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Pierce Pettis remembers Mark Heard ...

Back in 1991, I was in southern California, working with Mark Heard on Tinseltown, my second album for Windham Hill/High Street. We had to pass a sort of audition by turning in two completed tracks before label owner and founder Will Ackerman would let Mark produce the rest of the album. Fortunately Will liked the tracks, so Mark and I ended up spending the better part of five to six months together … mostly at his home studio: a cramped, two-room shed in his back yard. This was actually a step up - his earlier studio (where he produced a couple of first-rate albums) was in the back of his panel truck.

Besides the tiny outer room used for a sound booth, there was a larger control room where Mark was usually found - bent over the coolest mixer I've ever seen. It was the original 16-track mixing console from Trident Studios in London - one of the first in the world. A lot of history had gone through that old mixer, including classic Rolling Stones albums like Let it Bleed and Beggar's Banquet. Somehow the thing ended up for sale in San Francisco, and Mark drove his truck up there and hauled it back … his most prized possession. He had a thing for antique electronics and packed the control room with them - old electric guitars from the '50s, Neumann microphones built in Germany during the war, old tube amps, tube limiters, compressors, etc., and that wonderful old mixer. I doubt Mark cared a bit about its celebrity, he just loved the way it sounded. He felt the warmth of old, hand-wired tube equipment was unmatched by the more modern solid-state digital stuff - and he was right.

Mark seemed to like quirky old objects in general. Somewhere, he picked up a gigantic old 1970s Cadillac convertible with white upholstery and power everything. Whenever questioned about the environmental/ecological impact of this gas-guzzling monster, he would insist that pound for pound, his car was far more fuel-efficient than any Toyota. Using similar logic, he once hired David Miner to play bass on a project and got him to agree to be paid by the note (David's check probably wasn't so great that day).

One morning as we were about to start another twelve-hour day of arranging, tracking, mixing, dubbing, editing, arguing … I noticed Mark pacing around his back yard with a mug of coffee, wireless phone to his ear and a troubled look on his face. Afterwards, I asked who it was on the phone and he said "T Bone [Burnett] - he wants me to ride up the coast with him and Bob Dylan." I remember blurting out something like, "Dylan?! Wow, you should just blow this off and go!" Mark gave me a disgusted look and said he had work to do. I couldn't believe this and when I pressed him, he said, "Look, who is Bob Dylan anyway? He's just some guy named Robert Zimmerman - maybe a nice guy, I don't know, but he's just a guy, ok? And I have work to do!" I think Randy Stonehill once said, "Mark made us all look like impostors." All I can say is, after all these years and all the talented and genuinely amazing people I've run across - no one impresses me, cracks me up or inspires me like Mark Heard still does.

Pierce Pettis ( Paste Magazine, VOL1 issue2, Q4 2002 )
Copyright © Pierce Pettis for Paste Magazine 2002

Here is an interview with Pierce Pettis where he comments on his work with Mark Heard. Pierce Pettis' latest album, State of Grace, is available on Compass Records.

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