By John Cody
Mark Volman has sang on literally hundreds of records, but he’s most well known for his work with the Turtles during the sixties, and Frank Zappa during the seventies – when he and singing partner Howard Kaylan were known as Flo & Eddie. Today he’s an Adjunct Professor at Belmont University in Nashville.
Volman recently sat for a series of interviews, discussing his career, his faith, and much, much more. This excerpt deals with his journey to faith. Further chapters on the Turtles, Zappa, Flo & Eddie and his teaching career will follow.
“Growing up in the fifties and early sixties, pursuing God and finding comfort in Jesus Christ, or going to church wasn’t a social consideration. I just thought of Christianity as something kind of commercial; Christianity had become commercial.”
Mark Volman is recalling his formative years.
“I was a typical half-Jew” he laughs. With a Jewish father and Catholic mother, life at home could get interesting. “They were married close to sixty years, in a mixed marriage. So my mother, being a very strong Catholic, and my father being a not-so-strong Jew, brought a lot of fire to the marriage. But they allowed my brother and I to pretty much find our own way.”
For the most part, exposure to the family’s faith heritage came through his grandparents. “My grandfather Karl and my grandmother Blanche were very devout Jews. Coming from Eastern Europe, they brought that love of the Bible with them. Their religion was very strong.” Each year they would observe the High Holy Days with their son and his family, thereby allowing Mark an opportunity to experience the celebration first hand.
Christian doctrine came via his maternal Grandmother, who didn’t even speak English. Her family had moved from Mexico to Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, to a neighborhood popular with Mexican-Americans at the time. “Through Junior High I was raised by my grandmother during the school week. My mother and father both worked, so I was left with my grandmother, who spoke no English.”
Volman describes her with great affection as; “Catholic: richly Catholic.” She had nine sons and daughters, and took it upon herself to make sure young Mark was raised according to the tenants of the church, even if that meant going behind his parent’s backs. Unbeknownst to either of them, Grandma “was basically conditioning me as a Catholic. She was very strong about me attending Catholic Church with her. We spent many days riding a bus from Los Angeles down to the church on Alvara Street, where she felt at home. So, whether I knew it or not, I was being raised with a moral fiber.”
She died while he was still in high school. “The only one who ever prodded me into any kind of discipline at all was my Grandmother. Once she died, I was floating in a sea of nondescriptness as far as my spiritual life.”
Within a few years, he was a globe-trotting rock star, leading a charmed life far removed from the ways of the traditional church. He couldn’t have been happier, and certainly didn’t sense anything was missing from his life.
“I always felt like I had a spirituality touching me, but I really didn’t have any reason to equate it with Jesus Christ or Christianity. It wasn’t a part of the times. It just wasn’t a part of the way we lived.”
As the L.A. music scene opened to an ever-widening, spiritually-eclectic world view of psychedelic Yogis and New Age mystics, traditional forms of worship became passé with the hip cognoscenti. Any discernible Christian presence – if at all – was negligible.
“I don’t remember there being any vocal Christians around. That would
have been a hard row to hoe at that time.” He hastens to add that they weren’t closed to the notion of a divine presence; “It’s not like we were faithless people. We were spiritually inclined.”
He forged his own path. “As the sixties unfolded, I approached my own explorations of spirituality. It was very easy with the persistence of drugs, which were very much a part of the social scene and makeup of the musicians of that era.”
Volman certainly did his share. “We have to look at the era; it’s easy for us in the year 2007 to say ‘Yes, drugs kill.’ But in 1965, when you’re eighteen years old, and your record is in the top ten…and somebody tells you; ‘If you do drugs, you’ll die.’ I mean, ‘prove it!,’ is the answer there. I didn’t know Charlie Parker, so you can’t point to Charlie Parker and say: ‘You’re going to end up like Chet Baker and those guys.’ I mean, who the hell were they?” As far as anyone knew, there wasn’t a single rock ‘n’ roll drug fatality at that point. “Everything that they warned us against really just wasn’t happening.”
Today, he can only laugh. “We were just unfettered, weren’t we? We were just an accident waiting to happen.”
At the time, however, there appeared to be almost no downside to experimenting with drugs.
“It wasn’t a negative thing at all to use them, and they would open up my mind [to] Eastern philosophy; that was a natural extension of what LSD and the drugs of the mind [were doing], which at that time were very influential. [The drugs] challenged me, obviously, to experiment and read and pursue many different outlooks, some that I still enjoy reading about.”
Contemplating new, esoteric philosophies was a welcome change to what he refers to as “the whole social scene of pop music and the drama it brought on.”
