A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Mark Heard

This is part of a regular ongoing series, in which I examine the history and discography of some of the best artists in the underground Christian rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. That scene doesn’t really exist anymore, largely because Christian music is more about producing songs for congregational worship instead of songs about literally any other topic. My hope is that these essays will spur our readers to listen to some of these bands and support them financially; many of them are still more or less active. I also hope that I’ll be able to take some steps toward demonstrating that Christian rock–even if most of it was terrible–had some genuine artists among its ranks.


 

A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Mark Heard

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WHO IS HE? In a 1993 essay for Release Magazine, Daniel Amos’s Terry Scott Taylor wrote that Mark Heard, who had died at age forty a year earlier, “was incapable of writing anything inept.” I’m not sure that’s true, but Taylor is right that, once Heard entered the period of his finest work, he was an almost superhuman songwriter—throw a dart at a list of his songs from 1984 to 1992, and you’ll likely hit something insightful, beautiful, and moving. That Heard died so young doubtless deprived the world of dozens of classics.

But I wonder if Heard knew he wouldn’t reach old age. The first song on his first album is called “On Turning to Dust”; the last song on his last album was “Treasure of the Broken Land.” And death haunts many of the songs in-between. I don’t know of another songwriter who was as aware as Heard of his own mortality, or who wrote about it with such grace.

Heard was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1951, and attended my alma mater, the University of Georgia, getting a degree in television journalism, of all things. But the formative era of his life seems to have been the time he spent in Switzerland, at Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri; Heard’s own theories of art were, by his own admission, quite influenced by Schaeffer’s, but more practically speaking, he was discovered at L’Abri when Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman heard him playing guitar one day. When Heard returned to the United States, he began his recording career.

Things were, as we will see, quite shaky at first; by my lights, it took Heard nearly a decade to really find his artistic voice. But he did ultimately find it, and put out some wonderful records in the last eight years or so of his life. He also worked as a producer, probably most notably producing Stonehill’s Return to Paradise and Until We Have Wings (and writing the abominable CCM hit “Faithful,” which he excoriated in the pages of Image Journal).

Playing with Pierce Pettis and Kate Miner at the 1992 Cornerstone Festival, Heard had a heart attack. Incredibly, he finished the set, at which point he was rushed off to a hospital. He was released a few weeks later but quickly died of a second heart attack. In the years since, numerous tributes have come out, and his songs have been covered by a range of artists, but Heard has still not received the acclaim his songwriting deserves.

GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): AOR, Country-Pop, Folk-Pop, Folk-Rock, New Wave, Pop/Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Soft Rock

RIYL: John Denver, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Lyle Lovett, Josh Ritter, Paul Simon, James Taylor

WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? Maybe you’ve heard Rich Mullins’s cover of “How to Grow Up Big and Strong”—or, uh, Olivia Newton John’s. Maybe you’ve heard Buddy Miller’s Grammy-winning cover of “Worry Too Much.” Or maybe you’ve just heard Episode 138 of The Christian Humanist Podcast, where we talked about his compilation High Noon. Also, I once saw semi-legendary youth pastor Eastman Curtis play Heard’s “What Kind of Friend” on a television show. (Then he talked about how the song says we’ve all got a friend in Jesus, which makes me think maybe he wasn’t listening to the lyrics all that closely.)

WHAT’S HIS BEST SONG? “Nod Over Coffee” from Second Hand (1991), maybe the best song ever written about adult relationships.


Discography

MUST-HEAR

Dry Bones Dance (1990). Dry Bones Dance opens with the two most joyful and rollicking songs Heard ever recorded—“Rise from the Ruins” and the title track—but many of the songs here are cut from the Dry Bones Dancesame cloth, upbeat folk-rock led by acoustic guitar, mandolin, and accordion. This is Heard’s mature sound in its full flowering, and the production mostly stays out of the way. When it doesn’t, Dry Bones Dance sounds too glossy, which doesn’t kill a great song like “Everything Is Alright” but certainly doesn’t do any favors to lesser tracks like “Mercy of the Flame” and “All She Wanted Was Love.”

