Mark Heard, one of the finest songwriters—Christian or otherwise—of the second half of the 20th century, was taken from us far too soon. Known for his brilliant poetry and brutally honest lyricism, Heard died of a heart attack 20 years ago this week at the young age of 40.
His death came about six weeks after his final performance, on July 4, 1992 at the Cornerstone Music Festival. Heard actually had a mild heart attack during that show, but was able to finish the set and walk off stage. He immediately went to the hospital, where he recovered for a couple weeks. Two weeks after being released, he went into cardiac arrest and died on August 16. Heard was about to sign a contract with Bruce Cockburn's label, True North Records.
Cockburn was one of many artists we asked to reminisce about Heard, his songwriting, and his spirit. We also asked each of them to tell us about their favorite Mark Heard song.
Cockburn first encountered Heard through his albums, and when they finally met, Cockburn regarded Heard as "a very likeable guy with a good sense of humor and a bright, creative mind. We never got to be more than acquaintances, but I felt a warm affection for him and we had a great mutual respect for each other as songwriters." Cockburn says they also both shared "a sense of us both being outsiders from the mainstream of Christian music."
"The joy and energy in his music, and the expertise with which his albums were put together, excited and inspired me," Cockburn says. "He also was the center of a group of us who knew and appreciated him. Mark was pretty underground and it felt special to be among those who 'got' him. When he died it felt like there was suddenly a vacuum where he had been."
Favorite song: "It's hard to pick one, but the song that continues to haunt me is 'Orphans of God.'"
Keaggy says knowing Heard "made me desire to be a better songwriter, something I still wish to attain to. He wrote honestly about himself and what he saw in this painful world. He was a goldmine of melody and thoughtful words. I have a picture of him in his studio hanging on my wall, so I see him about every day. He still inspires me!"
Keaggy first became aware of Heard's music in the mid-1970s, and they did a number of shows together over the years. "He was always humble and kind toward me, but it wasn't until I recorded at his small LA studio with Randy Stonehill that I got a closer look at his talents. He was passionate about music, about doing it well. He was laid back, but he also had a burning desire to be very real and expressive through his gifts. He was a true poet and seemed to carry the burdens of the world on his shoulders."
Favorite song: "I loved 'Everything Is Alright,' 'House of Broken Dreams,' and 'Love Is Not the Only Thing,' [the latter of which] I recorded with Randy Stonehill a few years ago. Twenty years ago, Mark was to join us on my Crimson and Blue album. We had selected 'House of Broken Dreams,' but that was not realized this side of heaven. We were sad but remain hopeful that we will all be reunited in Glory."
Miller only knew Heard for about four years until his death, but thinks of him "almost every day." There's literally a huge reminder in Miller's home studio: a 9-foot, 40-year-old Trident B Range recording console that belonged to Heard. (It was given to Miller by a mutual friend several years ago.) Miller says Heard made "his last and finest recordings on that Trident. He loved its sound. He made it sing. I put my hands on the faders and on the knobs he turned, and I try." When Miller worked in Heard's garage studio, he says he "I messed up some of Mark's recordings with terrible punch-ins on his tape machine, but an unfazed Mark would, say, 'Don't worry; I'll put the tambourine there.' Smart and funny!"
"Mark and his music were caught between two worlds," Miller continues, "but every word he sang and wrote rang true and sounded as if he knew it could be his last. Listen to his vocal on 'I Know My Redeemer Lives.'
"Mark had integrity that was rare in the music business. He made art. Nothing was calculated, no one was manipulated. Mark was deep and he was dark, he was hilarious and an unimposing visionary. I learned so much about making records and being real, and when I sit at that Trident, I marvel how his soul poured through it and the beauty he coaxed out of it. Mark set the standard."
Favorite song: "Look over Your Shoulder"
Arends was a college junior when she discovered Heard through Victims of the Age, which she says "had less spit and polish than the burnished CCM I was used to," and that after listening, "my ideas about what constituted greatness—in a singer, a production, and especially a song—were undergoing seismic shifts. The lyrics were jaw-dropping. They made me want to be a better writer and a better human."
