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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Knack for Obsession

by C.B. Heinemann

he first thing everybody told me when, at the age of twelve, I announced my intention to become a professional musician—and what I was forced to learn again and again from bitter experience—is that for every successful musician there are thousands who never make it. Knowing who will make it as predictable as knowing who will be whacked in the head by a falling meteorite. Most great musicians are obsessive about their music, but aren’t particularly photogenic, live in the wrong place, know the wrong people, and have no business sense. The ravages of fame and fortune are familiar to anyone who idly surveys headlines in gossip magazines, but a lifetime of unrecognized brilliance can warp a person in less obvious ways.

When I first met Mark, we were fourteen. His father had been murdered in Florida, and his too-hastily remarried mother and stern stepfather moved the family to Maryland. On the first day of school Mark and I got talking, and he later brought me to his house to show off his stash of monster magazines. It was an exhaustive collection, all neatly organized in a special trunk. He told me he had a tendency to “get a little obsessive.”

Mark’s mom and her new husband would get rip-roaring drunk every night, fight, tear the house up, and then go after Mark. Once thoroughly beaten, he was generally kicked out and forced to fend for himself—rain, shine, or snow. In order to survive he crafted a superficially pleasing personality to ingratiate himself to others. He frequently showed up at my window and asked to spend the night. The poor kid lived for weeks at a time like a stray dog, wandering from one friend’s house to another hoping to get a meal or a place to sleep. He always looked slightly emaciated, and his dense brown hair grew over his shoulders and down his back. Most of his clothes were given to him by friends and didn’t fit.
He lost interest in monster magazines after living with two real monsters, and re-aimed his obsessiveness at playing the guitar. He saved up money from working odd jobs and bought a 1964 Fender Stratocaster. While his parents crashed and hollered upstairs, he locked himself in his room and practiced. He listened to the great guitarists of the time—Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Clapton—and started writing his own songs. All through junior high and high school he practiced during most of his waking hours, even bringing his guitar to school and playing scales in the back of the classroom. After scraping up the money for a tape recorder, he started recording his songs. By the time he was a senior he had written hundreds of what he called “cosmic dream songs.”

Miraculously, Mark earned good grades. During the summers he would hitchhike up and down the East Coast. Whenever he returned from his adventures, he invariably had fallen in love with a girl along the way and obsessed about her--writing letters, calling, hitchhiking to visit her—until the girl couldn’t handle the single-minded intensity of his interest. What he had to show from those broken relationships were dozens of new songs.

Mark was always in love, and always on LSD, speed, or the latest hallucinogen. But he never stopped practicing and writing. He left home and lived with various friends over the years, and we played in several bands together. I found his preoccupation with music admirable, and his songs were unlike anything else I’d ever heard. I started to think that he might be a genius. We wrote songs together and formed a country-rock band called Sleaze, along with David Van Allen, who later became a well-known master of the pedal steel guitar.

Sleaze went through several incarnations over the years, and Mark became locally known for his expressive guitar playing and songwriting. However, he could never break through to the larger world and remained a local phenomenon. When Mark hit his mid-twenties he got a job working for a lab cleaning out monkey cages and, frustrated by lack of real success as a musician, stopped playing. He and his girlfriend holed up together for four years, working all day then studying astrology at night.

hen another friend and I finally pried him out of the house to help record our friend’s new band, we started a chain reaction in Mark’s life that led to him taking up music again with a vengeance. Punk rock had swept away the synth-rock bands and stripped rock ‘n roll down to bare essentials, which was just what Mark needed to inspire him. When we had a chance to join a “punkabilly” band with the great singer Martha Hull, we both dropped what we had been doing and spent two years on a wild ride that took us perilously close to fame and fortune. After the band fell apart and the ride screeched to a halt, Mark married a woman who promptly dumped him and dragged him through a grinding divorce.

He responded by drinking more, writing more songs, studying the Tarot, and working overtime at two low-paying jobs. When my band, Dogs Among the Bushes, found itself in need of a bassist, I asked Mark if he would consider joining us. Celtic folk-rock wasn’t his music, and bass wasn’t really his instrument, but I thought it would get him out there playing again. I doubted he would take me up on the offer, so I was surprised when he jumped at the chance. He never felt comfortable with our music or the bass, and I could tell because once he figured out a bass line for a song, he never varied it from performance to performance.

I contacted an agent in Germany who set up a four-month tour. At that point, Mark was forty-one, divorced, and what some called a “functioning alcoholic.” He worked day and night, lived in the basement of a friend’s house, and spent his few off-hours recording songs and drinking vodka.

A couple of months before our tour he met a twenty-two year old girl and fell for her—hard. He talked about her, wrote songs for her, and repeatedly dismissed the age difference. She was flattered by the attention, but I knew she had no serious interest in a man so much older. When she made an off-hand remark about him being “stuck in a rut,” he decided to prove himself by quitting his jobs the next day, buying a new car, and offering to run away to South America with her. Alarmed, she broke up with him, flinging him into a depression so deep that he didn’t get out of bed for weeks.

That was unfortunate, because the band needed him to help prepare for the tour. He drank, he chain-smoked, he cried, he called me in the middle of the night to tell me that something inside had “broken.” I knew that, after a crushing divorce and now a failed romance with a much younger woman, he was in the midst of a classic mid-life crisis. Younger woman, better car. Next, I guessed, would come a new obsession.

That guess came true with all the vengeance of the Lord. One evening he called me, insisted I come over, then sat me down and told me that the Holy Spirit had entered his heart and that he had finally accepted Jesus Christ as his “personal savior.” It was only two weeks until our tour, and I saw dark premonitions appear on the horizon.

