3. Victims of the Age – Mark Heard

VICTIMS OF THE AGE

Mark Heard

This could be the last day my eyes see
This could be the last day you see me
This could be the last night in my bed
This could be the last thought in my head

I won’t cast my life to the wind
I’ll treasure as much as I can
While I can, I can

Though I may be gone before too long
As long as I am here I’ll sing this song

This could be the last time

I do not cry very often. I will cry in a movie before I cry about things in my own life. I have never cried at a funeral, nor have I cried when hearing about the death of someone I did not know extremely well. Except on August 17th 1992 when I had learned of the death the previous day of Christian artist Mark Heard.

And I don’t know why…

Perhaps I was so moved by his music and felt such a connection to it that his death simply moved me. Or I have considered I was familiar enough with the story of his life and trials and struggles he endured for his art that I felt an empathy previously unknown. Sometime I believe it is because I realized the world lost a beautiful soul, a loving man and brilliant artist…and the world didn’t even know it.

That is the great shame of the life and death of Mark Heard. It is a shame that most of the world had no idea who the man was and what an amazing collection of art he had created in his 20 years as a musician, poet, producer and performer.

I could have just as easily placed every CD in a box and grabbed the top one to list and discuss as much as the next one. In fact I would gather that many will argue that I should have selected one fo the final three “Fingerprint” releases as the choice here. But as I look back on Heard’s catalog that one record simply keeps jumping out at me.

“Victims of the Age” was the second album of Mark’s that I would own (though I now own them all) and its consistently carried theme of city life and isolation and the ever-present Gospel ring as true today as it did in 1982. Plus I firmly believe that Victims, more than any other Heard release, walked the very fine line between commercially accessible and artistically intriguing as any other.

Heard’s musical career began with a small Gospel folk quintet,  Infinity + 3, on an album called “Setting Yesterday Free.” I picked up the “Fingerprint” re-release a few years ago and admit is possesses limited repeat listening, but it does offer a glimpse into the early songwriting of Heard with five songs written by him. The album was originally recorded and released in 1970 and eventually found limited distribution through Spirit Records a few years later.

A few years later he would produce his first solo release, the self-titled “Mark Heard.” The album would actually br re-released on Larry Norman’s Solid Rock label three years later and, so, in 1978 Mark heard made his Christian Music debut on a national level.

The album suffered from a limited budget and the production quality is obviously lacking, but the songwriting skills are prevalent as they would ever be. Most notable is the wonderful title track at its contemplative feel.

What will I do if you go away
Leaving these songs sitting here
What is the use if you’ve not cared to hear
Time and again I will pray this prayer
Loved saved and crying away
“Lord let the Truth reach hearing ears today.”

My, my–how the thoughts slip by
Who has seen them pass
How nice if everyone would carefully use a looking glass

1979′s “Appalachian Melody” would be the second and final album Heard would do for Larry Norman’s label. Heard, like nearly every other artist that worked with Larry, did no more than one or two releases on Solid Rock. But this album would receive some very positive attention with some regionalized airplay of several of the James Taylor-like acoustic ballads. The name of the album is somewhat ironic in that the musical backdrop was significantly less “Appalachian” sounding than the debut album though the Southern/Bluegrass influence is still present.

The album is not only loaded with amazing songs, but Norman did assemble quite a group of studio musicians and friends to help. Musicians credited include Norman, Stonehill, Jon Linn, Flim Johnson and the late Tom Howard on keyboards. But with all that help it should be noted that Heard’s immense musical talent would allow him to perform the majority of the music.

Highlight’s include On the Radio, Bless My Soul, Sidewalk Soliloquy, The Last Time and Castaway, a song which would appear on later re;eases as well and serve as one of Heard’s stronger radio hits. “Two trusting Jesus” should have become a regular wedding song, which was quite a popular musical form in the 70′s and 80′s, with its deeply loving and spiritual content.

