On The Tip Of His Tongue

A Tribute to Mark Heard, 1951-1992

By Doug Wheeler

Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 1 Fall 1996 · Issue 6: pgs 112-117.

The gifted and prolific songwriter-musician Mark Heard died in July of 1992 at the age of forty, following two heart attacks. Hailing originally from Macon, Georgia, but spending the majority of his writing career in the Los Angeles area, he left behind a musical legacy that is staggering in both length and substance. Heard's willingness to courageously face as a Christian the duality of our everyday existence-an existence being comprised of both good and evil-is what captured my attention some fifteen years ago. His heart broke over the grievous condition of modern man, and he was admittedly thirsty for eternal liberation from the ugly bondage of sin. Heard was a man of integrity who possessed a passionate motivation to address the plight of fallen man, along with an insatiable desire for eternal restoration, which is repeatedly reflected in his lyrics.

Heard defined his "mission" as a poet clearly in the liner notes of his 1983 acoustic album, Eye of the Storm: "I prefer to see myself as a writer who is a Christian, and I prefer to let my faith flavor my observations rather than dictate them. I prefer for my pen to act as a nerve receptor and write about the world-the real one-that exists outside society's and Christian society's simplistic, plastic, media-fed notions of what life is and what is important."

Heard concluded by emphasizing, "I prefer not to excommunicate myself from either the 'secular' world or the church, in favor of attempting to write in a way that is communicative to both but calculated towards neither."

It is no surprise, but sad nonetheless, that Heard could never find a real "home" for his music. He was barely recognized by either Christian or secular markets, and this painful reality left him barely able to support his wife, Janet, and his young daughter, Rebecca. Early in his career he seemed able to look upon this dilemma with a bit of humor, but as time passed (and a major Christian label stole the rights to the majority of his records) it became quite clear that this took a great toll on him personally. On the 1990 acoustic tour-de-force release, Dry Bones Dance, Heard attests to this by confessing,

I'm old enough to know
That dreams are quickly spent
Like a pouring rain on warm cement
Or fingerprints in dust
Nectar on the wind
Save them for tomorrow and tomorrow
lets you down again.

-"House Of Broken Dreams"

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, a man similarly caught between secular and Christian markets, heralded Mark Heard as his favorite songwriter. It's not surprising that Cockburn chose to perform one of Heard's favorite songs, "Strong Hand of Love," on the 1994 album of the same name, a tribute to Heard. The literary core of this song-and, it seems, of all Heard's music-is best illustrated in Paul's letter to the Romans: "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:20-21).

According to Dan Russell, Heard's friend and fellow partner in Fingerprint Records, "Mark saw the world as a whole. He didn't just look at the good. He looked at the good with the bad, and he came out of it with some hope." This was a major theme throughout his writings, as he laments on his 1985 rock & roll record, Mosaics:

The tears still fall
The birds still sing
And life is bittersweet
With a schizophrenic ring.
The sun still shines
The darkness still falls
We must see both
If we see them at all


Heard's overriding commitment to honestly confront this tension between good and evil had truly come of age upon his recording of Satellite Sky, which would prove to be his last album. On the first track of the record he pleads

Knock the scales from my eyes
Knock the words from my lungs
I want to cry out
It's on the tip of my tongue.

I've seen through the walls of this kingdom of dust
Felt the crucial revelation
But the broad streets of the heart and the day-to-day meet at a blind intersection.
I don't want to feel lonely, I don't want to feel pain
I don't want to draw straws with the sons of Cain
You can take it as a prayer if you'll remember my name
You can take it as a penance of a profane saint.

-"Tip of My Tongue"

Francis Schaeffer wrote, "From the Christian viewpoint, no man has ever been so naive, nor so ignorant of the universe, as twentieth-century man." This alarming statement penned in the early seventies was to be fully embraced by Mark Heard, who studied at Schaeffer's L'Abri school in Switzerland; indeed, Heard wove the sentiment into the fabric of his music material. On his 1984 record, Ashed and Light, he writes, "This album is dedicated to the memory of Francis A. Schaeffer, whose love for truth and whose understanding of the arts has helped me more than I can say, in my desire to interweave the two."

Like Schaeffer, Heard was an astute observer of culture and a passionate student of the scriptures. He sings, On Mosaics,

From New York City to Babylon
Like the tooth and the claw
There's the law of the missile and gun.
When Eden fell we gained our shame
And from that age to this
There has been no significant change.

With Broken Wings we beat the air
And as we plummet we pretend that we don't care.
With broken wings we walk the earth
And wonder how much is all of our recklessness worth.

