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Set List

Remembering Mark Harp

By Pamela Purdy | Posted 1/5/2005

I can’t say I knew Mark Harp that well. For a brief time though, from September 1981 to December 1982, I’d push up close to the bandstand at venues like Girard’s and Coast to Coast and dance until my calves ached to the music of Null Set—Mark on guitar, Billy on vocals, John on bass, and Louis on drums. So when I heard last week that Harpo’s heart had failed him after a serious operation, all I could do was picture myself dancing with Amy, Bernie, Genie, Ira, Katie, Leigh, Lumpy, Mindy, Randy, Steevee, Tommy, and the rest of the Null Set camp followers.

According to my diary, first time I ever clapped eyes on Mark Harp was in a Battle of the Bands at the Marble Bar on Sept. 6, 1981. I’d come straight from the hospital where my father was all wired up and fighting for his life. I’d held his hand for almost an hour, until the radio at the nurses’ station played “Can’t live if living is without you.” Then I joined a teeny-weeny audience to hear the Screamers battle Null Set and St. Vitus’ Dance. I told my diary I was probably the one person who voted for Null Set who wasn’t dating a member of the band.

Three weeks later, Null Set teamed up with the D.T.s and Thee Katatonix at Columbia Station in Adams Morgan. Each band made six bucks, and the Kats broke up between sets. We consoled ourselves by nuking burritos at a 7-Eleven at 4 a.m.

At Oddfellows Hall on Nov. 6, 1981, Null Set had a new song and a play list that demanded we dance ourselves into the ground. Katie, an ex-Katatonic, told Harpo he should go solo. Later, in the ladies room, I overheard a woman in a gold dress tell her girlfriend Harpo stole the idea for his band from her.

On the 21st, at the Johns Hopkins Rathskeller, Mark told me they’d opened two sets in D.C. for Mission of Burma. “Afterward,” as I wrote in my diary, “people kept coming up to Mark and telling him, ‘You’re God, man,’ and comparing him to Hendrix, which is really blowing his mind. Nothing Mark has done in his whole life has ever been accepted—until now. He was the classic high-school misfit. Now he’s still the same overweight guy with pale hair, pink-rimmed eyes, and traces of acne, but people adore him for it.”

Over the next five months, the band played umpty-ump gigs.

“They have new songs every time, and the old ones keep getting better,” I told my diary. “They may be a trance band, but whoever heard of a trance band with a guitar hero?

“Mark only looks deadpan; in reality, he pours his heart out through his fingers.”

Then Null Set fell off the edge of the earth. They disappeared for five months before resurfacing for the 1982 Halloween party at the Marble Bar; 164 people turned up for their show, twice as many as two New York bands drew the night before. They’d changed drummers and added their own sound guy. Billy had started to sing some numbers, rather than just intoning them. Mark was still playing guitar but also bass, drums, keyboards, and toy instruments. A couple of tunes didn’t use guitar at all. Now Mark had, as Joe Ely put it, “guns no one can see.”

The last mention of Null Set I can find was two months later, a New Year’s Eve show at the Marble. They played at 3 a.m. to a bigger crowd than Polyrock, the nominal headliner. Amy and I danced in a dark corner, trying to look too cool for the room. But, you know, we were just fangirls.

My mother died this August. Not long ago I was driving past her gravesite on my way to the bank when Bette Midler launched into “My One True Friend.” Had to sit in the parking lot for 15 minutes, because there’s no crying in banks.

The day I heard Mark had died, the Divine Miss M. was silent. Instead, the History Channel was running a promo for its new special, Hell: The Devil’s Domain. I flashed on South Park’s vision of the Underworld, complete with Princess Di, John F. Kennedy Jr., and Gene Siskel. (Because Heaven is only for Mormons; they’re the ones who got it right.) So now I picture Harpo jamming with Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, Frank Zappa, and Edie the Egg Lady. I didn’t know him that well, but the Mark Harp I knew would a lot rather be playing in the devil’s dance band than zapping popcorn in Heaven with a host of Latter-day Saints.

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