Two trusting Jesus
There begins the story
Two separate pathways
Leading to glory
With God’s Son
One and one
Two eternal lives begun
Two trusting Jesus
Are two within His care

After recording an album that was originally released in Switzerland (Fingerprint), Heard returned to the United States and signed with Chris Christian’s Home Sweet Home label. The next five albums would be released on the label, but would mark Heard’s most difficult season artistically. According to interviews and the biography written about his life, Heard was constantly under pressure from label executives to make his music more palatable to the “CCM” audience.

Heard suffered from an ailment known as the low “J-quotient” in his music. By that I mean he was criticized by some for not using the name “Jesus” or God in his songs quite enough. The market at the time (today?) chooses to embrace and promote artists whose content is easy to decipher and required little critical thinking on the part of the listener. Heard did not, nor would he ever, fit into that mold.

We are better off for it even though it cost Heard quite a bit spiritually and emotionally. Described by many as a quiet, reserved, aloof and thinking man, his friends knew a man who was intensely thoughtful, creative and intensely funny. Regular concert goers were privy to his dry and wry humor and unbelievable musicianship. In fact I have argued and still firmly believe he was the finest acoustic instrument player I ever saw live, rivaling Bruce Cockburn in sheer musicianship.

Heard’s first release on Home Sweet Home was the decidedly more electric and rock oriented “Stop the Dominoes.” Mark would produce, arrange and record the album himself and hand-pick the background musicians that included John Patituci, Tom Howard, Alex MacDougall, Randy Stonehill and a very young a relative unknown female singer/songwriter, Leslie Phillips.

Less James Taylor and more bluesy rock with early influences of Lindsey Buckingham that would be a major influence on the album that is the our subject here. But Heard’s own words would describe the general response from the CCM market, even though a small and growing following was beginning.

Well my brothers criticize me
Say I’m just too strange to believe
And the others just avoid me
They say my faith is so naive
I’m too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave

Whether instinctively or through experience Heard seemed to know that his music was planted firmly on the fringe of the CCM world. It is a shame because even this often overlooked album had several amazing radio friendly songs like I’m Crying Again, Call Me the Fool and To See Your Face. The latter was played on KYMS I recall.

After releasing “Victims” a year later Heard followed up with two relative acoustic driven album to attempt to appeal to the more AC CCM crowd. The first was the very impressive “Eye of the Storm,” which would include a new version of “Castaway” that would pick up some radio airplay on Christian radio stations nationwide.

It is also a special album in that Heard pretty much recorded the whole album at home by himself, playing all the instruments and performing all of the backing vocals, including a “gospel choir.” There is even a “horn section” that was Heard humming into his hands. Though there were a few overdubbed instruments added they were very limited and added one at a time.

If I remember right “Eye of the Storm” would be Heard’s most successful release. This would be a blessing and curse.

After the success of the previous album Heard was receiving pressure from the label to continue in a more acoustic vein in attempt to capitalize on the success of “Eye of the Storm.” Though decidedly “mellower” than Dominoes of Victims, “Ashes and Light” would not be the exclusive acoustic release the label was hoping for. Though filled with very radio friendly songs in the style of Tom Petty and John Mellncamp there never seemed to be a concerted effort by the label to break any songs on radio.

The album does stand out as it was the very first album recorded entirely in Heard’s home studio, Fingerprint Studios. I recall hearing stories of Heard playing an instrument or singing while simultaneously recording and engineering his own work. The album would also be the first to feature an appearance by Jesus Music pioneer and incredible songwriter on his own, Pat Terry. Heard would produce three album for terry, the first being “Humanity gangster,” a must own album that I one day hope appears on CD!

The opening track, “Winds of Time” remains one of my favorite songs in Heard’s catalog. The lyric rips at the heart upon every listen in our need to be completely filled with all that God has to offer. Heard calls it the “saturated soul.”

