Mark Heard: Orphan of God
by Michael James McGonigal
When one of my editors asked me to write a column on the talented singer, producer and songwriter Mark Heard, I was elated to learn that so much of his discography had recently been added to eMusic’s catalogue. Frequently compared to the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Heard’s stature has increased steadily since he passed away from heart complications fifteen years ago.
Bruce Cockburn called Heard “America’s best songwriter,” while the alternative adult contemporary music magazine Paste argued in a lengthy 2003 feature that “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.” I wouldn't go quite that far myself, but those three records really are exceptional — poetic, slice-of-life stuff by any standard. Heard is an original, an iconoclastic figure who presaged the work of artists like Chris Rice and Jeremy Enigk. In a two-sentence biography on All Music Guide he is casually called “brilliant.” Heard’s 1982 long-player Victims of the Age album was ranked in the top third of CCM magazine’s list of the all-time greatest Christian albums. And yet Mark Heard remains something of a cult figure.
Heard came of age in contemporary Christian music’s infancy — the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. CCM had yet to become a multi-million dollar industry, and in many ways was still a holdover from the so-called Jesus Rock movement of the ‘60s. Rear-guard CCM artists often questioned the nature of faith, but newer singers like Amy Grant had begun to proffer a simpler, more saccharine approach to mixing faith and music. Heard must have known that, in this context, his work had power and deserved to be heard by as wide an audience as possible — certainly by as many people who purchased Bob Dylan’s 1980 album Saved. “I'm not looking for votes, and my music isn't only for Christians,” Heard told New Christian Music in 1984.
The fact that Heard had songs with titles like “Everybody Loves a Holy War” might clue you in to his approach. In a series of amazing advertisements for his 1979 album Appalachian Melody, Heard wrote that “most Christians would say that the music should in some way glorify God… [however] one assortment of notes on the scale can't glorify God more than another. Neither can certain assortments of words... If you are an up and coming Christian singer and you have to sing for a Christian audience, you'd better throw as many words like "saved" or "hallelujah" or "sweet Jesus" as you can, otherwise your spirituality will be discussed behind your back. But anybody can [simply] say the words. Like Groucho says, 'Say the secret woid, the duck comes down, you win a hunnid dollas.'”
Heard’s early work is in the folky vein; he was often compared to James Taylor, and not always favorably. In his later recordings, he veers towards flat-out rock in a country-tinged Tom Petty-ish style that also encompassed Appalachian folk, Tex Mex and zydeco on that great Dry-Hand-Sky trilogy. Even his best albums feature the gated drum sound, reverb-saturated vocals, U2-ish guitar leads and other elements of mainstream ‘80s rock production. His voice is strong, though, especially on his sadder ballads. But what really propels his work is his way with words. Take “Fire” from Dry Bones Dance: “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.”
Heard was struck down during his creative peak, and his spirit and wit are as much missing from contemporary Christian music as his exceptional songcraft. In that series of ads for Appalachian Melody, Heard said he liked “to write songs about things which cause me to glimpse the worth of God. Sometimes that might be the ocean, sometimes it is love for my wife, sometimes it can be absurdly simple things… We shouldn't search for a spiritually symbolic rationalization for [every] activity we enter into. It is not evil to enjoy a good laugh or a hike in the Sierras for what they are.” Having suffered the banalities of one too many well meaning but excruciatingly boring CCM acts (not to mention anemic praise and worship performances), these words still ring loud and true for me, nearly thirty years after the fact.
I am going to add a few words to the bolded quotes above. I have had (and even still have) the same complaint about Christian music played on the radio. Almost all of it comes down to variations of: "Jesus loves me this I know; for the Bible tells me so." Before getting an e-mail notifying me of this review of Mark Heard's work, I had been thinking about this very issue this week and had been thinking about writing about it anyway.
I realize there is a time and place for simplistic Christian songs; and America is increasingly moving toward a business model of exploiting niche markets (of which Christian music is one). There was a time when a Christian artist couldn't make a decent living producing strictly Christian music. But, on the other hand, the drive for a Christian artist to become monetarily successful requires that they conform to certain social norms within that Christian audience they are trying to convince to buy their music. That means -- all too often -- that they must water down any lyrics that might challenge the Christian audience of long-held orthodoxies. True artists move society forward by challenging their prejudices. Religions, by nature, are conservative -- or even reactionary -- forces on society. Contrarily, art almost always is a progressive force that changes and shapes perceptions toward societal evolution by showing injustices because of conservative ideas.
Back when I was in high school, there were Christian musicians like Randy Stonehill who challenged us about being susceptible to the American culture with its fixation on Fast Food and cosmetic appearances. Where are all the Christian artists today that challenge us to move toward changing our culture? Almost all of them are giving us the message to conform to the culture around us (at least the dominant Christian culture with all of its trappings combined with economic orthodoxies). Sometimes I wonder how Jesus himself would react to a McDonald's inside of a church? (Thoughts of Jesus whipping the moneychangers come to mind.)
(By the way, I would like to point out that the one time I got to see Mark Heard perform live, it was as an opening act for Randy Stonehill. I got to meet Mark after the show and talk to him for a few minutes.)
Anyway, I guess one of the reasons I liked Mark Heard's music so much was that I am the kind of person who likes to be challenged mentally. Even St. Paul wrote: "When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things." 1 Corinthians 13:11. But I feel like too many Christians today in their emphasis on conformity also create an insulated culture that resembles child-like reasoning in areas of science, politics, economics and law. . .even when that means serving mammon rather than God.