by ARNO HOLSCHUH
"OK, OK. This is the No. 1 reason I wanted to do this article. Are you listening?" Jeff DeMark asks, then clears his throat into the tape recorder.
"A lot of people here know we are twins, but a lot don't. And I wanted to set the record straight. Because a lot of people think we're schizophrenic."
It's understandable. Jeff and Paul DeMark are twins; they live in the same city; both have artistic pursuits that put them in the public eye. They play on the same softball team and share a passion for baseball and music.
And their physical resemblance? To the untrained eye they look -- well, identical.
But their lives are very distinct. These two prominent Arcata artists may look alike, but they travelled markedly different paths to get where they are today. And they have found different modes of expression: Paul works in public relations for the College of Redwoods by day and plays drums in the Delta Nationals, an American roots music band, by night. Jeff is a writer and performer with four one-man shows under his belt. The latest, Hard as Diamonds, Soft as Dirt, premieres April 13 at CR.
But it isn't unusual for one to be mistaken for the other. The result? People think there is something rotten in the state of DeMark.
"There was this woman I knew casually, enough to say hi," Jeff said, preparing to unwind another of the stories that he has made his literary trademark. "All of the sudden, she started ducking away from me every time I saw her. She wouldn't say hello. Then one day she walks up to me and says, `I'm sorry I've been acting that way, but the first time I saw you you were so friendly, and then I'd see you again and you'd act like you didn't know me. You did it over and over again. I started to think you were sick.'"
What she didn't realize was she had been seeing two people but knew only one of them.
"I've been to Jeff's shows where I walk around at intermission and people tell me what a great first half I'm having," Paul said.
"It's the same thing when he's drumming," Jeff chimes in. "I'll walk into the club and people will go, `What the hell are you doing out here? You were just on stage!'"
We'll all have to put up with the confusion, because the DeMark brothers are here to stay. We should feel lucky.
A traditional start
Paul and Jeff DeMark were born May 29, 1951, in Racine, Wis. It was a regular little industrial town, Jeff said.
"It was a very low-key working class town. They had all these factories -- Massey Ferguson, Johnson's Wax had their international headquarters there, Walker Manufacturing."
Jeff and Paul's father [with one-year-old twins in photo at right] was a dentist and their mother a homemaker. It was all very traditional, Paul said. "I would describe it as a typical Midwest working-class home."
They spent their childhood in the most traditional of pursuits -- sports, especially baseball. Jeff said he can remember playing stickball in the sandlot with his twin and the other kids in his neighborhood every day during the summers.
The two were inseparable. They played on the same teams, were in the same class at school, even slept in the same bed. They were so close that sibling rivalry was out of the question.
"We were of very equal abilities," Paul said. "I think we have always had an unspoken agreement not to compete against each other in a negative way."
And they did not need to compete. By the time they were in high school, they were already following different paths. Jeff was obsessed with basketball; Paul broke his ankle when he was a sophomore and became more introverted.
Neither one took part in the social unrest of the late '60s. There wasn't any counterculture in Racine for them to participate in, Jeff said.
"Racine is between Milwaukee and Chicago, so you'd think it was this real cosmopolitan place," Jeff said. "But it was its own little independent world."
Vietnam wasn't a topic of discussion in Racine during their high school years -- even when one of their peers came home dead.
"Ken Hawkinson. I remember he used to buy us beer with a fake ID. And then they were having his funeral at this little wooden church called the Sacred Heart, and honestly I hardly had any idea what had happened," Jeff said.
That was all about to change, however. In 1969 the twins graduated from high school and went to Madison for college.
[Photo above left: the twins with their brother Dan]
Berkeley of the Midwest
The DeMarks stepped out of the island of Racine and right into a cultural and political revolution. Madison was one of the most active college campuses in the country during that season of protest. The Vietnam War was everywhere.
"Our lives changed completely," Paul said. "Right away I started going to workshops about the Vietnam War. It was everywhere."
What Paul learned quickly made him into another one of the thousands of students at the University of Wisconsin opposed to the war. "I just didn't believe in it," he said. "I educated myself enough to know that I didn't think we should be in Vietnam."