It takes a saturated soul
And a faith that will never let go

It takes more than mindless passion
It takes more than dogma in mime
It takes more than virtuous fashion
To withstand the winds of time

It takes a saturated soul
To withstand the winds of time

The song “Straw Man” is notable as the only song in history that includes the word “anhedonia.” Not for that alone, the song also stabs deep at the heart of those who build up arguments based on fallacies and spread the fallacies as truth, and who use those arguments against those in the body of Christ.

If true communication were ever to bless this congregation
And everyone knew just what it’s like to be somebody else
And no words were hasty and all thoughts were thought through
Might our anger not find a better target than ourselves?

“Mosaics” would be the last album on Home Sweet Home even though the label would release several”Best Of” money grabs, especially after his death. Fans criticized the label profusely for this as stories circulated that due to some contractual issues the surviving family members (wife Susan and daughter) were not receiving royalty payments for those projects. I have heard that some of those issues were eventually resolved but am unfamiliar with the details.

“Mosaics” would be a return to a more rock and blues influenced sound and would include a cover of T-Bone Burnett’s “Power of Love” and the song, “Miracle” co-written with Tonio K. Heard would go on to work extensively with both of those artists.

One other interesting note is that the album cover was of a picture of Heard that was cut up into sections and sent to several friends around the world who were asked to “fill in” the their piece and send it back. The pieces were then reassembled to form the album artwork.

The next album for Heard would be the group concept for What? Records recorded under the name iDEoLa. See http://greatestchristianalbums.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/31-tribal-opera-ideola/  for more information on this great release.

Heard would then disappear for several years producing albums for Randy Stonehill and forming his own label, Fingerprint, that would include artists like Pierce Pettis and the Vigilantes of Love, whom he would also produce.It would also be on Fingerprint that he would write, record and produce three of the greatest albums in his career and in Christian music for the time.

“Dry Bones dance” would be the first of the three “Fingerprint” albums released before his death in August of 1992. Both it and the follow-up album, “Second Hand” would be listed among the Top 100 albums by the editors of CCM Magazine. Interestingly enough, it would be “Satellite Sky” that would remain my favorite of the three.

This third release would be written entirely on the mandolin and would feature several songs that would later be covered on the Tribute album to Heard called “Orphans of God.” There is something about the uniqueness of the mandolin as the primary instruments in a rock and roll setting that makes the album so enjoyable.

It was also the last album before his death and while working for Frontline Distribution at the time we were selling the record into christian Bookstores. Several weeks before his death Heard came to a Frontline sales conference to promote the new album and the entire label that just had signed the deal with the company. As a longtime fan it was a privilege and joy to represent his music to an industry that never quite “got him.”

But my love and appreciation for Mark heard and his songwriting skills came with the impressive “Victims of the Age.” The album starts with the title track that addresses immediately a world that makes no effort to ensure its inhabitants and loved, accepted and carded for. Everything around us screams for our attention and yet offers little for that attention received.

Radio says, “I love you”
Street says, “That’s a lie”
Billboard says, “Give anything a try”
Sidewalks don’t say nothing
Streetlights don’t ask why

Could stars be screaming in the evening sky?

Caught between these voices
The sirens and the sage
One too many choices
For the victims of the age

The “city life” theme would consume the entire project as the listener imagines Heard getting into a taxi cab and driving around the city commenting on what he sees. The loneliness, despair and the glimmers of hope.It must be a universal question to wonder under our breath just who all these people are and what are their lives like. Heard asks the same question with sobering answers.

Half-baked traffic snake creeping in the evening sun
Clogged-up fast lane clears and the day is done
Everyone’s gone: some went to Hell, some went home

City life won’t let up while you’re waiting for the light to change

Most of the album falls in the middle American rock vein of Tom Petty and Neil Young, but with the lyrical precision of Bob Dylan and musicianship of Lindsey Buckingham. This is high praise that is well deserved.

