"I like myself a great deal, and I'm afraid that if God gave me arms, my ego would have been out of control," says Mark Goffeney, the armless guitar player and lead singer of the Big Toe Band, a local three-man rock group that recently released its first CD, Big Toe. Along with James Neal and Mark Jones, the long-haired full-time musician plays at On the Rocks in El Cajon, the Road House in Ramona, and Joltin' Joes in La Mesa. Goffeney can also be seen strumming his guitar with his toes on the Prado in Balboa Park.
Road House manager Jim Van Cleve was a bit skeptical when Goffeney approached him with the idea of playing guitar with his feet. "We thought, how could he do that, and how good could he be?"
Nancy Nicholf, who owns On the Rocks and the Waterfront, was also surprised when she learned an armless guitarist would be playing at her El Cajon location. She says the first time her customers see Goffeney playing with his feet, "It's a little shocking."
Born without arms, the 32-year-old El Cajon native maintains that there is little he can't do with his right foot. He plays guitar with it. He eats with it. Goffeney drives a car with his right foot. "It's an automatic," he laughs. And I am a terrible basketball player, but other than that I can do pretty much anything with my foot that someone else would use their dominant hand for."
On the guitar, Mark strums with his left foot and frets with the right: He uses a special guitar pick, the Dunlap Shark Fin Cutaway, because it has a groove that allows him to use his toes. And he wears loose pants.
When Goffeney was 11 years old, he decided he wanted to play guitar. His next-door neighbor was a local teen who played guitar and had long hair, "which at the time I thought was really cool." "The boy's mother was a full-time musician supporting her three children by playing bass in a country music band. "I saw the glamour of a mother playing to support her family and how music was the core of this family," Goffeney says. "Even the equipment looked idolatrous to me with the sparkling electric guitars and big speakers." By the end of Goffeney's teens, he played guitar and bass for several local garage bands.
"Everyone assumed I'd be a great soccer player, but truth be told, I'm pretty mediocre. People
don't choose what they're excited about based on what their physical limitations are."
Big Toe has been together for nearly four years and recently negotiated a CD deal with PSB, short for Pin Stripe Brain. David Carr, the production company's representative, says he didn't even know Goffeney had no arms when he heard the Big Toe demo recording. "I thought they had a very commercial and current sound," he says.
"We're not like the big labels who put out a ton of product and some will succeed and others won't.... Small labels need to make every CD count."
The CD is available at three SD stores- Blue Meannie in EJ Cajon, Off the Record in Hillcrest, and Tower Records on Sports Arena (in the local artists section).
Pin Stripe Brain is located in L.A. The label also represents Tim Flannery, the Padres' third-base
coach, who plays guitar; Mark Hart, keyboardist of Supertramp; and Stephen Baird, a UCSD professor who sings satirical songs about scientific issues. Big Toe was recently unaffiliated with Pin Stripe Brain. Goffeney says, "My deal with PSB was a development deal, and they decided to give me an opportunity to further shop my product. It was amicable."
Goffency is divorced and has three children, ranging from 4 to 11 years old -- none of whom inherited condition, which is assumed not to be genetic, but no one really knows why this happened. He says he's never met anyone without arms who has apparent or offspring without arms. "Medical Mystery" is how his doctors have described it.
Tony Melendez, who is big in Christian rock, was born in Nicaragua without arms because his mother had taken thalidomide, which was a morning sickness drug that was never approved in the U.S. According to a 1992 Chicago Tribune story, Melendez was "lauded as an inspirational hero and global celebrity for his singing accompanied by remarkable played-by-foot guitar. A 1987 performance in honor of Pope John Paul II in Los Angeles catapulted him to international fame when the pontiff...leaped up after the performance to embrace Melendez."
Goffeney says he's heard of Melendez, that he is an inspiration but not an influence. He says he's just as inspired by Gene Simmons of Kiss.
As far as the band's popularity with groupies goes, Goffeney says, "You know, the more popular you get locally, the more competitive girls get over you. You can't really take it personally though 'cause if there was another band playing, they'd be into them too. It's not really about you. This applies to everyone but me, of course."
Mark says over the years he's had a handful of groupies come to the show, but since he has a girlfriend, James Neal is now the big attraction. "We've had women stripping their clothes off and flashing us when we play. Rock and roll kind of girls really want attention and can end up stealing it away from the band."
Recently Big Toe was being sponsored by a local business who bought the band equipment in exchange for five concerts he could donate to local charity or civic events as a corporate sponsor, The only problem was that the sponsor's girlfriend, Corinne; had become interested in Goffeney. The business owner threatened to withdraw his support of the band and bill them for the music equipment if Corinne and Goffeney started dating. The couple united anyway, and sponsorship was withdrawn. Two years later they are living together.
One of four boys, Goffeney says he was always held accountable for his actions and never pitied by his parents didn't expect the same results as they did from my brothers [who all have arms] but they wanted to see that I put in the same level of effort as they did," Goffeney recalls. ''One of my jobs was to water the lawn, and my father used to go out there with a shovel and check that the ground beneath was soaked. If it wasn't I had to keep going."
The only time Goffeney was worried about his inability to produce his hands was when he was stopped by a police officer.
"It was two in the and I was coming home from a show," Goffeney recalls. "I passed what looked like a crime scene and was pulled over. I expected the normal 'Wow, you're driving with your feet. Do you have a license to do that?' that I usually get from police .... So I look in my mirror and the guy has already pulled out his gun and was pointing it at my car. Then he says through his speaker, 'Put both hands out the window.' So I shouted. 'I have no arms.' And he tells me, 'I'll shoot, I'll shoot,' and ends every sentence with, 'My gun is out.' Then he tells me to get out of the car and lay down. For me to unfasten my seat belt and get the door open involves a lot of squirming around and jerking, so I knew if I started all that, he'd shoot me. So I shouted again, 'I have no arms.' Next thing, he's at my door and his eyes were wide and full of adrenaline. Finally, he realizes what's going on and he says, 'Okay, okay. But do you know how many people we've had to shoot this year?'"