Paul started going to demonstrations -- lots of them. He rode on a bus to Washington and marched on the Capitol; he was teargassed in downtown Madison.
"[Protesting] was a big part of my life, an integral part of my life."
Being in Madison was just as much of a change for Jeff as it was for Paul. But for Jeff, 1969 was as much about culture as politics.
"I was diving into this entire new world of ideas. New music, new film, different people, even people from other countries," he said.
Visits home were punctuated by heated arguments over the war.
"Our parents were certainly against us being involved in the protests," Paul said. The DeMarks lived between two different cultures: In Madison, everyone was anti-war, but in Racine people couldn't even tolerate the protesters' haircuts -- much less their arguments.
And the DeMarks had turned away from much of what Racine meant. Who had the time to care about baseball? There was a war on.
"We changed so quickly, I understand why they were upset," Jeff said.
The funny thing is that once your life starts changing, it doesn't stop until it's good and ready. The twins were not destined to stay in Madison. Both of their college careers were derailed and would not be completed until the early 1980s.
Paul was on his way to a demonstration late in his freshman year when he had an existential crisis. "We knew the National Guard was there and we would probably be teargassed and all that. I just thought to myself, `I've spent a whole year doing this, risking my life. And what do I really want to do? I want to play the drums.'"
He stopped at a music store on the way to the demonstration and put $20 down on a very cheap gold-sparkle three-piece drum set. He picked the set up on the way back from the demonstration, started playing and never looked back.
"I found a drum teacher and started practicing as much as I could," he said. "When I found the drums, I knew this was the form of expression I needed. It was right for me, absolutely perfect."
Within a year he had dropped out of school and was playing with Chicago blues legend Sunnyland Slim. His playing would eventually take him to San Francisco, then Rio Dell to play with a country band called the Sons of Redwood Country. More drumming gigs pulled him north to Arcata in 1975. He settled into a good groove, with enough jobs playing drums to keep himself busy.
For Jeff, the derailment came at about the same time, but in a radically different form. He had an adverse reaction to a psychedelic drug during the second semester of his freshman year and had to drop out. He went back to Racine to recover, and the fall of his sophomore year found him living at home, taking classes at community college and working in a factory making prosthetics.
He lasted almost a year, then hitchhiked to New Orleans on a whim. After contracting hepatitis at a $3 hotel, he hitched back to Racine by way of Nashville. Once home, he found another factory job and started to save money for his next trip.
So begins the next chapter in Jeff's life: first the factory, then the highway. It was a pattern he would follow throughout the '70s. He went to New York and met both Allen Ginsburg and Bob Dylan; he slept on beaches in Acapulco; he lived in Guatemala for five months cooking over a wood fire and reading Dostoyevsky in a hammock. He also worked at Young Radiator, Insinkerator and the Wisconsin Cheese factory.
"I'd spend time sitting in this hammock reading with five Indian kids looking in at me, and then suddenly I'd be back in my hometown Racine, the Land of the Gray."
Starting in 1974, he was also writing poetry and holding the occasional reading. Like Paul, Jeff had found his artistic medium.
His first trip to Humboldt County came in 1977. After working at a garbage disposal factory for a year, he lit out for California to see his twin.
"I spent a good year out here living in Arcata," he said, studying yoga, taking a poetry class. But then he had to move on again -- this time to Sante Fe, working as a printer's assistant, waiter and movie extra.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The Early Days. I did three days there as a cowboy. That was a trip."
Then one day, while digging a ditch in the desert Jeff remembered what his mother had always told him: If he didn't finish college, he'd end up digging ditches for a living.
"I just said to myself, `Screw this, I'm getting out of here and going back to college.'" He set his sights on Madison.
Separate paths converge
In the '80s, the DeMarks started to hit on the steady beats that would sustain them throughout their lives. Paul returned to school and graduated with a degree in journalism from Humboldt State. He worked as a reporter for the Redwood Record in Garberville, moved to the Arcata Union and became managing editor in 1988 while he continued his drumming part time. Along the way he married and had two children.