The theme of individual despair and isolation continues as Heard is joined in the can by others who are seeking something…something that may not even realize they are seeking. Their nameless faces populating vehicles leading heard to wonder aloud.

Hypothetical mortal beings
Known only to themselves and God
Come and go and play the cameo
They’re just faces in cabs

All the hearts that are gonna break today
All the lovers who won’t come home tonight
Nobody feels their dynamite
They’re just faces in cabs

One must wonder where is the Church in all of this? What is our responsibility? Are we seen making a difference. We find mission avenues in foreign lands and neglect our neighbors.

All the heathen in Africa
All the heathen in West L.A. today
All of raging humanity
Is just faces in cabs

They’re just faces in the cabs-so I’ve been told
Just faces in the cabs-the masses out there
Just faces in cabs-anonymous souls

On “Nothing is Bothering Me” the results of these images appear to be limited as they ones commissioned to serve and help the down-trodden ignore the truth set before them.

We get the picture from week to week
The rich get richer and inherit the meek
Long since started preying on the weak
Am I the guilty party if I turn the other cheek

I’m alright
Nothing is bothering me
I’m just trying to keep the weight of this world
From dawning on me

Heard continues this study in juxtapositions as he compares people from all walks of life and how similar events may result in significantly different responses.

Some folks eat what flies leave
They get what they can take
Hunger has no heart and it will not wait

Rain can ruin your weekend
Or rain can spare your life
Depending on who you are and what your thirst is like

And when it’s day to me it’s night to someone
And when it’s night you might not want to go on

It is a big world out there and yet the church was called 2,000 years ago to make an impact in this world. Heard concludes the song with similar thoughts.

Some folks taste of Heaven
Some folks taste of Hell
Some folks lose their taste and they cannot tell

And when it’s day to me it’s night to someone
And when it’s night you might not want to go on

Heard does not let up on the second half of the album as he makes probably the most blatant indictment on the church and her response (or lack of) to the world around her in the song “Growing Up Blind.”

So we forsake this festering waste
And all of the wounds that we’ve seen bleed
In the name of the One who says that what we’ve done
Is turn our backs on Him in leaving the least of these

Growing up blind, growing up blind
Hearts in the darkness killing time
Growing up blind, growing up blind
How does it feel to be growing up blind

“Dancing at the Policeman’s Ball” should have been a mainstream radio hit for Heard. The quirky, dare I say “dancy,” song is the most reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham. For some reason I every time I hear Steve Taylor’s, “This Disco (Used to be a Cute Cathedral)” I am reminded of this song and its look at those things that keep us from doing what we are commanded to do.

You hit the floor at the sound of the band
With a partner in your hand
Restless and breathless you dance the night away
Did I hear you say it is your aim
For every night to be just the same
And you hope the city outside’s gonna be okay

Dancing at the Policeman’s ball

Heard’s most scathing commentary may have reserved for “Everybody Love a Holy War.” This brilliant work features some of Heard’s finest lyrics as he addresses the “us versus them” mentality both within the walls of the church and the with the church and those on the outside. The content reminds me of Francis Schaeffer, who, I would discover later, had a great impact on heard’s theology and worldview. Here Heard addresses how those within the Church treat one another on doctrinal lines and how those in spiritual power rules use their authority to weaken those below them.

Many’s the man with the iron hand
Supposing his own thoughts to be Divine
He will break any bond-
’cause the other man’s always wrong
It’s a handy excuse for his crimes

Everybody loves a holy war
Draw the line and claim divine protection
Kill the ones who show the most objection
Everybody loves a holy war

But the battles are not just waged within the walls of the church, but the attacks are lobbed at the world in need of the gospel as well.

Dissident cries are met with cold eyes
And treatment the devil would get
Righteousness and truth
can be weapons in the hands of fools
While innocents go to their deaths

Everybody loves a holy war
Draw the line and claim divine assistance
Slay the ones who show the most resistance
Everybody loves a holy war

Heard, though, shine the bright light of grace and hope in the albums closing number. “Heart of Hearts” would feature backing vocals by Leslie Phillips who would later cover the song and make a hit out of it.

