Originally published in the June 2, 2013 Charleston Gazette-Mail
It was a big house, but nothing could absorb the racket radiating from the basement of the Arkansas home of George Bartlett, his parents and three younger sisters.
George and his boyhood friend and fellow Boy Scout, John Shepherd, were swept up in the Beatlemania that ensued after the Beatles landed in 1964 to wild acclaim in New York, followed by an “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance.
“After seeing the Beatles, we knew we had to have a band. He decided he was going to be the drummer,” Shepherd said.
But with what? With no drum kit at hand, George used whatever he could find around his white pillared house beside the railroad tracks in the town of Corning.
Pots and pans. Trash cans. Cooking utensils.
Upstairs, the rest of the family grimaced, especially after George progressed to an actual drum kit, which ratcheted the decibel level even higher. “It would just about drive us crazy,” recalled Sharon Bartlett, oldest of George’s sisters.
As the boys moved into high school, they played for the dances held after football games. What was the name of the band?
“That’s where they just called us ‘Live Band,'” said Shepherd, who now lives in Bowden, Ark.
They did eventually have band names. General Electric. Backyard Witchcraft. Mammoth. The Muleskinner Blues Band (except that they spelled the word ‘band’ as ‘banned’).
“We had a million names. Nothing stuck,” said Shepherd.
But George was dead serious about becoming a musician. Growing up, he kept his ears tuned to the latest music and introduced the sounds he heard and loved to small-town Arkansas.
Steve Mcelyea, who went on to play guitar with Ronnie Milsap and the Christian group The Imperials, was another high school bandmate.
“The local progressive music station at that time was FM 100 in Memphis. Sometimes, George would record something off of that and he’d bring it when we’d get together. We’d listen to it, as best we could pick it up, and learn the songs.”
This was about 1968-69, Mcelyea said. George, born in 1953, would have been 16 or so.
“I had a little red Farfisa organ and I played bass with my left hand, kind of like what The Doors were doing — they were an influence to us,” said Mcelyea. “We were doing Vanilla Fudge and stuff like that. Kind of psychedelic music. The stuff we were doing was not quite the norm.”
The family might be cringing upstairs, but the sisters were taking note. George’s youngest sister, Lisa Marie Davis, was entranced by the star quality of her handsome musical brother and the songs his bands attempted.
“George used to play ‘More Than a Feeling’ by Boston. To this day, that is still one of my favorite songs. I used to want to be part of that band growing up,” she remembered. “I’m telling you, he was on the verge of stardom.”
That may sound like a star-struck kid sister who idolized her older brother. It might, except for what happened a few years later when George’s talent got called out in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine.
“Johnny’s good lookin’/ He likes cookin’/ He doesn’t smile / For he’s sad all the while/ But Johnny’s good lookin’ …/ He has a fine motor car / Got his baggage in back / They say he’s off his sprocket / Says he’s going somewhere …”
~ from “Johnny’s Good Lookin’ Motorcar” by George Bartlett
Other bands followed as George improved as a player.
Krunch was one. He wrangled time at a studio for another group called NiteLife. In 1979, the band pressed a 45 rpm of two of George’s songs, “Marathon Man” and “Johnny’s Good Lookin’ Motorcar,” with George on vocals, keyboards and drums, and Shepherd on guitar and another friend, Rick Buford, on bass. (An unknown female singer adds backing vocals, but as George pieced the song together from different recording sessions, Shepherd and Buford don’t recall her name.) They released the 45 independently on “Uncut Records Ltd.”
Buford, a registered nurse in Jonesboro, Ark., who at 58 still plays guitar and bass regularly with his band The Lowdown Saints, also played with George in Krunch at Batesville High School. “He introduced me to some early Steve Miller. Traffic. Black Sabbath. I could go on and on. It was intriguing,” said Buford. “I left the group I was playing with to start playing with him.”
Buford went off for a stint at the University of Arkansas in 1975. He lost track of his friend. In 1978, he dropped out of college and moved back to Batesville. George tracked him down, then moved in with him to work on music.
This was at a time when a flood of angular pop music, often driven by synthesizers and jangly guitars, swept out of clubs in New York, Boston and elsewhere. Spun from the punk movement and dubbed New Wave, the music had a more eclectic, melodic and polished sound.
As ever, George had his musical antennae up in the wind.
“He dropped by and turned me on to some of the new stuff that was coming out, with The Cars and Blondie and some of the groups at that time,” said Buford. “We had access to a studio and we went up there after hours to mess around.”