A couple weeks later, Heard and Randy Stonehill played a gig at Arends' college, and she and her boyfriend (now husband) served as Heard's drivers. They picked him up from the airport and had some polite conversation. The next day, Arends' boyfriend drove Heard back to the airport "without me, and I confess it was so he could try to play my hero some of my own roughly recorded music," she recalls. Heard declined, saying he was too tired, but left his mailing address for Arends to send her demos.
It was 18 months before Heard called Arends to say he liked her work, and asked for more samples. She hit the studio and recorded a few more; Heard replied that he liked her initial demos better because, as Arends remembers, Heard thought "the second round sounded like I was trying to be 'professional,' while the first round sounded 'real.' I was signing a songwriting contract with a Nashville company and I had seen just enough of the Christian music industry to know there was going to be a lot of pressure to move away from Mark's definition of 'real' and toward 'professional.'" They started discussing the possibility of Heard producing a record for Arends, but he died before they had a chance.
Today, Arends says, "I can now see that the day he called me to say he liked my stuff—and needed me to record more—was actually the first day of my music career. His advice to 'keep it real' has goaded, haunted, and inspired me for the two decades since. And his own body of work is still, in my view, the gold standard for the writing of poetic and prophetic music."
Favorite song: "Some Folks' World," which includes the lines, "Rain can ruin your weekend / Or rain can spare your life / Depending on who you are and what your thirst is like." Arends says, "I can't tell you how many times those words have run through my mind and realigned my thinking, calling me away from a myopic point of view and into an awareness of a much bigger picture. Mark's music tells the truth and calls us to respond to the truth in a very rare and powerful way."
Taylor says Heard's Victims of the Age "was possibly the first album I'd ever heard on a Christian label that was world-class. We later worked together when I had him mix some tracks for me. For such a serious artist, he had a surprisingly good sense of humor and a very unique laugh."
Of Heard's legacy, Taylor says, "I was asked the same question twenty years ago, and I believe his legacy is still the same: The truth hurts."
Favorite song: "Chagall Guevara [Taylor's old band] recorded 'Treasure of the Broken Land' for a tribute album. Mark had written it for his late father. I just reread the lyrics, and they're even more stunning and poignant than I remembered. So poignant, in fact, that I'm going to have to call my own father now and tell him how much I love him."
Williams says she didn't know Heard well, but enjoyed the few times she had a chance to play with him in the recording studio, especially when Heard brought his accordion. She was so impressed by his work that she "even entertained the idea of him producing a record for me," but they never got around to it. "He was an inspiring person to work with."
Favorite song: "I appreciated all of them, but we had a great time recording his song 'What Kind of Friend' at Buddy and Julie Miller's home studio."
Pettis was on stage with Heard at Cornerstone that July evening in 1992 when Heard had the heart attack. They had become friends while Pettis stayed at Heard's house for a few months while working together on Pettis's 1991 album Tinseltown.
During that time, Heard got a call one morning, and Pettis overheard him saying, "No, man, I really can't, thanks but no." When Pettis asked what it about, Heard said it was T Bone Burnett calling to ask Heard to join him and Bob Dylan on tour. Pettis told Heard, "Are you crazy? How can you turn that down?" Heard replied, "Who is Bob Dylan? He's just some guy named Bob Zimmerman, and I have work to do!" Pettis says he "never met anyone more unimpressed by fame, fortune, etc., and that in the midst of the LA entertainment world. Mark took the work seriously, and himself, lightly."
Pettis especially remembers Heard's sense of humor. "He was the funniest human being I ever met.Very quick and original. He was irreverent, testy, sometimes profane, could impersonate anyone, and had the best spontaneous one-liners ever."
Pettis adds, "I would suggest that Mark's legacy, besides the work itself, is his honesty and absolute dedication to his personal concept of the work as art." He says many musicians have been "profoundly influenced" by Heard's music, including "my own grown children, all songwriters—and I had nothing to do with that. They each picked him up on their own."
