I f you assumed this story is about delicate daisies, lopped off ears, or a day at a Dutch museum, you are off track. But if you thought it might be about musicians who can master a voice track, dazzle with their light show, and bring a crowd to life on stage with a unique blend of music, now you’re singing the right tune for a group named Van Gogh.
I met Van Gogh at a disabilities expo in Atlanta last fall, and I knew I had to tell others about the group’s energy, talent and humor. The group is based in the Atlanta area, and they sometimes take their show on the road and sometimes do their work in the recording studio. Brothers Ricky and Robby Heisner share the lead singing duties. They are two high profile performers who happen to use wheelchairs. They say the band started in 1991. The work was supposed to be a studio project, but the music came together well, and it all turned into a performing band.
So I had to ask them how they picked the name Van Gogh. Robby says, “We wanted something that would be fun and kind of psychedelic.” Ricky agrees, “Van Gogh seemed like a perfect name for the band, because like the artist and his work, there seem to be so many paradoxes and contradictions in our music and our performances. And, since Robby and I both thought of the same name, independently of one another, we figured it must be meant to be.”
Getting the two brothers to explain their on stage get ups is worth another laugh. They both wear uniquely decorated top hats, which are now an instantly recognized symbol of the band. Robby says, “Our old, fat, goofy selves need to hide behind costumes. Be thankful.” His older brother has a different take- a take two if you like. “Robby bought a purple top hat with sunflowers for a hatband at an art festival. Later, he was dared to wear it on stage. I got a derby hat, and we started wearing them on stage, and the rest is history. Now, if we don’t wear them, people tend to feel like we’ve cheated them out of part of the show.”
And what a show it can be. It’s full of energy and action and the light shows can be impressive. Both brothers say they enjoy being on stage and in the studio recording their music. They are working on a fifth CD right now, called Gravity, and it should be out by April. These two brothers and performers say they were really young when they fell in love with music.
Robby say, “We’ve always been, even before we knew we had MD. We are self taught and by late teens, were writing all our own music.” Robby agrees. “The desire to write and record music goes back to the music of Elton John and The Beatles when I was about fourteen. Robby and I have been writing as a team, I the lyrics, he composes the music, for more than twenty years.”
When you listen to a Van Gogh concert, there’s an enigma not quite as obvious as the artist with the paint brush,, but it’s tough to paint a picture of exactly what kind of music this is. “He’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock and roll. Right Marie?” responds Robby in his typical poke some fun fashion. “We’re always trying new things, so it’s hard to pigeonhole us. But I like the time someone said ‘If the Beatles had come from Atlanta, they’d have sounded like Van Gogh'” responds Ricky.
The music critics haven’t pigeon holed them but have had some good things to say. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reviewed their work. “With the release of their second CD, Bubble, 12 tracks of multilayered Beatlesque vocal harmonies fronting a two guitar attack that swells with atmosphere. Like Pink Floyd in a good mood, Van Gogh rocks, indeed.”
Critic Hal Horowitz has also weighed in on their work. “After hearing their third release, it’s clear this singer/songwriter duo, has a dynamic, if not totally unique, musical vision.” So it’s ironic that a rock band winning praise from the music critics, find the music industry executives to be one of its biggest hurdles so far.
I asked what the biggest challenges have been. Robby let them have it. “Stupid able-bodied industry execs that think wheelchairs will limit our audience appeal. They don’t give the public any credit. They force feed you what they want you to have. Thank goodness for the internet.”
To the two most high profile performers in Van Gogh, the fact that they are in wheelchairs while on stage is not what their act is about. Ricky points out, “There seems to be a fairly widespread notion in the industry that the general public won’t be able to get into us simply because of the fact that we’re in chairs. When all is said and done, we’re just a rock band that happens to be fronted by two guys in wheelchairs (fast, bright-yellow, wheelie-popping powerchairs, to be sure.) We want nothing more than to be judged by the quality of what we do. All we can do is be true to what we feel inspired to create, and hope that people will get it. Luckily, most people do get it.”
Robby agrees, “It’s not important where we are disabled, alien, green, or whatever, it’s about music. Too many people want to use their disability as an excuse for not doing anything, or as an excuse for not having to be good at anything. There is some incredible talent out there with disabilities.”
And as talented people with disabilities, the Heisner twins have become role models for some children with disabilities. They didn’t plan on it, it just kind of happened that way. “I was totally unprepared for the response from people who are inspired or encouraged by what we do. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also very humbling. Still, it comes as a surprise every time it happens.” Robby believes it’s important for all of us to have a variety of role models, or roll models as the brothers joke. “I think it’s cool that so many people go home and hang our poster on their wall, us! Two guys in wheelchairs. And, they are not always disabled people.”
And people will have reason to continue to be groupies in the future. Van Gogh plans to continue to tour, and that fifth CD will be out by April. “Hopefully, we start selling a whole lot more CD’s so we can pay the bills. Patty (my wife) and I want to get a house and a converted van.” Ricky will keep his sense of humor for the future. “We’d be happy and retire if everyone with a disability bought just one of our CD’s.”