Jeff spent most of the '80s in Wisconsin, finishing school while selling ads for a radio station, driving a taxi and tending bar. In 1986 he hit the road again, this time for San Francisco where his artistic identity took another step forward.
"I had heard about this place where you could do [poetry] readings. And I went down and saw -- they were actors. And I saw I've gotta do it by memory. So I got a director and started."
He turned his poetry into stories and memorized his lines. In 1987 the one-man literary experience known as Jeff DeMark took the stage for the first time. In 1990 Jeff moved to Arcata and after more than 15 years, the DeMarks brothers were together, again.
Paul left reporting for a temporary public relations job at HSU in the early '90s and in 1998 was hired by College of the Redwoods for a permanent slot.
"I really enjoy promoting education," he said. "That's especially true for community college education, because so often an education here means a success story for someone," he said. "I feel that I've truly arrived at my job."
Although Jeff returned to school one more time -- for a teaching credential -- his real success came outside the classroom. He wrote and started performing three popular shows based on his own experiences: Writing My Way Out of Adolescence (1993), Went to Lunch, Never Returned (1994) and Making Every Mistake Twice (1998). Jeff also married and became a father. Life was looking up.
Life changed for the DeMarks in February 1999 when their father died of brain cancer.
Paul said, "It gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I was doing in my life. I'd been performing in bands consistently for about 27 years; I decided that if I was going to put together another band, I wanted to play the music that meant the most to me." He went back to his Sunnyland Slim roots and decided that his heart lay with what he calls "classic American music" -- rockabilly, classic country, swing, early pop music, R&B and soul. Within months, he put together a band of like-minded musicians, and within a year the Delta Nationals were born.
The Nationals are bassist and singer Ross Rowley, guitarist Steve Irwin and keyboardist Dave Ryan. All have day jobs, incredible talents on their instruments and a serious desire for roots music. They started with rockabilly -- Elvis' "Mystery Train" and some Carl Perkins. Then they developed another set, this time New Orleans R&B, followed by jump swing music and later early American pop singles.
"Now we're developing a set of country music. And we've started to move into '60s soul. We played `Walking the Dog' just the other night."
But who wants to hear all that old stuff? A lot of people. The Nationals are already finding themselves turning down gigs. It came as a surprise to Paul, because this band wasn't created with popularity in mind.
"I had gotten to a place where I was thinking too much about what the audience thought. Did they like the band? Were they impressed with my playing? But after my dad died, I was saying to myself, `Why am I doing this?'
"I wanted to do a project that meant something to me."
Jeff also took stock of his life in the wake of their father's death.
"I was thinking about the legacy a parent leaves," he said. "It isn't the material things, money or anything like that. It's about what qualities or passions they pass on to you." Jeff said his father left him with a code of honor, loyalty, a love of all sports, particularly baseball ("He had a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals") --the ability to tell stories.
A family reunion of DeMark siblings and their parents, circa 1990. Standing left to right: Maria, Mike, Paul, Dan, Anne and Jeff. Seated are parents Frank and Gerri.
So it was natural for Jeff -- who literally believes he has storytelling in his blood -- to write about the legacies of his father. His new show, Hard as Diamonds, Soft as Dirt, is a collection of stories about his father, baseball, life and death.
Like all Jeff's shows, this one is pinned together more by a general idea than a plot. And fans of the DeMark humor will find easy gratification in anecdotes about Jeff's days in a Beatle wig or how to drive a junior varsity baseball coach crazy. But this show, more than his others, has a center of real weight. Like the best drama, it asks questions about what our lives mean and how we should face mortality.
Today at 50, the twins have come full circle. They are the father figures, in positions of responsibility, building careers and rearing children -- and passing on their own passions for storytelling, music, baseball and life.
But to see them together, it is easy to imagine them at 16 -- the jokes, the funny faces and voices, the stories that no one in the world could understand but a twin.
"I've met identical twins that didn't like each other," Paul said. "They have severe problems. They're in a lot of pain because they've rejected a part of themselves."
"Luckily, we just like each other," Jeff said.
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