Mark Goffeney — There’s No Business Like Toe Business

Circa 2010

We are very sad to report that Mark died on March 2nd, 2021

More than a decade since the release of his debut album, the new year finds Mark Goffeney hard at work on a collection of infectious rock that blends the poeticism of Death Cab for Cutie with the heavy indie flavor of the Foo Fighters. “It’ll knock you over, ask you if you’re okay, and pick you up again,” musician Goffeney said in an interview with ABILITY’s Dana Nelson.

Though his album’s title remains under wraps, Goffeney says the upcoming release will contain a few tracks from his original album, as well as several new pieces that reflect the artist at a more mature stage of life and introspection, a stage at which he finds his music has become more honest, irreverent, and optimistic.

Produced at Tunetown Recording Studio in La Mesa, CA, the album is a labor of love for Goffeney’s band, Big Toe. “This album is going to be a compilation of some really cool, heartfelt stuff,” said guitarist Sammy Carini, who is co-producing the album alongside Don Hambrick. Carini also said the album is a step towards marketing Big Toe music around the world and going on tour.

Long before his emergence as Big Toe’s frontman, Goffeney had become well acquainted with fame. Born without arms, he was discovered at age four by Variety Club and the March of Dimes and assisted in raising money for children’s hospitals during telethons. Outfitted with prosthetic limbs, Goffeney interviewed such celebrities as Magic Johnson, Henry Winkler and Prince Charles. Though he liked the work and enjoyed hanging out with stars, Goffeney recalls that the prostheses were painful when worn for hours on end. “As soon as I would get done with filming for the Variety Club,” Goffeney said, “I would just ditch them as soon as I could.”

Not that he needed them, anyway. At an early age, Goffeney had learned to use his feet to manipulate objects, just as many other children were learning to use their hands. Prostheses, Goffeney said, were for everyone else to feel more comfortable, regardless of his own discomfort. “Visibly, it’s not as dramatic when you see somebody with all their limbs as opposed to seeing them without.”

While Goffeney recognizes his lack of arms may still register as a shock for some people, he no longer worries that others might feel uncomfortable around him. Instead, the musician relies on humor to alleviate awkward situations. Carini recalls being terrified the first time he got into a car with Goffeney and found him with one foot on the floor pedals and the other on the steering wheel. When Carini asked to drive, Goffeney merely quipped, “I just want you to sit there and be nervous.”

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Throughout childhood, Goffeney learned to use his prostheses as sources of amusement, sometimes telling other children that his arms were bionic, and that he could lift a car or tear down a school any time he wanted. Though many of his classmates were in awe of Goffeney’s alleged superhuman strength, most had a harder time believing he was hanging out in limousines with celebrities on the weekend.

Goffeney’s musical career was sparked in his school band, beginning with a brief stint on trombone before his father brought home a guitar. Eleven-year-old Goffeney, raised listening to musicians such as Paul McCartney and James Taylor, crudely strummed the guitar with his feet, in an attempt to emulate his heroes. The result, however, was that he only played one string at a time. A neighborhood teen told Goffeney that if he wanted to be a real guitarist, he’d have to learn to play with all of his toes. As he diligently worked to learn guitar and bass, Goffeney simultaneously pressured his Hollywood friends to help him break into television as an actor.

Goffeney’s break arrived when a writer for The Young and the Restless agreed to write the young man in as the son of Dr. Snapper Foster, a character played by David Hasslehoff. At the last minute, however, the program’s board of directors decided a character with no arms would be too shocking for older viewers of the show, and Goffeney’s character was replaced by a boy with leukemia. “I was heartbroken,” Goffeney said. “I was just devastated. I was like, ‘they wrote that part for me!’”

The disheartening experience prompted Goffeney to focus more intently on pursuing a career in music. He formed a high school band known as the Wicked Misfits that, like many other popular bands of the 1980s, emulated heavy metal hair groups such as Poison and Ratt. Goffeney also grew his hair out, a decision which he remembers aggravated his cheeky British mother. “She would say things to me like, ‘you know you’d make a right nice mop!’,” Goffeney said, imitating his mother’s dialect. “‘We could stand you in the corner, nothing to get in the way. I’ll just hold you by your feet!’”

Though Goffeney admits he was frequently a “punk” during his teenage years, resisting authority and getting kicked out of school a few times, he married shortly after graduation and became the father of three children: Beth, Luke and Amanda. “I had to trade in my Camaro for a Minivan. It was tragically tough!” Goffeney said. “I had to grow up really fast, but it was also a really rewarding experience.”

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After dropping out of college, Goffeney worked an assortment of odd jobs while raising his children and juggling late-night gigs with his new band, Big Toe. When he was in his mid-twenties, a friend suggested Goffeney and his band play at San Diego’s Balboa Park, a popular public venue for street performers. “You’ll make a dollar a minute,” the friend had said.