Mark didn’t help with the earthly preparations for our tour—making phone calls, getting together press kits, CDs, posters, and photographs, or researching insurance and tax information we might need. He preferred to take care of what he called “the spiritual side” of the tour. It turned out that the bulk of his spiritual work involved reading the bible over and over again, going to every Pentecostal church service within a hundred miles, and driving around looking for “signs” from The Lord. By sheer coincidence, those signs kept leading him to his former girlfriend’s neighborhood to keep an eye on her and protect her from “demons.” I worried, half-facetiously, that The Lord might next instruct him to “cleanse the sinners” in the band and deposit their bodies into shallow, unmarked graves.

I flew to Europe early and spent a week in Amsterdam looking for a van to buy for our tour. It was challenging trying to find a cheap but serviceable van in a foreign city and then take care of insurance and registration. When Mark and the rest of the band arrived and I picked them up at the airport in our Volkswagen Transporter, Mark gave all the credit to his “spiritual” work and didn’t thank me for my efforts, since I was merely a vessel of The Lord’s will.

During the first weeks of our tour Mark was unusually subdued, generally sitting in the back of the van memorizing the bible and grinding his teeth. I became increasingly aware that he was observing the rest of us. As long as I’d known him he had always been a talker, so his silence was disturbing.

One night at a gig he approached me during a break and whispered that other members of the band were “surrounded by demons,” and needed to accept Jesus before it was too late. Another member was being “used by Satan” and had to be watched carefully. I later overheard him telling another band member that I was “falling under the influence of dark forces.” To Mark, it was obvious that God had arranged for him to join our band for the express purpose of leading us to Him.

I reminded Mark that I’d put in some time observing him, too—through his phases of obsession with astrology, tarot, and drugs—and none of them seemed to make him happy or a better person. He answered that this was the “real thing.” “You can see how I’ve changed,” he insisted. “I’ve been transformed by the Lord. Everyone can see it.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, if anything, he was more the same than ever.

In the German port city of Greifswald we got to know the manager of the club we played in, who happened to be an attractive young woman. I watched Mark employ the same pick-up tactics on her that I’d seen him use hundreds of times before his conversion, and for decidedly unspiritual reasons. He claimed he had no carnal interest in her—he was there to help her find The Lord. He looked quite pleased with himself when she agreed to go out for a picnic on the beach with him. When they returned she rolled her eyes and muttered something about him being a “holy prude.” I had to give him credit—he really was trying to save rather than seduce her. The problem was that she would have preferred to be seduced.

He repeated this behavior in several towns, zeroing in on attractive but troubled young women, cozying up to them before springing the Lord on them. He grew more frustrated with our music when he realized that nothing in our songs glorified the Lord, and as he told me, any music that leaves out the Lord is dead and meaningless. As our tour reached the home stretch, Mark felt emboldened, preaching at us incessantly in traffic jams on the autobahn or while we were lost on country roads. One night as we sat on a bench overlooking the Rhine he harangued me until I literally had to run from the Good News before I lost my temper. Another night in a hotel he filled a bathtub in which he planned to “baptize” us, and begged us to allow him to save us. “It’s only a little water and a few words and it’s over—you’re saved.” He almost got a sock on the chin when he tried to drag one band member—one who he felt had been getting a bit too comfortable with Satan—into the bathroom.

Mark’s fervor created a corrosive friction that brought the unsaved elements in the band closer together and eager to do Satan’s bidding—fire Mark. This became cemented into our plans on the night a tire on the van went flat and, while the rest of us dragged ourselves out into a rainstorm to change the tire, he stayed inside praying. Predictably, he credited his prayers for the new tire when we got back on the road.

After the tour he moved in with a German girl—attractive and troubled, of course—who was twenty-three but looked sixteen. The rest of us returned to the States and began looking for a new bass player. When Mark returned home after his girlfriend grew tired of his evangelical hectoring, we informed him that he was no longer in the band. It was an emotional meeting, and Mark gave us the same look that Moses must have given the Chosen People when he found them worshipping a Golden Calf. “So you all went sneaking around behind my back and plotting to get rid of me! After all I’ve done for this band, and all I’ve done for your eternal souls…”

“You moved in with that chick in Germany,” I said. “We need a bass player, you know.”

“I see Satan’s hand in all this.” He leapt to his feet. “I see demons all around you! I feel sorry for you, all of you!”

He proceeded to deliver a thundering, incomprehensible denunciation of our perfidy that was a cross between Jeremiah and Revelations before he finally withdrew in a chariot of self-righteousness.

 didn’t see Mark again for fifteen years. I finally ran into him at the funeral of a mutual friend’s mother, where Mark had been asked to play guitar on a song our friend had written. I hardly recognized him in a suit with his gray hair and stooped shoulders. He hugged me when I arrived, and told me that he hoped that Jesus had been with me all those years. Before getting up to play he said, “I haven’t played a note since that last gig in Germany. I’m too busy studying scripture. I’m kind of obsessive about it.”

He fumbled through the song and I felt terrible. After all those years of brilliance he could barely get through one verse. Then, as the song built momentum, he stood up straight and his eyes brightened. For one glorious moment, that old obsession from his youth cut loose a guitar run that made the entire congregation gasp. He looked around self-consciously, his shoulders slumped down again, and he stumbled his way to the end of the song.

For just a few seconds, that obsessive genius in Mark asserted itself. And for once I did pray, and I prayed for Mark. But I doubt it was a prayer he would have approved.

C.B. Heinemann has been performing, recording and touring with rock and Irish music groups for nearly twenty years. His Celtic rock band, Dogs Among the Bushes, was the first American Celtic group to tour in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. His short stories have appeared in Storyteller, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Danse Macabre, Fate, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cool Traveler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Car & Travel, Outside In Literary Journal, and Florida English.

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