Ed played Martin Mull records in his University of Dayton dorm room. We drank wine on Friday nights and listened to songs like “Headin” for the Cumberland Gap”, a Disney style frontier ditty that sounded a lot like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”. Mull’s version had a different tone: the lyrics discussed selling daughters to pay for a trip out west, the side benefits of herding sheep (“the next best thing to a wedding ring when it’s time to go to sleep”), and drowning grandpa when crossing a river (caught himself in the wagon wheels). Another song mused about the difficulties of sneaking out of a bedroom the morning after a drunken tryst. Another was a jingle for a fictional fast food chain called Bun n’ Run (“It’s not food, it’s just fun!”). And another recounted unusual methods of getting intimate: “whips, chains, Great Danes…”
I assumed that Martin’s heart had been dipped in acid as his appearances in movies and on TV in the seventies confirmed the impression received from his albums. He played everything with a smarmy insincerity so blatant that it became comical. He undercut his lines with a wink and sardonic smile that told me that everything is a sad joke, that nothing is true, good and pure.
I heard that he was an artist whose work had been collected by Steve Martin. I recently googled Mull’s artwork and found odd photo-realist paintings about suburban, “Leave It to Beaver” absurdities. These fit my original take on his personality. Later work, however, looked like it had been done by another man. Tentative marks, child-like figures, and haunted spaces dominated this body of work.
I recently bought a book entitled “Paintings, Drawings, and Words” by Martin Mull. He relates that his main creative endeavor is painting, and that he decided to devote himself to art after a brush with death in the early 80s. Music and acting are his day jobs, but visual art is his true vocation.
He states that his current work comes about from an intuitive process that involves complex layering of imagery, erasures, preliminary studies, and searches for a genuine expression that moves him in unexpected ways. He believes in honesty, hard work and persistence.
His favorite artist is Matisse, and he had a religious experience while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He turned a corner and encountered Pierre’s masterpiece, “The Piano Lesson”. Time stood still as the canvas drew him into it’s influence, and it’s enchantments changed his life. Mull’s unqualified adoration of the French Modernist’s work is sincere, and he sites Matisse’s work as a foundation for his own explorations.
This story reminds me, oddly enough, of sentimental movies from the thirties. A bitter grouch unwillingly takes in a mop-top orphan, and his heart gradually softens and melts. Mull used to be a cynical curmudgeon, but “The Piano Lesson” thawed his bitter heart and made him a new man.