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!"