“There were a lot of maps…a lot of books that were guiding me through my explorations.” A particular favorite was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. “I always enjoyed what that book did in terms of lighting the fire in my heart to seek. And also to be a compassionate person – to find compassion.” He also found inspiration in one of Elvis Presley’s favorite authors, Joseph Benner, whose The Impersonal Life and Way to the Kingdom supposedly contained messages direct from God.
Insight could be found in the most unlikely places. “People were finding gurus everywhere.” He lists Tolkien, Cyrano de Bergerac and Edgar Allan Poe as examples. “Everybody was using drugs and fueling their own fires, in so many different ways.”
“I’m lucky that I grew up in a band that was [like] a family. For all the problems that we did have, we were drawn to taking our drugs together, and we spent a lot of evenings discussing spiritual things…a lot of time putting our heads together and asking questions. And we found a lot of answers in those Eastern philosophies during our experimental trips.”
Rock ‘n’ roll boasts a lengthy list of casualties; many of Volman’s peers died or burned out years ago. “I would never say I’m surprised somebody became a Christian – I would always say I’m surprised he lived long enough to become a Christian. Because on any given night, anybody I was growing up with could have passed the point of no return. And not even know it.”
In hindsight, he believes many of those who succumbed suffered from personal issues long before they ever indulged. “I don’t remember anyone dying from an overdose of pot. Or even LSD. You might have lost a few molecules in certain parts of your brain, [but] it’s not always because of the drugs. Maybe the drugs connected to some part of the system that was already apart – already bad. A condition that was already there, that really came to the forefront. Who knows? We don’t know every person’s life who did LSD. Without knowing, it’s hard to say ‘are drugs the reason they’re not here, or did drugs just heighten one of the things in their life that would eventually kill them?’
“I was in the same bus as a lot of those guys. I think that we came out differently on the other end because of what we had already had put inside us, by our parents or our grandparents. By our moral fiber that is [already] in there. That’s God, right? I mean, whatever you want to call it. Our moral issues, our religious backgrounds… I think [of] everything that my grandparents did; that Jewish/Catholic upbringing in some way brought me to where I’m at today.
He cites former Turtles guitarist Al Nichol – who has struggled for decades with alcoholism – as an example of the destructive power a parent can hold; “Al’s mother once said; ‘Al never came back from that last tour.’ And I said; ‘Well, I did. I was doing the same thing as Al. So why did I come back and Al didn’t?’ And I’m thinking; maybe you – Mr. and Mrs. Nichol – have that answer. Maybe you, by telling Al he would have been better off going to college than being in the Turtles, because ‘you’re a musician, and you didn’t become a Professor like your father, and you could’ve been so much more…’ But not ever saying ‘we love you…’ Maybe the things you said, finally, he believed them. Maybe that’s the problem.”
Traditionally, entertainers who became Christians were expected to publicly renounce every facet of their former lives, focusing on how terrible things were beforehand. In many cases, that’s simply not true. For some, the parties and drugs were enormous fun.
Volman agrees. “You know, if you take the word of God as a part of your life now, then God was with you then, too. It may not have been in the forefront of your personality, but God was with you. If you believe in God now, and if you have faith that God has always been there, then God was with you when you were doing those drugs.”
“And you didn’t stop: you did them. He allowed you to go through them. And that’s why I’m never shocked at the ones that don’t make it through, or the ones that do make it through. When I look back at life, some did, some didn’t.”
Music seemed to have the power to change the world – or at least worldviews – in the sixties, and the Beatles were undoubtedly the most influential recording act of the day. Volman believed their music “could open the door toward a higher consciousness.”
“The messages were being passed through in terms I understood very clearly. By drenching myself in ‘All You Need Is Love;’ listening to George Harrison say ‘Without going out of my room…I can go into myself, and I can feel the heartbeat of a human being, and I can make a better person out of myself…’ I mean, these were the messages that were coming to me from my peers.”
“Eastern religion touched by Jesus Christ; to soften the blow in an era when Jesus Christ was unacceptable” is how he describes the lyrics of the Beatles and their contemporaries. “I truly believe that the message of Jesus Christ came through those songs.”
Regardless of the source, if it’s truth, it’s truth; “I don’t care who wrote it.”
“I think that it’s important to understand – in my mind – that Jesus comes to people in many ways, and it may be that Jesus used these during that time. It’s not unlikely, that if we believe in God – in God’s will, in God being in control of our lives – that those teachings were a part of that guiding light, too. If you look at those teachings, there were a lot of positive elements that came through, and then they kind of let loose into Christianity, however it was for each individual – everybody was different. Everybody had a different path they took along the way.
