“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word 'love' here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Marques Bovre died just over a week ago—the "hobgoblin," as he referred to his brain tumor, finally won—and I haven't gone a day since without crying. It's not that we were close friends, although we felt a real kinship from the time we first met in 1988, when I profiled him for the Madison Capital Times. It's more that, regardless of how often I saw him or spoke with him—and I hadn't seen him in five years, and only exchanged emails with him a couple times a year—he was one of my favorite people in the world, and I still can't imagine a world without him in it.
I'm betting that anyone who spent more than a minute or two with Marques would say the same. For all of his talents, he was one of the most egoless people you could ever hope to meet. For all of the talk about how fame cruelly eluded him, he also made a conscious choice to be a husband and a father rather than chase national success. For as deeply spiritual as he and his music were—and not vaguely spiritual, either, but firmly and explicitly Christian—he remained irreverent even about that; at a mutual friend's Catholic wedding, when the priest opened the tabernacle to get the sacramental wine, Marques leaned over to me and whispered "Batphone." And for as funny as he was, his humor was entirely without cruelty. If he poked fun at you, it was because you were taking yourself too seriously. The bottom line is that I always walked away from spending time with Marques feeling better about myself and the world, not because he was a rosy-eyed optimist but because he was a realist who believed in that love—the real deal, the kind that Baldwin wrote about—could save us. And you didn't need to know Marques to realize that; all you had to do was listen to his music.
I wrote about Marques and his music, that glorious noise he made with the Evil Twins, frequently in the 1990s, and even went so far as to call his 1994 album Ghost Stories from Lonesome County a "damned masterpiece." Almost twenty years later, I still believe that, but truth be told, my favorites out of his more than a dozen records are 1989's Don't Be Afraid and 2012's Nashville Dandelion. (Think about that for a moment: How many other artists do you know who released albums that you love with all your heart more than 20 years apart? The answers give you an idea of the elite company Marques' music belongs in.)
Don't Be Afraid picked apart the American myth and its refusal to accept those who chose to live outside the corporate ethos that subsumes individuality, spirituality, and the welfare of the planet in pursuit of conformity and tax deductions. "Line up all of your imaginary friends and shoot them, executioner style, right through their imaginary little heads, all imaginary blood and imaginary gore...'cause you're in the real world now," he sang on one song. Marques never got rid of his imaginary friends, I don't think; he just wrote songs about them, like the woman who narrates "A Waitress' Life," about a woman making suffering the indignities of a Hell "made out of coffee and chrome" while trying to raise a son on her own.
The song hit home for me, a 22-year-old expecting his first child and trying to figure out what the hell I was gonna do. But it also hit home with everyone I know who's heard it; Marques played it solo at a now-forgotten Madison bar one winter's night, and the whole place just stopped. Marques had dozens of songs like this one, songs about outcasts and misfits and people forced to live with the the outcomes of their own all-too-human mistakes, written in such a way that honors without romanticizing.
And, as with every other album Marques released with the Evil Twins, Don't Be Afraid runs the musical gamut from lovely acoustic solo material to full-powered rock and roll, with Marques' powerful, versatile voice providing the anchor throughout, whether almost whispering on "Anna's Lullaby" or snarling on "I Mow the Lawns."
Nashville Dandelion is more introspective, a spiritual manifesto that kicks off with "Welcome to this Version of My Life" and concludes, fittingly, with "Love." Marques once told an interviewer that his entire spiritual philosophy was distilled into "Somebody Loves You,"a song that first appeared on his Faith is a Muscle album (Marques worked and reworked songs over the years, each recorded version bringing new meaning and feeling). A mirror image to the born-again fire and brimstone of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," the song lists off a litany of unsavory behavior. But unlike Dylan, who came to each chorus insisting that no matter who you are, you were in servitude, Bovre concludes that everybody, no matter how badly we screw up, is not just worthy of love but, against all odds, already the recipient of it. In the title track, he paraphrases Matthew 25:40, gently suggesting that "what you do to me and mine, what you do to dandelion," while on "Entertaining Thoughts" (maybe my favorite song on the album), he outlines a spiritual vision that's as warm, welcoming, and unassuming as its singer's smile:
And if you start to feeling small,
Know that you’re part of something powerful.
That all the infinite is inside you.
You might fall into feeling grateful.
And if you can’t get there from here,
Then we’ll all pray someday you do.
‘Cause no one’s children will be left behind.
Your God has not abandoned you.
Marques Bovre at his 50th birthday celebration in June 2012
Again, Marques hit home with me. My spiritual life has been all over the place, from agnosticism to Catholicism and back again, but Nashville Dandelion is so convincing in its embrace of unconditional love—and its songs so beautiful—that it's almost enough to make me start believing in God again. It's a vision that's absolutely centered on the true message of Jesus Christ, meaning that it utterly transcends church and communion and Batphones and organized Christianity as we know it. When the band at Marques' memorial service—made up not just of Evil Twins but members of So Dang Yang and a half-dozen other musicians he'd played with over the years—played "Love," it said everything you need to know about not just Marques but about living your life.
I agonized over writing this, because I love Marques and his music so damned much that I worried I wouldn't be able to do him or it justice. I haven't, but that's all right, and if I still can't listen to more than a few minutes of his music without crying, that's all right, too. It's a cliche, but even though Marques isn't in this world anymore, his music remains to comfort us.
If you haven't heard Marques Bovre's music yet, you can get a taste at www.marquesbovre.com and on the WMMM website. Last fall, I put together a mix of my favorite Marques songs to share with friends. The links go to the songs' lyrics, or to audio clips or video when available.
- Welcome to this Version of My Life
- Flyover Land
- Einstein's Mustache
- The Real World
- A Waitress' Life
- Dirty Larry
- 27 Years
- Sisyphus Stone (video from 50th birthday celebration)
- Ballad of the Evil Twins
- I'm Sorry (That in the Body of Christ I've Been the Asshole)
- Jesus was a Stone Cold Killer
- Don't Be Afraid
- Dry Bones (video from December 2011 benefit concert)
- With God on Our Side (video from December 2011 benefit concert)
- You Come Along
- Lonesome County (music video)
- Somebody Loves You (video from 50th birthday celebration)
- Entertaining Thoughts
- Dandelion (video from December 2011 benefit concert)
- End of the Line
- Big Strong House (video from 50th birthday celebration)
- If There be Mercy
- Conversations with God
- Anna's Lullaby
- I Like Gyrls (Who Like Gyrls)
- 867-5309/Jenny (Tommy Tutone