There’s a tremendous variety even within the folk-rock genre on this album, from the zydeco underlay to “Rise from the Ruins” and “Nobody’s Looking” to the Irish lilt of “How Many Tears” to the George Harrison tribute “Awake in the Nighttime.” Heard’s voice is in top form, reedy and hoarse, and he belts out every song as if it were his dying wish (which, I suppose, in retrospect, is not too far from the truth).

The lyrics are full of wonderful images. On “House of Broken Dreams,” he says, “I’m old enough to know / That dreams are quickly spent / Like pouring rain on warm cement / Or fingerprints in dust / Nectar on the wind”—a description that rivals Langston Hughes’s “raisin in the sun” in its evocation of failure. “Strong Hand of Love” has the immortal lyric “Time marches away like a lost platoon,” a line that reveals its depths more every time you think about it. And Heard’s not afraid to be silly here, either: On “Our Restless Hearts,” he quips, “I’ll be the actor; you can be the actress / I doubt if Romeo was so sarcastic.”

The album’s a little long, and the final few songs drag, but all in all, Heard never did finer work than Dry Bones Dance, and it has three or four of the best songs ever written by him or by anyone else.


NEXT STEPS

Second Hand (1991). Moodier and mellower than Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand also features less glossy production and thus feels less dated than the weaker parts of its predecessor. It fits in pretty well with the stranger roots artists of the ealatestrly ‘90s (Lyle Lovett’s Joshua Judges Ruth comes to mind) and with the Americana movement of this century.

It also has some of Heard’s very best songs about the complexity of adult relationships. “Nod Over Coffee” and “Love Is Not the Only Thing” are documents of a marriage that still sparkles in the dull rock of average everydayness; “I Just Wanna Get Warm” and “What Kind of Friend” find their narrator alone in an uncaring world; and “Another Good Lie” addresses Heard’s daughter in an attempt to explain how disappointments and failures, “coming down on your daddy’s soul,” “made him old.” Meanwhile, “Worry Too Much” is apocalyptic about “the quickstep march of history” and the “sandpaper eyes” that “rub the luster from what is seen.” Heard never sounded angrier, or more frightened.

Like Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand drags at the end, and “It’s Not Your Fault” is probably the weakest song of Heard’s final three albums. But there’s so much to love here that it would be ungrateful to criticize Heard for giving us too much.
Ashes and Light (1984). Recorded after Mosaics but released first, Ashes and Fire is Heard’s first genuinely great album. He consistently sounds like himself here, for the first time, and while the production is a little glossy and dated, he is settling into the folk-rock sound thatlatest-1 characterizes his last few albums. Lyrically, these songs are grittier, and perhaps more honest, than his previous works; he is certainly more comfortable with not receiving concrete answers to his questions than he was before.

“We Believe So Well” is a bitter satire of evangelical Christians (“Don’t we take exclusive pride / That we abide so far from hell?” he sneers). “Straw Man,” however, comes somewhat to their defense (“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?”); and “The Winds of Time” is a Schaefferian call for faithfulness in the midst of decadent culture. Heard would work in all of these modes better later—but he has at last found his voice.

Satellite Sky (1992). Heard’s last album is his longest and rockiest, a pretty big departure from Dry Bones Dance and Second Hand but a triumph in its own right. In many ways, it sounds like someone superimposing a folk record over The Joshua Tree. Most of the songs are led by U2-esque chiming guitars, 2072936but they feature instruments like hammered dulcimer, harmonica, and, most prominently, a 1939 National Steel electric mandolin, on which the bulk of the album was written. The result is a sound not quite like anything I’ve ever heard.

My biggest gripe about the production is that the vocals are often buried in the mix. That’s a problem especially because Heard’s lyrics were never more poetic or abstract. Take the second verse of “Hammers and Nails,” for example:

Light in the dark eyes, coal into diamonds
Shelter from heavy skies, sand into pearls
Bread for the breathless, cloth for the fresh wounds
Order and chaos orbit the half-world
The taste of a color, the flavor of light
None but a blind man can measure that weight
I am deaf-mute, idle as statue
Music of hemispheres lost in the half-haze

That’s beautiful, but very difficult to hear. Thank God for the internet. When he’s not being mystical, Heard sounds, as usual, weary of the modern world. “Another Day in Limbo” presents Los Angeles as a vast spiritual desert; “Long Way Down” treats the American expanse as a groaning creation; and the “Tombstone Blues” rewrite “Freight Train to Nowhere”—the hardest-rocking song in Heard’s catalogue—raises world-weariness to a revolutionary pitch: “If she could put her hand on the brake of the land / Find the treason in the diesel and the smoke / She would jar the teeth of the dull and meek and feed them the truth until they choke.”

