Woodacre artist who sang like Johnny Cash dies at 78

Photo courtesy of Boni Uzilevsky
PEOPLE: Marcus Uzilevsky was also an artist known for “linear landscapes” and collage.  
01/07/2016

Woodacre artist and musician Marcus Uzilevsky, who often went by the name Rusty Evans in his long and varied musical career, died on Dec. 5 at 78 years old. 

Marcus, an optimistic man with a contagious laugh and a resonant voice, spanned multiple styles: from country and rockabilly to psychedelic and spiritual music, from collage to pointillist-style landscapes. 

“He was a true Renaissance man, interested in all the arts,” said his daughter, Boni. She added: “He was a curious man. That sticks out to me—he’s unusual because he was so curious about things. Most people don’t remain that curious as they age, but my dad, his curiosity never waned. It seemed to grow greater.”

Marcus, the son of a Polish mother and a Russian father, grew up in New York City in a Yiddish-speaking home. He studied art at a vocational high school and the Pratt Institute, and started playing guitar after he heard a Hank Williams record at a party as a teenager. He absconded from the gathering with the 45 tucked into the vest of his zoot suit.

“The days and nights went by, and I became obsessed with this sound. I got myself a cheap guitar and started to copy this sound as best as I could,” Marcus told his friend Veronica Buros Kleinberg in an interview. His father, worried about a potential departure from an art career, wanted him to get therapy, according to the conversation.

Undeterred, Marcus sang with bluegrass musicians in Washington Square Park and played rockabilly before he immersed himself in the folk scene in Greenwich Village, where he played at Café Rafio and other venues. 

He met and played with folksingers who would later rise to fame, like Bob Dylan, whom Marcus said helped him get an audition at the Rafio. (Mr. Dylan told him he should switch from folk to country, given that his deep voice sounded just like Johnny Cash, Marcus recalled.)

Two of Marcus' children, Boni and Scott, were born in the early ‘60s, but their mother left when they were just 1 and 2 years old, Boni said. Marcus’s own mother, with whom he was close, helped care for them. Sometimes, when Marcus could not find a babysitter, he begged club owners to let them into venues while he performed.

“I have a pretty vivid memory of falling asleep on musty wooden tables to loud, heavy music,” Boni said. “I knew that if I fell asleep, Dad would carry me home, pressed against his leather jacket.”

Marcus recorded albums in the ‘60s under the name Rusty Evans and with The New Christy Minstrels. He also recorded two psychedelic albums: “Psychedelic Moods,” reportedly the first album to use the word “psychedelic” in its title, with a group of musicians called The Deep, in 1966, and “Psychedelic Psoul,” with the same musicians but under the name Freak Scene. 

His fruitful musical life revived his love of art, which had become stifled by an art-related job in the auto industry in New York. 

Marcus moved to Marin in 1967. He hoped to explore psychedelic music and become a record producer, Boni said. But when the career didn’t pan out, he returned to his original vocation, art, though he continued to write and play music. He also had a third child, Danny.

He eventually moved to Woodacre, where he lived in a two-story brick home that used to be a train depot. Inspired by Marin, he started creating “linear landscapes,” compositions of hills, waters, clouds and sun made from horizontal lines sketched with mechanical drawing tools, which one gallery owner told him amounted to “stretched-out pointillism.” 

To his friend Veronica, the technical style suggested that Marcus was influenced not just by the landscape but by the emergence of computers, just starting to be manufactured for home use at the time.

The originals and prints of the landscapes “sold like hotcakes,” Veronica said. They did so well that Marcus and some of his friends started a successful art publishing company, Oak Springs Impressions, to print limited editions of their art. 

Marcus’s work appeared in art shows across the country, and is now on display in numerous museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The linear landscapes represented just one of many styles that he developed over his career. In his “affiche art,” inspired by peeling posters, he layered crumpled advertisements with newer ones and paint, in a collage style. His “icon paintings” layered pictures of famous musicians and celebrities—Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Elvis Presley, James Dean and others—with old advertisements, suggesting a preoccupation with the passage of time that can both obscure and reveal the past. 

In more recent works, Marcus painted colorful instruments. The guitars were often split in two. “His new series that he just started had all these broken instruments on a canvas, with money and all these different things really representing the music business that has broken down,” said his girlfriend of three years, Buffy Ford Stewart, a fellow musician and the widow of folksinger John Stewart.

Marcus enjoyed success as a musician, particularly with his Johnny Cash tribute band, Ring of Fire, which played at venues in the Bay Area and across the country. According to Boni, he started the band after singing some Cash songs at the beach. Strangers came up to him and said, “You sound just like Cash!”

In the band, Marcus did not impersonate Mr. Cash, however; instead, he paid tribute, Buffy said. “It was so beautiful. It was like he was channeling the man, because he loved him and he did so much research. He read every book,” she said. “He wasn’t ‘doing’ him. His voice—he was born with a Johnny Cash voice.”

Marcus’s artistic passions passed down to his descendants. His son, Danny, is a musician who played in Ring of Fire and other bands; Boni, now a graphic designer, used to play in punk bands. One of her sons, Kevin, plays with Weekend, a post-punk band, and her other son is a projection artist. (Marcus’s granddaughter, Rachel, is a registered nurse in Santa Rosa.)

Outside Ring of Fire, Marcus continued to record his own music. Buffy said a song of his will appear in a new season of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.”

Like his art, Marcus’s music didn’t stick to one genre. One of Veronica’s favorite albums, titled “Thoughts Have Wings,” channeled his spiritual side, she said. “It wasn’t his most popular album but each song is a gem and comes from a truly authentic place,” she wrote in an email.

His death was unexpected, but Buffy says that her partner is both at peace and still present. One recent cold morning she was sitting in her car, wishing that her CD player, broken for the last three months, would work again. “I said, ‘Rusty, I’m sitting here in the cold waiting for the family. Couldn’t you please make my CD player work?’ And all of a sudden the music started to play. And it’s been working ever since. He’s still here.”

 

A memorial and potluck celebration for Marcus Uzilevsky will be held at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center on Saturday, Jan. 16 from 3 to 9 p.m. Please bring a dish to share.