Favorite song: "Sooo many favorites.I love 'No' and 'Everything Is Alright.' Both are masterpieces of seamless complexity.Like Beatles songs, they sound easy … until you try to play them."
Mallonee, frontman of Vigilantes of Love and now primarily a solo artist, says Heard was "a passionate man, a great songwriter. He was a man of sober faith. He knew what kind of skin we all live in. That was his ground of reference, the place he wrote from. That's why his music, especially his later work, always has the ring of truth, the imprimatur of real-ness."
Mallonee noted that Heard's authenticity may have hampered his growth on CCM labels. "The industry he emerged from wouldn't let him mature as an artist. But lucky for us, he was more committed to things of the Spirit and transparency than to their narrow visions."
Favorite song: "Freight Train to Nowhere" (which VOL performed on a Mark Heard tribute album).
John J Thompson
Thompson was about 10 years old when he discovered Heard while at a Christian summer camp. A counselor heard him listening to a DeGarmo and Key tape and asked Thompson if he was into Christian rock. When Thompson said D&K was the only band he knew of, the counselor introduced him to the like of Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, Rez Band, and Heard. "I'd like to say that at ten years old I was ready to fully comprehend the depth and nuance of Heard's music, but the truth is that it took me a few years. But when I heard "The Pain that Plagues Creation" it broke me down. From that moment on Mark Heard was a touchstone for me. I devoured every record—studied them, learned to play them. A lot of my own songwriting style is informed as much by Heard as it is by Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Cockburn."
Thompson went on to front a band called The Wayside and to open a music store called True Tunes—and publish a magazine of the same name. He had booked Heard for an interview and a show in Wheaton, but it never came to pass; Heard died about a month before that.
"I never got to interview Mark, but his legacy was woven throughout everything I did with my own music and through True Tunes," Thompson says. "I regularly go back to his records and marvel at his talent and his soul."
Favorite song: "Another Good Lie"
Miller first met Heard through a friend when she was in high school in 1974, and then reconnected in Los Angeles in 1990 when they began playing and singing on each other's albums.
"He was a totally unique soul, artist, seeker, a prophet, a genius," says Miller. "He was intolerant of Christian duplicity, and abandoned to musical expression, truth, and sincerity. His eyes saw more clearly than most believers I've ever known. He knew great angst, and had a gigantic sense of humor."
Miller says when she learned of Heard's death, "it felt viscerally like the world had gotten much, much smaller. (Grief doesn't really have closure. You just get a bigger heart to carry it in.) Time has stood still when it comes to having known Mark. The little child in me always thinks how God named him; he made his mark when his powerful songs were heard."
Favorite song: "Orphans of God"
Stonehill and the late Larry Norman were at a CCM conference in Indiana in 1976 when Heard introduced himself to the two of them, asking if he could play a few songs. "He came up to our cabin at the retreat center and we all sat out on the porch," Stonehill remembers. "I'll never forget listening to him singing 'Appalachian Melody' with the dappled sunlight playing in the trees behind him. Larry and I looked at each other in wide-eyed delight, and I thought to myself, This guy is a treasure!"
Stonehill says though he spent a lot of time with Heard, they never become close friends: "Mark was a complex, deep man who valued his privacy and, more often than not, held his cards pretty close to his chest. But he led by example and inspired me to always keep reaching for the next creative high water mark. The unflinching honesty of his portrayal of the human condition makes his statements about faith and Christ ring fresh and true in the heart of the listener. That's a profound gift to the music world. I doubt if the power of Mark's music will be bested, or even matched, for generations to come."
Favorite song: "Tip of My Tongue." Stonehill says, "His lyrical imagery is so rich, startling, and powerful, that it's tantamount to a musical oracle 'giving utterance'! It's one of those songs where you sit back and mutter to yourself in amazement, 'Well, if he never wrote another blessed song in his life, man, he wrote that one!'"
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