Satellite Sky—and thus Heard’s recording career—concludes with the yearning “Treasure of the Broken Land,” a song written for the singer’s late father that ended up being Heard’s own obituary. It no doubt provided a great deal of comfort for Heard’s friends after he died, and it remains one of his greatest songs.


Tribal Opera (iDEoLA, 1987).
Surely no one who was following Mark Heard’s career in 1987 could have predicted Tribal Opera, his one and only album under the nom de disque iDEoLA. It sounds like nothing else in his catalogue—a very mid-‘80s blend of new wave and post-punk that is almost aggressively artificial. Heard played almost every instrument himself, although the liner notes credit Ideola-TribalOpera“people who hit things for digital samples.”

Against all odds—Heard is almost never as convincing in his pop mode as in his folk-rock mode, and if you had to pick a year that produced the most dated pop music of the twentieth century, it would probably be 1987—Tribal Opera works. It’s the most layered music he ever produced; every time I listen to it, I hear some new bell or whistle buried in the mix. And it’s more varied in its sound than it initially appears: the Fine Young Cannibals stomp of “Is It Any Wonder?” gives way very nicely to the Prince-style synth funk of “Talk to Me” and, a few tracks later, the very Peter Gabriel “Go Ask the Dead Man.”

The lyrics find Heard raging against the technological society, a world that tells human beings that they are fundamentally rationalist consumers: “I am an emotional man,” the first track says, “with obsolete tears”—and the closer, “Hold Back Your Tears,” demonstrates that not much changes in the intervening 43 minutes. But the real winner here is “How to Grow Up Big and Strong,” with its caveman lyrics about the Nietzschean übermensch, here to save and destroy us all. Twenty years later, forty percent of us are ready to vote for him.


WORTH A LISTEN

Victims of the Age (1982). Heard had lived in Los Angeles since the mid-1970s, but Victims of the Age is the first record that really sounds like—both because the lyrics are full of (often bleak) references to city life (“All the heathens in West L.A. today / All the raging humanity / Is just faces in cabs”) and because the music is an ungodly hybrid of The Byrds and Missing Persons. In that sense, it is an album that only could have been made in 1982. Not everything works, but the title track is a classic, and closer “Heart of Hearts” wraps a nice bow on the whole package.

Stop the Dominoes (1981). Heard’s artistic breakthrough required him—somewhat surprisingly, given the sound of his final albums—to largely abandon the folk-pop of his first three records. He replaces it with early-‘80s AOR (Album Oriented Rock), not too removed from the sound of a group like REO Speedwagon. That’s not the most-beloved sound in rock history, but Heard uses it to write some of his best early songs, especially “One of the Dominoes” and “Stranded at the Station.” The music feels a little mechanical to me, but there are some good performances here, especially from bassist John Patitucci. Heard’s voice is beginning to sound like Heard, especially on the rockier tracks, but this album is shot through with some goofy little vocal tics that severely date it, and the quieter songs have the milquetoast vocal quality that characterizes Heard’s early work. (That said, “I’m Crying Again” is one of Heard’s best songs from any era.) Finally, I have to mention the otherwise forgettable blues workout “Stuck in the Middle,” which features a line that would probably resonate with many of the artists in this series: “I’m too sacred for the sinners / And the saints wish I’d leave.”


THE DISCOUNT BIN

Mosaics (1985). Recorded before Ashes and Light but released after it, Mosaics is something of a sequel to Victims of the Age, both in that it returns to a pop/rock sound and in that its lyrics deal with the problems of trying to live in a disenchanted world. It’s a theme custom-made for Heard, but the lyrics on Mosaics are a little too ready to engage in the culture wars, and the songs are largely shapeless and without melody. The best songs are the ones that break that pattern: “Schizophrenia,” “Heart on the Line,” and the cover of T-Bone Burnett’s “The Power of Love.”

