Propped against a wall Jeffrey Marshall stands 3 feet, 6 inches tall. He has no arms, he can’t walk and says he thinks that people who tell him his guitar playing is inspirational are missing an important point.
A birth defect also left him without knees or hips. This means Marshall frets the instrument with the big toe of his left foot and slaps the strings with his right while picking out runs with his toes.
He wants people to pay attention to the songs he writes and performs rather than express amazement that he has the grit and determination to overcome a devastating disability.
“I’m not really here to inspire anybody. That is a lot of responsibility. I’m in the business of storytelling,” he says. “‘Often I wonder if I went up on stage and I just beat my guitar, if people would still say ‘That was really great.’”
“He has never wanted to be on a Wheaties box,” said Edwin Marshall, a friend of Marshall’s since childhood. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to be anybody’s poster child.’ He wants to be judged on the merits of his music.”
As the subject of “The Last Freak Show,” a deeply contemplative documentary made for British television, Marshall immersed himself in a show-business world that exploits people with extraordinary and evident differences.
He traveled to New Jersey to play his guitar as a cast-member of Ward Hall’s World of Wonders. Marshall’s time at the show, where Hall, the freak-show pitchman, introduced him as “Penguin Man” was both humiliating and illuminating, he said.
While making the film in 2007, he met Pete Terhune, a 3-f00t-7-inch member of the cast, who ate fire and performed other tricks. Terhune died in 2012.
His time with Terhune, known as “Poobah,” who had, by then, spent about 50 years as an entertainment curiosity, made him acutely aware of how much more difficult his own life could have been had he been born at a time when people with disabilities had few options.
Had he been born 40 years earlier, Marshall observes in the film, “that would have been my life … I don’t think I realized until this, how amazingly lucky and fortunate I have been in this life … As Pete is the last of his kind. I am the beginning of my kind.”
Doing the documentary was an emotionally draining experience. “After this, I could open a synagogue in downtown Baghdad,” he tells viewers.
A globe-spanning career based in Colorado
And though he did not go to Baghdad, Marshall has played extensively throughout the Czech Republic and other parts of Europe, California and in Colorado, where he lives.
Marilu Elliot, a Northern California musician known as “the rockin flute,” played with Marshall’s band “Jeffrey Marshall and the Foundation.”
“Jeffrey’s music is very compelling … we spent five months together in a warehouse and put together about 10 songs. I just really enjoyed the way he worked,” she said.
Among the venues the Foundation played in California was Sweetwater Music Hall, owned by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.
“He never complains about the situation,” Elliot said. “He has said, ‘I don’t know any other situation. People feel sorry for me, but this has always been me.’”
From his apartment in Denver he broadcasts “Marshall Arts,” a late-night talk and music show that runs on KZCT 89.5 FM, in Vallejo, California, a nonprofit station dedicated to promoting local and independent artists and musicians.
He attended the Colorado Film School. And he worked on a documentary film in Thailand, that stalled, he says, due to a dispute with his partner.
Marshall’s story begins in 1972 in Maryland, where he was born three months early without arms and with lower legs connected to his pelvis.
He was placed in foster care and adopted by his foster family, later moving to Tennessee.
Benson, who met Marshall when both were first-graders in Nashville, said his friend was fearless on a skateboard.
“Back then we would roll down the sidewalk and we would always try to pad him up,” Benson said. Marshall would lie back on the board and steer with his back and shoulder. “He enjoyed the adventure of that.”
Catch Marshall on stage
Enthralled by rock and roll from an early age, he developed a drive to express himself through music.
He began to pick a guitar with his feet, learning chords from Benson, developing his technique and plunging into blues and other styles.
Deciding on the instruments that he has since learned to play — piano, bass, guitar and harmonica — was the easy part, he jokes. “I would be a shitty drummer.”
He picked up the bass when he was in his teens because none of his fellow band members wanted to play the instrument.
Benson remembers the day. “I set an electric bass down and propped a little piece of pillow under the neck. I said here is G, A and C, let’s play some blues. Before I knew it we were jamming.”
Marshall’s early influences included Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. The Englishman’s bass chops were influential, but so was his take-no-crap attitude, said Marshall, who witnessed a video of Vicious slamming a stage invader with his bass guitar.