“It’s kind of like world music; along the way we found a little reggae, a little Caribbean, a little classical, a little be-bop jazz, but in the end, it was all music.
“I think there was always one or two people in each group who you always had a sense, were farther along the road in their seeking.
As an example, he mentions Jim McGuinn of the Byrds, who changed his name to Roger after becoming involved in the Subud spiritual association in 1965.
“That was a religious manifestation of that time. I don’t think that changed what Jim was. Changing his name to Roger accompanied the times. And eventually, finding and putting the word ‘Christian’ and ‘Jesus Christ;’ that was the destination he finally arrived at.”
Along with McGuinn, various members of the Byrds,
“Part of that journey led me through Eastern religions, and through this drug-fueled haze. And the fortunate thing is that drug-fueled haze is about 22 years behind me. There’s a remarkable amount of strength in putting that haze in perspective. Not ignoring it, not looking at where I’ve been with how bad it was, and the negative twist you could put on nearly any part of it, but taking where I am now as a gift”
Volman no longer holds to core tenants of Eastern religious thought like reincarnation; “No. I believe that we’re going to be in heaven with God.” He does, however, consider his explorations of those belief systems to be time well spent; “All of that made it much easier for my eventual conversion of accepting Jesus Christ into my life.”
That conversion occurred, “by taking Jesus personally into my life one day, and accepting the fact that I was going to pursue life as a Christian.”
It was the end result of a reasoned, decades-long journey. “It wasn’t like I pulled over on the side of the road one day and saw a blinding flash of light. I had always been somebody who believed in God, [and] I always felt that Jesus Christ was a part of my life. I didn’t put it into some sort of prophetic new finding. I just found that it allowed me a route to study and to find a centre, spiritually, for myself.”
In 1998 – at 51 years old – he was baptized. “I’m not really sure that I was any more literate about the Bible, [so] I began reading more and more. As I made the commitment, I began to search, just like in the sixties, when I was searching through the Eastern philosophies.”
Mark and his wife Emily – they were married in 2000 – attend Harpeth Presbyterian Church in Nashville, where they sing in the choir and are advisors for the youth group.
“Everybody has a different way of saying ‘I’m a Christian,’ and the things you do that make you a Christian. One of the things it says in the Bible – I’m not going to sit here and quote the Bible – but I am gonna say, if you make your commitment to being a Christian, you need to be with Christian people. And you need to be learning the word of God, reading the Bible, and sharing the word of God, talking about it with other Christians, so that it helps you connect. And that’s something that I do on a regular basis. I’ve lead Bible studies. I go to Bible studies.”
He believes it’s essential that the church reach out to young people.
“It’s very important. That’s why my wife and I are working with the high school kids at our church every Sunday night, going on mission trips, and rafting trips, and being a part of their day-to-day life so that when they look back and they’re married and have kids – they might not have known who I was – but they’ll go ‘we had this guy there, and he was like, in the Turtles, and yet here he was every Sunday night at youth group, talking in Bible study, talking about the parables of Matthew, Mark…and so forth.’
“It’s drawing and making posters and talking about passages of the Bible as they begin to shape and form their choices – that’s what I want to be able to be a part of.”
“We talk sometimes about stuff that I know they’ve never talked to their parents about. It’s a remarkable thing to talk about the problems they’re having with their parents and be able to say ‘well, maybe it’s not exactly what you think it was; I’ve been a parent, I know that’s not exactly what I was thinking when I might’ve said those things to my kids.’ You know, cut them a little slack.”
Volman has two grown daughters from his first marriage. He regrets having missed out on most of their formative years. “The unfortunate thing was that I was touring. That’s one of the things you give up; it’s part of the business, unfortunately. And it all happened to me at such a young age. I had no [idea]; my kids were young, I was young…just everything was wrong.”
Any wounds have long since healed. “It’s good; I’m good friends with my daughters. They’re good friends. They’re seriously grown up,” he laughs “my oldest daughter is turning 40. It’s hard to hear the word ‘children’ when you have a 40-year-old daughter. That’s pretty scary.”
In a sense, he considers his involvement with the youth group a ‘second chance,’ at parenting. “There’s a healing thing, of being able to be there, and talk to them about things that maybe I didn’t get to, maybe I should’ve talked a little more to my kids about.”