Appalachian Melody (1979). Heard’s only record for Larry Norman’s Solid Rock label—a fan favorite, I have to note—is not quite Mark Heard yet. It is heavily indebted to late-seventies soft rock, which is fine as far as it goes, but most of the songs are underwhelming. That said, there are glimmers of Heard’s mature style, particularly the Hopkinsian instress of the title track (his first truly poetic lyric) and the biting humor of opener “On the Radio,” a hint at his later irascibility. There’s also a goofy streak running through the album, especially on the Levon Helm-biting “Jonah’s Song” and the acapella celebration “Happy Cornbread Anniversary.”

Mark Heard / On Turning to Dust (1975). Heard’s debut is utterly typical 1970s folk-pop, to the point where he probably owed royalties to John Denver (for “Dinner at Grandma’s”) and James Taylor (for “A Friend”). The lyrics are pretty typical Jesus Movement stuff, although perhaps a bit more elliptical than some of Heard’s peers. The music is mostly fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Heard’s vocals—which sound much smoother and whinier than they eventually would. On the other hand, there are some weird touches—a Jew’s harp on “Dinner at Grandma’s” and wackadoodle synth covers of “Greensleeves” and the “Passion Chorale”—that hint at some of Heard’s more adventurous music a decade later.

Eye of the Storm (1983). In the midst of a series of rock albums, Heard released Eye of the Storm, a largely acoustic record on which he played almost all the instruments. These songs are much more straightforwardly pious than Heard’s usual material at this stage in his career, and in fact, he rerecords several songs (“Castaway,” “Well Worn Pages,” and “Gimme Mine”) from earlier in his career—these versions are better than the originals, though I don’t really like those songs in either form. The new songs “Eye of the Storm” and “The Pain That Plagues Creation” are much better, although “These Plastic Halos” has what I take to be the worst vocal performance in Heard’s entire career. The real problem, though, is that the recording quality is terrible, with instruments and vocals frequently clipping.


FOR FANS ONLY

Fingerprint (1980). Heard’s third album is a great dusty wardrobe of a record, the sound of a man trying on a thousand suits to see what fits. The glossy radio blues-rock that surfaces on several songs certainly does not—though Heard’s voice first takes on its distinctive hoarseness for a few bars of “I’m in Chains.” Likewise, he’s outgrowing the soft folk-pop of his first two albums, and the Gerry Beckley impersonation he puts on for “Nowadays” and “Well Worn Pages,” among others, grates fast. His lyrics are getting darker and more pointed, though, and “Negative Charge” has the first line no one but Heard could have written: “I see the hydrogen being destroyed when I look at the star.” In my essay on The Choir, I said that artists reaching the limits of their early sound often put out their worst record just before they break through, and that’s definitely the case with Fingerprint.


GREATEST HITS, ETC.

Two greatest-hits packages were released shortly after Heard’s death: Reflections on a Former Life, which contains songs from his Home Sweet Home Records (1981-1985), as well as two formerly unreleased tracks from that era: “Carry On” and the Bill Batstone composition “Family Name.” High Noon, on the other hand, has tracks from his last three albums and a number of unreleased demos, the most successful of which are “She’s Not Afraid” and “Shaky Situation”—neither of which seems to be available on YouTube.

Occasional greatest-hits and outtakes records have trickled out since that time. The only one that’s easily available digitally is 2003’s Hammers and Nails, which features outtakes and a few alternate versions of songs from his 1990s records.

There are also two overlapping but not identical tribute albums: Strong Hand of Love (1994) and the double-disc Orphans of God (1996). The best track on either one of them is Chagall Guevara’s moving, raucous version of “Treasure of the Broken Land,” certainly their best recording and perhaps the best version of a Heard song anywhere.


LIVE ALBUMS

Fingerprint Records released a recording of Heard’s final concert in 2001, but that disc is no longer available. Bootlegs of various quality float around the internet.


SIDE PROJECTS

Unless you count iDEoLA (which I do not), Heard’s only real side project was the folk trio Infinity Plus Three, who recorded one album before Heard went solo. Unsurprisingly, their sound is not far off from Heard’s debut album.


 

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