-"With Broken Wings"

Victims of the Age, released in 1982, stands alone as Heard's most articulate literary work concerning life in a postmodern, post-Christian society. Living in the Los Angeles area provided Mark the rich context for his piercing observations of our troubled society. The culture has mastered the art of postulating seductive lies concerning what truth is and what will bring deep, lasting solace to the human heart. It was clear that Heard saw through these "faint veils" and was angered that they continued to carry on in the name of normality. On Satellite Sky he blasts out,

Look up, look down, lookout somehow
Look through the blindfold
Shake your fist and bet your soul.
You're in the way and the big wheels roll
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."

-"The Big Wheels Roll"

The diggers and the bankers and the architects and fools
Got to work, and you can't stop them with bitter tears or golden rules.
It's a race to stay alive, baby, it's lawyers tax and steel
'Til the life that you are living is the thing you never feel.

-"Long Way Down"

Heard was quite ruthless with himself as well, when it came to honest and forthright application of truth in the personal sphere. He invited his listeners into very private parts of his heart and mind, and there, as if sitting in his own family room, he confessed his own wrongdoings and shortcomings. Nowhere was he more honest about himself than on Satellite Sky:

I have faltered in my strength
I have wanted to do everything right
I swallow hard while the second hand blinks
Shut the back door to keep out the night.
Is it just a game
Is this a maze to lead me right back where I started from
This will be a broken man come shattered from this marathon.

-"A Broken Man"

An advantage that any skilled musician has is the ability to transport meaning in the form of sound and melody. On this particular record, Mark capitalizes on this concept through the use of his 1939 National Steel Mandolin, a rare and beautiful instrument that was to become one of his most prized tools. It provides the entire record with a richly sweet and, at times, haunting wail that beckons one to listen closely to the words and to his life.

Considering the immense struggles this man faced in the music business, what kept him motivated to consistently produce the quality and quantity of work he did? Heard's friend, Tom Willet, said of him, "Motivating and informing this inexhaustible productivity was a deep sense of duty-to the truth as he knew it, to his gifts, to his family and to God." Mark was truly a questioning man who passionately sought after truth and had come to believe that the message of the Bible was the only source of hope for mankind. On Mosaics he writes,

When the hand of man becomes inept
And sketches the truth in silhouette
All is not lost
All is not lost.
The hand of God has not worked in vain
And this globe is fodder for the feeblest brain.
All is not lost
All is not lost
Truth lives on
Truth lives on
Truth lives on.

-"All Is Not Lost"

Heard chose to live and breathe in the center of the mysterious drama that exists between heaven and earth. Those who allow themselves to feel their part in this must admit that it seems a slow waiting game which, at times, bears no real evidence of ever ending. Heaven and earth seem to be stalled in time and space, both yearning for release. The following lyrics from eye of the Storm poignantly illustrate our blind struggle to survive in this world:

We hide our pain
We try to laugh
Fools to think our tears
Would provoke Holy wrath.
We learn the protocol
We bare our souls to none
We praise our peers
For the optimism shown.
"Brave men don't cry," we say
As we watch the world turn to dust
The tears of God fall for us.

-"These Plastic Halos"

These lyrics are what initially drew me, in the early eighties, to Heard's life and music, and gave some definition and hope to my sometimes weary soul. I listened to these words repeatedly and became aware that God was reaching out to me-that something important was happening deep within my soul. Many things have happened in my life's journey since those youthful days of the eighties, one of which has been having to face the pain of Mark's passing. The impact his death has had on my life has been profound, simply because his spiritual journey has, in many ways, paralleled my own. He and I have connected through the airwaves in ways that have served to deepen my belief in the essential life-giving connection of a brother and friend, to whom I am forever indebted.

Since his death I have come to realize that the tears I have shed over him represent more than the pain felt from his untimely departure. His words and music have led me throughout the years into experiences of worship that remain fresh and alive in my soul. The backdrop of his love for God was an intense grief felt for a lost world, and it was that grief which, I believe, served to shorten his life. Mark painfully acknowledged on Satellite Sky:

Why do I lie awake at night and think back just as far as I can
To the sound of my Father's laugh outdoors
To the thought of Sputnik in free-flight?
Before I could fashion my poverty
Before I distrusted the night
I must've known something, I must've known something.
Those were the times I live for tonight
Why, Why, Why, I say Why, Mama, Why?
Why can't I live in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky?

-"Satellite Sky"

I am deeply comforted to know that Mark's wrestling is over and that he has found the Paradise that he so longed for.

Those interested in finding out more about Mark Heard's life and music may write to Fingerprint Records Inc., P.O. Box 197, Merrimac, Massachusetts, 01860, or call (508) 346-4577.