He feels it’s important there be an awareness of other faith communities; “I think it’s exciting to teach young people that the religion you believe in isn’t the only religion. When you sit in the room with somebody who says ‘I’m a Methodist,’ or ‘I’m a Pentecostal.’ Or ‘I’m a Baptist.’ Or ‘I’m a Jew.’ Or ‘I’m a Catholic;’ ‘I Am,’ is the key phrase, that always starts that sentence.”
He maintains there’s an inherent danger in holding such a rigid outlook. “There are people who might say that teaching the word of God in the Methodist Church is more valuable than teaching in the Calvary Chapel. Somebody [else] could say; ‘because you’re not part of the Reformation, you’re not a Presbyterian; you’re not teaching the word of God.’ And we just get into a whole mishagas, as my Grandmother used to say.
“I wouldn’t want to say that because you were a Muslim and I’m a Christian that I’m closer to God than you are. And we have a tendency – there are people who do that. I couldn’t be comfortable doing my life like that.”
Instead, he models the approach commonly identified with St. Francis of Assisi; ‘Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.’
“I would feel very comfortable walking into a room of 200 people who did not believe in Jesus Christ, and not have to stand there and tell them they should find Jesus Christ, or they’re not going to heaven…I don’t walk up and say ‘you know where you can find that peace?’ I hope that by meeting me, seeing the person I am, seeing the changes I’ve been through – maybe that’s my lead. And hopefully in the long run it will have some value.”
Faith is a subject that fascinates Volman. “The Bible gives us lots of stories that teach faith. It gives lots of stories about people that don’t have faith. It’s asking us to believe God, to have faith.
“It takes commitment on a day-to-day basis. To make a commitment to God isn’t just to be able say ‘are you reading the Bible every day?’ It isn’t ‘I pulled over to the side of the road and I asked God to come into my life.’ It is, but when somebody makes a commitment to Jesus Christ, in terms of coming to grips with faith, understanding faith…I think that what Jesus is asking, is; ‘Believe in me. Believe in me and I will give you strength and I will give you peace.’ And to treat people with love, the way you would ask them to treat you. I think that’s really all that’s asked of us.” Volman begins to laugh; “These are not hard rules.”
But they’re hard to follow; “It’s harder to follow than it is to ask. He asks us to follow…that’s what we’re asked to do. And his commitment – God’s sending us his son – is saying; ‘this is what I am willing to put up for you. This is what I’m willing to give to you….’
“To say the Bible is the perfect answer is the challenge of the world. And that is why I like to read the Bible.” He enjoys studying scripture, and is rarely bothered by seeming incongruities. “Because there are contradictions that go through the Bible, constantly.” The fact that it’s more than a simple book of rules only serves to bolster his faith. He laughs; “I am a contradiction. I’m a walking, living, breathing [contradiction]. I’m not perfect. It’s hard enough for me, [but] it becomes easier and easier. Hopefully, I’m getting better. Maybe it’s taken sixty years.
“I spend a lot of time working in the church, and I don’t expect because I tithe, that it’s going to buy my way into anything” he laughs; “but it’s certainly better than the way I was living my life when I was young.”
Recalling questionable incidents from years ago, he occasionally has to remind himself he’s already been forgiven, rather than focus on the negative. “It’s so easy…I know that I can’t really make up for the things I’ve done. And it’s not like I threw a cat into a garage and lit it on fire,” he chuckles. “But seriously, in the eyes of God, we are all sinners. We’re just different varieties, and different levels. Not one of us is perfect. We’re a work in progress.
“I feel like I have a lot of moral character, now. I may not have during my youth, and during my halcyon days, but that was the past; the fishermen weren’t the perfect Christians until God offered them a chance to walk in his shadow. And he’s offered me a second life.”
“You know, life isn’t as much of a mystery as it was when I was 30 years old, when I was 25 years old. I’m not as worried about death. And I’m not preoccupied with the need to be a top five artist any more. Or even to make music anymore. I write music; I must have 30 or 40 original songs, and I haven’t even thought about making a record. I just play ‘em for myself.”
He describes his newer songs as philosophical, dealing with “the love of God, this blessed life I live [and] the continuing saga I can look forward to.” And – as he enters his seventh decade – mortality; “approaching an end in a certain part of my life. And I’m looking beyond that. Either way, I can’t really change it. I can’t. [So] I try not to get bogged down with the things that used to bog me down.”
That seems unlikely. What permeates each of our conversations is a sense of gratitude, a man clearly thankful for the life he now lives.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m the perfect Christian. I know that I’m not. I just know I’m as perfect as God has made me, and has intended me to be on this journey. He’s given me things that I never thought humanly possible in this life, and I’m not sure in the end [that] I’ve done enough to pay back.”
© John Cody 2007