Goffeney set out for the park, skeptical of his chances at success, but willing to give the experience a try. He set up his guitar and began singing. As Goffeney sang and strummed his guitar with his toes, a crowd began to form, dropping money in his guitar case. But his performance was cut short when a police officer told him to pack up and leave: Goffeney didn’t have a performer’s license. Nevertheless, he was stunned to learn that, during nineteen minutes of playing time, he had made exactly nineteen dollars.

“That was it. I was done,” Goffeney recalled. The musician quickly got his performance license, quit his job, and was back in the park the following weekend, launching a full-time career as a street performer.

“All of my childhood, I had wanted to be a rock star,” Goffeney said. “I was trying to get my band on all of these shows, but it was never quite working out until I started street performing. Everything sort of started working together.”

Goffeney’s street performances were so impressive that by 1999 the hard-working musician had landed his first record deal. Steve Dudas, former producer for Aerosmith, Ozzy Osborne and Ringo Starr, signed on to produce Goffeney’s debut album. People walking through Balboa Park began recording Goffeney’s performances and posting them on YouTube. In 2003 one of those videos went viral—to date, it has garnered nearly eight million views. Meanwhile, Goffeney fielded offers to perform at music festivals around the world. He even scored a role in a Super Bowl commercial.

Hailed as a bona fide YouTube phenomenon, Goffeney and Big Toe were invited to compete in 2007’s The Next Great American Band, an American Idol spinoff produced by Simon Cowell. Though they didn’t make it to the final rounds, the band earned a mention on E!’s The Soup, a comedic entertainment news program. Big Toe also participated in StarTomorrow, an online-only NBC music talent search, winning in week one and week six. The band ultimately placed fourteenth out of 92 contestants, but were most pleased when David Foster, a producer and fifteen-time Grammy award-winning songwriter, gave them a positive review.

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In the midst of all of his newfound visibility, Goffeney was also frequently invited to give motivational talks at schools and workplaces, eventually becoming a spokesperson for ABILITY Awareness and participating at an ABILITY Build construction site in Hawaii. Goffeney says he was thrilled by the opportunity to send a strong message about capability through his life and work.

“I was very happy with the idea that people with disabilities are part of a contributing force to society, rather than just on the receiving end of the population,” Goffeney said. Though he noticed that some participants at the ABILITY Build site had assumed that the volunteers with disabilities were only on-site as part of a job training program, Goffeney recalls that these lowered expectations only propelled him and the other volunteers to work as hard, if not harder, than those around them who did not have disabilities.

“It wasn’t enough for us to symbolically appear to be helping,” Goffeney said. “There was a genuine desire to really make a difference, and an underlying desire of challenging the stigma that people with disabilities are needy people.” In an effort to promote the ABILITY Build, Goffeney performed on a Hawaiian morning show and invited local volunteers to join in the effort.

Amidst all of his successes and media attention, Goffeney has turned down countless requests from producers interested in filming a documentary about his life and experiences. Goffeney admits having a camera follow his every move was a venture that had always made him hesitant. “As a performing artist, if you give yourself away, if you show everything about your daily life, then you’ve lost your ability to be something else to other people,” Goffeney said. “I don’t really want to know what kind of toothpaste Ozzy Osborne uses, you know?”

It was the TLC Network that finally broke down Goffeney’s defenses. At the request of Destin Cretton, director of Bartholomew’s Song, Goffeney traveled to Holland to perform live at the 2009 CAP Awards, with TLC documenting the experience for Born Without Arms.

In spite of his reservations, Goffeney remembers being impressed with the finished film. “I liked Destin Cretton’s filming,” he said. “They were able to capture who I was, even though I was on there with two other people who were born the same way. They really showed how different we all were from each other.” Now Goffeney says he isn’t so reluctant to participate in the documentary experience: 25/7 Productions, best known for producing The Biggest Loser, is currently developing a reality show based on Goffeney’s life and career.

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In the meantime, though, Goffeney continues to record with Hambrick and Carini, an experience which is as rewarding as it is challenging, since the three passionate musicians occasionally butt heads over the lyrics or sound of a piece. “Songwriting is not something there’s a blueprint for,” Carini said. “It’s a thing that is so personality and character driven that you can never say how to write a song. It’s all about how your personality lures you to write.”

Both Carini and Goffeney believe the process, however difficult it may be, will result in strong, genuine music to which Goffeney believes others will certainly relate. “The more American Idol pushes musicians in a cookie cutter mold, the more people are looking for authenticity,” Goffeney said. “I will jump through a burning hoop in a tutu if it will get people to come to my show.”

Goffeney is currently “in talks with the networks” about his new reality show, but if he’s willing to jump through fiery hoops in a tutu, you can bet the end product will be a worthwhile experience.

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