known as “Contemporary Christian Music.” While a passionate believer who wrote about his faith, Mark jealously guarded the integrity of his art (and life), openly explored doubt and was not afraid to question anything.

Just as notable, his lyrics reflected an integrated, holistic approach to life that avoids the agendas and compartmentalization of concerns so common in America. As Tonio K. reflected, “It was just kind of regular stuff, with his viewpoint and observations and faith all mixed in, which is what it should be.”

Heard’s approach was unique in pop music. Noticeably absent were intricate, self-contained stories that most good songwriters rely on (and need). He addressed universal “big ideas” head-on without cliché or triteness. While both Leonard Cohen and Heard marvelously combine and subvert both the profane and the sacred, Mark does so without relying on the borrowed power of the archetypes and symbols used by Cohen. He expresses the earnestness longing and sweeping concern evident in some of Bono’s best lyrics but does so in a manner more consistently artful.

Such an approach was welcome by few in the CCM industry. “Mark was a man more concerned with telling the truth than selling the truth,” Pettis says. In that market’s leading publication, CCM, Bruce Brown gives this honest accounting for his lack of success there: “Heard’s songs are everything that many Christian pop songs are not. They’re emotional, direct, confrontational, cynical, honest.”

In the masterful “Orphans of God” off Satellite Sky, Mark offers this scathing critique of a consumer-based society that cheapens everything it touches, aimed especially at CCM and America’s picket-fence version of Christianity:

“They have packaged our virtue in cellulose dreams
And sold us the remnants 'til our pockets are clean
‘Til our hopes fall 'round our feet like the dust of dead leaves
And we end up looking like what we believe
We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins and make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God.”

Those who knew Mark later in his life must have wondered how he was ever involved in that industry. A chain smoker with a love of dirty jokes, Mark avoided church attendance, presumably in a Kierkegaardian protest of what the church had become. He was known to freely use obscenities, especially around uptight industry types who placed misguided emphasis on trivialities. Prior to one concert appearance, a promoter gathered the musicians in a circle for a group prayer. When Mark’s turn to utter a prayer came, he simply whistled the theme to the Andy Griffith Show.

‘You will weather well in a climate of love’
Mark was more than a bundle of caustic cynicism. His passionate criticism stemmed from an equally passionate love of family, friends and community— “what matters in the four-walled spaces.” At a memorial in L.A., after fellow artists spoke eloquent eulogies, his genuineness became evident as his neighbors, his mailman and a number of others who came in “incidental” contact with Mark expressed the profound impact he made on their lives through his openness and friendship.

“There was no pretense—such humility,” Pettis remembers over post-show beers with John Austin at Eddie’s. “What struck me most was his generosity," Austin echoed. “He was the only person who respected me like an artist.” Pettis added, “Yeah, he was the first producer to say the words, ‘What do you want to do?’ to me.”

In his own songs, family and friendship were recurring themes. “Satellite Sky,” “Another Good Lie,” “Worry Too Much,” and others express anxiety for the future that awaits his daughter. But he could also convey the simply joys of romance:

“Let's go up on the roof beneath the neon
Pretend we're foreigners and drink the city in
Somewhere between the stairwell and the starlight
I find myself holding your hand
Half-cousins to the angels and the demons
Half-brother to the fatherless sons
I lay awake and wonder at the reasons
One kiss and I am lost in your charms"
- “Love Is Not the Only Thing” (Second Hand)

When Cockburn picked a song to cover, he chose one that brought him to tears, one that captures the tension of beauty, pain, hope, and despair that characterizes Mark’s work:

“Down peppers the rain from a clear blue sky
Down trickles a tear on a youthful face
Feeling in haste and wondering why
Up struggles the sun from a wounded night
Out venture our hearts from their silent shrouds
Trying to ignite but wondering how
We can laugh and we can cry
And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows
We can dance and we can sigh
And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows
Young dreamers explode like popped balloons
Some kind of emotional rodeo
Learning too slow and acting too soon
Time marches away like a lost platoon
We gracefully age as we feel the weight
Of loving too late and leaving too soon”
-“Strong Hand of Love” (Dry Bones Dance)

‘The blind ones see and the dry bones dance’
The brilliance and intensity of Heard’s lyrics sometimes obscures the magnificence of the music. Whether playing and producing his own work or others, he had a knack for knowing the exact variety of sounds called for by a song. “He could play just about anything that moved and ran that studio just like flying a plane,” says Tonio K.

Mark loved instrumental variety and old recording equipment that captured human warmth over technical exactness. He recorded vocals with WWII-era tube mikes and preferred to use complete takes (of which he’d allow no more than four) in the final mix. The centerpiece of Satellite Sky was the distinctive sound of a 1939 National Steel mandolin with the resonator replaced by National’s Silvo pick-up and played like an electric guitar. Always placed in service of his own modern pop-folk-rock sound, instruments used included a variety of mandolins and guitars, accordion, hammered and mountain dulcimers, Hammond organ, harmonica, Chapman stick, fiddle, kalimba, dobro, standup bass and others.

From the Cajun/Appalachian stomp of “Rise From the Ruins” to the doleful strumming of “Look Over Your Shoulder” to the blistering rock of “Tip of My Tongue,” Mark mingled many influences—from Gram Parsons, Ralph Stanley and Graceland-era Paul Simon to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Peter Gabriel—into a sound all his own. As Paste editor Josh Jackson has written, “Handling his guitar, accordion and electric mandolin like they were his last hope for redemption, he developed a sound that matched his frenetic lyrics.”

‘Outcast on the outskirts of the promised land’
Part of tragedy of Heard’s death—beyond the personal impact on family and friends—is that he appeared poised to finally break through into wider recognition. After playing with Sam Phillips on tour with the Cowboy Junkies, Heard was set to open for Bruce Cockburn (and play in Cockburn’s band) on his 1991 tour. When Mark’s father died just before the tour began, the slot fell to Phillips. In 1992, High Street / Windham Hill placed “Look Over Your Shoulder” on its Legacy II: A Collection of Singer-Songwriters that included Greg Brown, Patty Griffin, Patty Larkin, Ellis Paul, and Jonatha Brooke. Fingerprint was close to finalizing a contract with either High Street / Windham Hill, True North / Columbia, or Epic when Heard gave his all on that stage in Illinois.

‘If you'll remember my name’
Ten years after his death, Mark’s faithful continue to discuss his life and music. Lyrical phrases and meanings continue to surprise, and the music sounds as vital as ever. Next year will see the publication of a book on Heard (Hammers & Nails, Cornerstone Press Chicago) and the simultaneous release of a CD of previously unreleased songs. I fervently hope that 50 years from now, new fans will continue the dialogue, just as new fans of Woody Guthrie are doing today. Maybe it will take a 21st-century musicologist or a Coen/Burnett-like collaboration for a wider audience to rediscover Heard’s genius, but surely quality of this magnitude will not continue unnoticed forever.

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