Music City was a hotbed of talent where a classically trained violinist could join with a hot Country or blues picker and a drummer with a background in punk to give a performance that would ignite an audience. Marshall revelled in the variety and played in a string of bands.
He attended Middle Tennessee State University where he majored in music, acting and film. At the time, “I was out of control,” he said. “I wanted to be like Jim Morrison and I lived like a rock star.”
But his musical reputation was growing. He met Blues Traveler’s frontman John Popper at a festival in Alabama in 1996. Popper, who was using a wheelchair while recovering from a motorcycle injury, asked him to join the band on stage.
These days, Marshall said, he is never nervous when performing live. But the festival audience for Blues Traveler numbered 20,000. He was so nervous, he said, that he never looked at the audience.
In the mid-90s, Marshall accepted a friend’s invitation to join him on a road trip to an annual gathering of a loose-knit confederation of hippies known as the Rainbow Family that was held in Tres Piedras, New Mexico.
“That was a turning point for me,” he says.
A tale from Prague
After three months of running around with members of the group, he decided to move to Denver where his brother was living.
In Denver he continued playing with local and regional bands, performing his own songs while playing guitar or bass along with harmonica.
He hungered for something different and following a vacation in Europe decided to stay in Prague, Czechoslovakia, for a while.
It was there that he met another musician, Daniel Levanti. They began writing, playing and recording together, naming their band Supercool.
“The next several years after that we were traveling between Europe, Nashville, Connecticut and Denver,“ Marshall said.
The band recorded “Supercool Vol. 1” on Earwave Records at a studio in Nashville.
His time in Prague was not without some friction, and one episode stands out.
Marshall was returning home from a night of drinking at about 4 a.m. He stopped for one more pop and a pair of fans invited him to drink with them.
A Czech skinhead at the bar was yelling racist comments “pissing everybody off,” but Marshall had limited understanding of the language and the three continued to talk.
Marshall eventually passed out in his electric wheelchair and his foot hit the joystick, powering it forward. The chair sped straight into the skinhead’s bar stool and knocked him to the floor.
“I hit him dead on, trashed the bar stool and he was hurt. The bartender said I hate to do this, but you have to leave,” Marshall says. “He was laughing about it.”
In 2008, Marshall moved to Kingston, Jamaica. “After being around so many white people I wanted to be around chocolate people, and I didn’t want to go to Africa.”
He wrote to a Jamaican official telling him that he was a disabled musician who wanted to live in Kingston and would need a place to live and a personal assistant. The official thought it was a joke and called to speak with him.
Marshall convinced him that he was serious, and the man told him to get on a plane, “I’m going to hook you up with my family.”
Settling into a life in Denver
Back in Denver in 2010, he enrolled at Colorado Film School.
When he ran into an old friend who had become a professor of film studies in Bangkok the man invited him to work on a documentary about a Buddhist monk, Marshall eagerly joined in the project.
Most of the work was done in the states. But Marshall traveled to Thailand with the film producer to gather supplemental footage at a rice farming village on an island off the coast.
It was there that he met Sangad Detwaree. “She was working down there and we fell in love at first sight,” he said. “I begged her to come with me to Bangkok. She said, ‘I ain’t going with you little black man.’”
But as he got on the ferry back to the mainland, “I saw her little legs running and I said ‘God damn. I’m going to marry that girl.’”
The two now live in a downtown Denver high rise.
One room of the small apartment is crowded with the computers and other equipment he uses to broadcast his radio show to listeners who know him as “seven-toe Marshall,” a nod to the number of toes on his feet.
One wall is covered with hats, fedoras, baseball caps and other styles. A wide slice of another wall is decorated with rows of sunglasses.
In the living room, four fretless Zeta bass guitars share space with a trio of acoustics and several wheelchairs.
Marshall has been playing open stages and gigs in Colorado for the past few months and evaluating the next step in his performing career.
Playing solo has its attractions, but he misses the interplay with other musicians in a band setting. “I draw some liberation in doing a solo gig because you don’t have to worry about a band. If you mess up, you own it.”
But sharing the stage with others is a chance to match his skills with others and produce something unique to the group.
“For me music shouldn’t be completely comfortable,” he said. “When I’m on stage with a band I identify with the audience, but it’s all about the people you’re sharing the stage with. We have a job to do.”