By this time, George had taught himself to play keyboard. With contributions from other players, they cut some rough tracks, recording them to cassette tape. When The Cars, one of the biggest New Wave acts, played a tour stop in the region, Buford and his friend hopped in a car to go hear them, cassette tape in hand.
“There wasn’t much of a label on the cassette — it said ‘Geo’ Bartlett, short for ‘George’ and a phone number,” Buford remembered. “That phone number on the cassette was my home phone. I didn’t think any more about it.”
During the concert, the two made their move.
“We handed that cassette tape to the sound guy who was mixing the show. George asked him if he could get that into the hands of Ric Ocasek,” said Buford, chuckling at the memory. “It was a shot in the dark.”
“Spoke of fortune he believed/ Was just a figment or a state of mind/ Nothin’s left to show but life…/But life. And life’s so unkind…”
~ from “Marathon Man” by George Bartlett
The concert came and went. Time passed.
One evening, Buford had worked all night, collapsing into sleep at his house. George by this time had begun roaming, couch to couch, town to town. “George had since moved on somewhere else. He did that. He would come and go,” Buford said.
It was perhaps 9 or 10 a.m. The phone stirred to life. Startled out of sleep, Buford grabbed for the receiver. “Hi, this is Ric Ocasek of The Cars,” the voice on the other end said. He wanted to get in touch with this “Geo” Bartlett fellow.
Groggy from sleep, Buford thought it might be a prank call, but played along.
“He was inquiring about the tape. He liked it. He thought it was cutting-edge material. He compared it to Brian Eno’s stuff,” Buford recalled. “I was thrilled. I bought into it initially.”
Buford said he didn’t know where Bartlett was. He hung up, doubts growing. “I had some prankster friends who would do something like that,” he said.
A while later, another call came, but the Boston accent now sounded fake. Buford was feeling more sure he was the target of a prank.
“I think Ric got the hint he might be talking to the wrong guy or he sensed my impatience. It probably left a bad taste in his mouth during that second call.”
Here is another of George “Geo” Bartlett’s tunes, “Johnny’s Good Lookin Motorcar.”
No more calls came. Ocasek shifted his search straight to the “Random Notes” section of the April 3, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone:
Cars leader Ric Ocasek thinks he’s discovered one of the next great rockers of the Eighties — now, if only he could find the guy… “From what I know, his name’s Geo Bartlett,” Ocasek says. “He gave me a tape in Memphis when we were there on tour — — although I don’t exactly remember him giving it to me. I brought it home and totally flipped. He had a phone number on the tape, but every time I called, the person on the other end got real mad and said, ‘He moved out of the state, don’t call again.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever find him, but it would be so great if I did, because I would immediately do something with him. His songs are amazing, and his voice is so unique. It’s hard to explain. It just doesn’t sound like anything that would come out of Memphis. What’s he doin’?”
“Good question,” the Random Notes item concluded. “If you’re out there, Geo (short for George?), call Random Notes and we’ll put you in touch with Ric.”
But where was George “Geo” Bartlett?
Candles for light
George had begun “to lose his way,” as his sister Sharon put it, about the time of their parents’ divorce in 1977 after 25 years of marriage.
“He would find vacant houses to live in that had no electricity,” she said. “He stated he didn’t need it anyway, as it bothered him, and he would use candles for light.”
But the magazine item electrified George’s friends. They tracked him down. George got in touch with Rolling Stone. The magazine hooked him up with Ocasek.
Ocasek apparently brought Bartlett to his Boston studio. It is not clear what happened there. Ocasek — in the midst of a recording project, his management firm said — did not respond to several Gazette queries about what happened next. George’s Arkansas musician friends don’t know for certain.
One thing was for certain, though. A young musician nicknamed ‘Geo’ seemed like a hot property in spring 1980.
“It was a shocker,” said his boyhood friend, John Shepherd, who thought that he, George and crew might be on their way up the pop music totem pole.
“I went out and bought a new car,” Shepherd said — a Mustang GT. “It kind of pushed me over the edge because I thought we were going somewhere.”
The next month, Rolling Stone updated news of Ocasek’s potential Next Big Thing in a long Random Notes item in the May 15, 1980 issue. The magazine had tracked Geo to St. Louis, where he was studying, of all things, to be a hairdresser:
“Don’t ask me why,” says the soft-spoken, twenty-six-year-old multi-instrumentalist. “I moved here to be with my girlfriend, who wanted to go to school to be a chiropractor. Now, she’s left to become a minister.”