Tears in the city
But nobody’s really surprised, you know
My heart’s taking a beating
Existence is bleeding me dry, you know

But way down in my heart of hearts
Way down in my soul of souls
Way down I know that I am a fortunate man
To have known divine love

The trip around the city ends with more than just a glimmer, but rather and sunburst of hope as Heard realizes how fortunate is the man who has come in contact with divine love. the songs serves as the perfect and memorable ending to such an amazing record.

On July 4th, 1992 Heard suffered a heart attack while on stage at the Cornerstone Festival outside of Chicago. He continued and finished his set before asking to be taken to the hospital. After a few weeks he was released and a few weeks folloing he suffered a major cardiac arrest and passed away on August 16th. He was only 41 years old.

But Heard’s legacy would live well beyond “Victims” and well beyond his years as the incredible tribute album,”Orphans of God” shows. I am firmly convinced that this is the very best “tribute” album ever recorded. Many tribute albums are filled with artists who were fans or who were on the same label as the artist receiving the tribute. Here the album was filled with a diverse congregation of artists who were deeply and personally impacted by the music, ministry and art of Mark Heard.

Add to that the fact that the songs were written by one of the most impressive and talented songwriters of his or any other generation. It said that Bruce Cockburn named Heard his favorite songwriter. There is not much higher praise I could include that would say more than that.


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10 responses to this post.

  1. Of all of CCM’s pantheon, Heard was the one that deserved to be heard outside the echo chamber, not just because he was that good, but because of the influence he might have had beyond the small circle that knew of him. How many artists could have sprung up by his example if, in fact, he had been allowed to be an example?

    Reply

  2. Glad you picked this one. For some reason this album’s songs don’t seem to get covered on the tributes and so forth, but “Some Folk’s World” and “Nothing is Bothering Me” (titles approximate) and a few of the other cuts were the kind I could put on a mix tape with T-Bone Burnett and Dylan and not hear a drop in quality.

    And of course, a guy named Dave Lowman first handed me this album.

    It’s a good thing for me that you used your gifts to push CCM and not drugs.

    Reply

  3. A Man name Mike Delaney handed me my first Mark Heard album at Cornerstone 84 and told me to “give it a spin”. Mike had already turned me on to Jeff Johnson’s “Shadowplay” and from this recommendation alone I thought it worthwhile to give Mark a listen. It would be another 10 years or so before I really understood Mark’s intellect and passion enough to appreciate his music better. At the time I listened to “Ashes & Light” and got bored by it.

    While time has definitely changed my tastes and my heart, I have to say that my initial impression of Mark as “overly intellectual and barely spiritual” tainted my repeated listens — and even the CD review of “Second Hand” that I wrote for Heaven’s Metal back in 1990. (I was Barabbas, a sly attempt at humor at the time) Since then I have regularly introduced people to Mark as my “#1 favorite musician” and tried to eat crow for my early mistakes. I actually had the priviledge to interview him in 1989 — I was NOT an actual Christian at the time and I fear that I was sorely unprepared for speaking to him. I honestly wish I had simply shut my mouth and allowed him merely to speak his mind freely.

    Mark’s passing was indeed tragic, if one may say that of a fellow Christian, and the loss of his talents and insightful lyrics has sadly never been replaced. Good choice for #3. Mark’s music — start to finish, as a complete collection —- has only grown more precious with time as his insights have caused my callous heart to repent in tears over and again. Good lyrics – intense insights to the nature of God and the deceitful heart of man – well crafted and beautifully layered with objective meaning, has caused Mark’s music to rise above the standard pablum passed around as CCM today. The only other precious few artists I could say that comment of would be Julie Miller, Rich Mullins or Keith Green. What a sincere shame that modern Christianity honestly ignores honesty and integrity in artists unless we deem them “Prophets”.

    Reply

    • Posted by low5point on March 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm

      I think I may have known Mike about as long as you have…when I worked for Frontline he would come to our Sales Conferences and we would try to stump each other in trivia…I knew more history I think but he knew more unisgned anf fringe stuff…serious encyclopedia

      Reply

  4. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on March 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Yeah, When I started working in Christian bookstores, Mike was the music manager/buyer for Spring Arbor distribution, which was, basically, a one-stop for bookstores. He always kept interesting things in stock….thanks to him, I got the “7 and 7 is” project (3 inch CD, Cassette, Vinyl 45 in a lettered, signed, silver box), an early copy of the first Throes CD (before “All the Flowers…..”) “Negro” by Veil of Ashes and others. I actually mourned when he left in ’90-91. Of course, he now runs Rad Rockers Emporium, where I just got a CD-R copy of Zionic Bonds, by Andy MacCarroll and Moral Support.

    Reply

  5. Posted by brian jewkes on May 17, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    This is a great album. One of the few that i can still listen to after all these years. Mark didnt conform to singin Christian dittys, but shared real faith insites. I know this has been released on cd , but its shoddy, there is no booklet or anything. The lp treated treated Mark with the respect he deserved. Btw , i like your site and appreciate the work you have put into it.
    Thanks.

    Reply

  6. Posted by willegge on July 14, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Thanks for honoring Mark. Mark’s music means a lot to me. My first intro to it was the winter of 1979, Appalachian Melody, In Bible College dating the love of my life, home on Christmas break, falling in love and listening to “Bless my soul”, and ” Cast away ” sitting with my beautiful strawberry blond sweetheart in front of a crackling fire on a wonderful snowy night in Cape Breton Island Nova Scotia. What memories! Being some what of a song writer myself. I have come to believe that Mark Heard is one of the greatest song writers of all time. I put him in the same company with my favorites Lennon and McCartney , Dylan. One of my favorite lines in any song ever written, is in Nod Over coffee, off of the my favorite Mark Heard album, Second Hand, it says, “the dam of time cannot hold back the dust that will surely come of these bones, and i know I will not have loved enough , will not have loved enough….” Thanks again. And thank the Lord for blessing the world with such a gift as Mark Heard.

    Reply

  7. this nneds to be preserved or at least made part of wikipedia. i had never heard of him until 2010. my then friend, now fiance, had played with mark heard in church wayyyy back in the day. the music of larry norman and randy stonehill i was aready familira with, but when i head appalchain melody i had come home. two trusting jesus is my wedding song.

    Reply

  8. Great pick. Victims is my favorite of Mark’s amazing catalog. I got to see him live once and he was mesmerizing as a solo performer. When I got married in 83, I wrote to him to ask for sheet music for my sister to play Two Trusting Jesus, and got a nice note back saying there wasn’t any available, but he photocopied a chord sheet for us. Great personal touch by someone I who reminded me of Phil Keaggy in the combination of talent and humility.

    Reply

  9. I could argue a lot of different albums as his “best” but that would be unfair to Mark and the effort he put into each album. One thing I found out a few years ago was that “Mosaics” was recorded before “Ashes and Light.” Mark had a devil of a time getting “Mosaics” put out. For that reason, and because “Mosaics” actually takes you through where we are to God’s grace in one album (except for “Power of Love” – which does NOT belong on it at all) “Mosaics” is my favorite of his. I especially love how “Miracle,” the last track, actually makes references to at least two earlier songs on the album. Plus, this verse gets me every time:

    We stepped on the moon as if it were obvious
    We watch life destroyed as if it were meaningless
    Some unborn child (no mother’s cries)
    Some unknown soldier destroyed by lies
    And lies would destroy this world
    If if weren’t for a Miracle.

    In the end, Mark was about illuminating that truth: Lies would destroy this world if it weren’t for a miracle.

    Reply

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