George told Rolling Stone he was recording new songs onto a Sansui cassette deck. The item also noted that Rolling Stone had put him in touch “with a delighted Ocasek who hopes to record Bartlett sometime in the fall.”
The piece concluded with what sounded like the start of something big:
“Meanwhile, with the Cars busy working on their next album, Bartlett has sent Ocasek more tapes to consider: “They’re rough,” he admits, “but Ric says that’s the way he likes ’em.”
Opening the door
Family and friends are not sure of the exact date — possibly late 1979 — but George took a trip to New York City sometime before Ric Ocasek flipped a national spotlight upon his life. George returned from the city and shared a bombshell with his middle sister, Leigh Ann Keller.
Leigh Ann, eight years younger, was a senior in high school at the time.
“He and I were very, very close and he would confide in me,” she said. “So, we went back in the bedroom. He showed me a magazine and it was all these men in drag. He proceeded to share with me that he wanted to be a woman.”
This was at end of the ’70s in small-town, Bible-belt Arkansas
“Back then, I mean, you just didn’t hear of things like that,” she said. “I just kind of freaked out. I didn’t know how to handle it. He was my only brother. I just absolutely idolized him. All my sisters did.”
The bombshell landed even harder given that George had once been married in the mid-70s. Leigh Ann described her brother’s short marriage to a young woman with whom the family has since lost contact.
“They were married for maybe a couple of years and then all of a sudden they got a divorce,” she said. “After the divorce, he was very, very sad.”
The news that came back from his New York trip began to ripple outward.
Sharon, closest in age to her brother, picks up the thread.
“We lived in a small community. We didn’t understand,” she said. “We told him we didn’t want another sister. We wanted our brother.”
It didn’t help that their father and George had a contentious relationship, even as George once worked briefly at his dad’s realty company.
“My dad didn’t want him to play music as a career. He wanted him to have another career,” said Leigh Ann. “So, as he got older and everything they fought a lot. It was very, very difficult for him.”
Here and there around town, George began to dress as a woman. Word got out. His oldest friend, John Shepherd, got a call one day from George’s dad.
“His father called me, asked me if I’d see him dressed up like a girl? I told him no, but I’ve seen pictures. He told me: ‘Well, if you ever do, just whup his butt for me.'”
‘Quite a scene’
Given the time George lived under his roof, Rick Buford may have seen most intensely how much his friend wanted to radically redraw his life — his entire identity, in fact.
After the second Rolling Stone mention, Buford drove to St. Louis and brought George back to Arkansas to get to work on new music for Ocasek. “I was terribly excited,” said Buford.
He overheard phone conversations George had with the leader of The Cars.
“George was just seeking advice on how to handle it and what recommendations Ocasek might have for him and us. And [Ocasek] said ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, polish it up, do some public performances. You know, get a following. And I’m going to try to get the group up here to Boston and we do…'”
Buford paused. “Whatever Ric does. Produce it.”
But George had become a little different, Buford said. He began to dress in women’s clothes around Buford’s place even as friends dropped by, he said. “I’m sure at that time it was quite a scene for the residents of Batesville, Arkansas.”
George wanted him to be his boyfriend, Buford would come to learn. But after a few months, the weight of it all sent Buford packing.
By this time, many locals knew of “Geo” Bartlett via Rolling Stone.
“I said, ‘George, we’re in a small town here. People are coming and going, they’re sticking their noses in our door. They’re extremely curious about what we’re doing.’ Because by that time, the word had gotten out that we could possibly be something that was going to put the city on the map.”
Buford left, moving to a different apartment outside of town. “I told him I just could not do this anymore.”
Meanwhile, the family’s turmoil only increased.
“Dad tried to put him into a mental hospital,” Leigh Ann said. “And he somehow got released from the mental hospital and lived with my mother for awhile in a little town.”
“After that, he left,” she said. “And we never saw him again.”
The two older sisters, living in different places, last saw their brother in 1982, while the youngest, Lisa, spent a few months with him in the summer of 1983 at their mother’s place.
Then, he disappeared.
He went missing for a few months.
Then, a year. Then, five years.
And then, 10 years. And 20.
Gone, finally, for more than a quarter century.
One day, in late 2009, a phone rings in Arkansas in the house of George’s Aunt Bernice. It was a call from Charleston, W.Va. From that one call telephones started lighting up across Arkansas and Oklahoma.
‘George is alive! He’s in West Virginia!’
But he doesn’t call himself George anymore.
She calls herself Elizabeth.
And she wants to see her family again.