One thing was for certain, though. A young musician nicknamed 'Geo' seemed like a hot property in spring 1980.
"It was a shocker," said his boyhood friend, John Shepherd, who thought that he, George and crew might be on their way up the pop music totem pole.
"I went out and bought a new car," Shepherd said -- a Mustang GT. "It kind of pushed me over the edge because I thought we were going somewhere."
The next month, Rolling Stone updated news of Ocasek's potential Next Big Thing in a long Random Notes item in the May 15, 1980 issue. The magazine had tracked Geo to St. Louis, where he was studying, of all things, to be a hairdresser:
"Don't ask me why," says the soft-spoken, twenty-six-year-old multi-instrumentalist. "I moved here to be with my girlfriend, who wanted to go to school to be a chiropractor. Now, she's left to become a minister."
George told Rolling Stone he was recording new songs onto a Sansui cassette deck. The item also noted that Rolling Stone had put him in touch "with a delighted Ocasek who hopes to record Bartlett sometime in the fall."
The piece concluded with what sounded like the start of something big:
"Meanwhile, with the Cars busy working on their next album, Bartlett has sent Ocasek more tapes to consider: "They're rough," he admits, "but Ric says that's the way he likes 'em."Opening the door
Family and friends are not sure of the exact date -- possibly late 1979 -- but George took a trip to New York City sometime before Ric Ocasek flipped a national spotlight upon his life. George returned from the city and shared a bombshell with his middle sister, Leigh Ann Keller.
Leigh Ann, eight years younger, was a senior in high school at the time. "He and I were very, very close and he would confide in me," she said. "So, we went back in the bedroom. He showed me a magazine and it was all these men in drag. He proceeded to share with me that he wanted to be a woman."
This was at end of the '70s in small-town, Bible-belt Arkansas.
"Back then, I mean, you just didn't hear of things like that," she said. "I just kind of freaked out. I didn't know how to handle it. He was my only brother. I just absolutely idolized him. All my sisters did."
The bombshell landed even harder given that George had once been married in the mid-70s. Leigh Ann described her brother's short marriage to a young woman with whom the family has since lost contact.
"They were married for maybe a couple of years and then all of a sudden they got a divorce," she said. "After the divorce, he was very, very sad."
The news that came back from his New York trip began to ripple outward.
Sharon, closest in age to her brother, picks up the thread. "We lived in a small community. We didn't understand," she said. "We told him we didn't want another sister. We wanted our brother."
It didn't help that their father and George had a contentious relationship, even as George once worked briefly at his dad's realty company.
"My dad didn't want him to play music as a career. He wanted him to have another career," said Leigh Ann. "So, as he got older and everything they fought a lot. It was very, very difficult for him."
Here and there around town, George began to dress as a woman. Word got out. His oldest friend, John Shepherd, got a call one day from George's dad.
"His father called me, asked me if I'd see him dressed up like a girl? I told him no, but I've seen pictures. He told me: 'Well, if you ever do, just whup his butt for me.'"
'Quite a scene'
Given the time George lived under his roof, Rick Buford may have seen most intensely how much his friend wanted to radically redraw his life -- his entire identity, in fact.
After the second Rolling Stone mention, Buford drove to St. Louis and brought George back to Arkansas to get to work on new music for Ocasek. "I was terribly excited," said Buford.
He overheard phone conversations George had with the leader of The Cars.
"George was just seeking advice on how to handle it and what recommendations Ocasek might have for him and us. And [Ocasek] said 'Just keep doing what you're doing, polish it up, do some public performances. You know, get a following. And I'm going to try to get the group up here to Boston and we do...'"
Buford paused. "Whatever Ric does. Produce it."
But George had become a little different, Buford said. He began to dress in women's clothes around Buford's place even as friends dropped by, he said. "I'm sure at that time it was quite a scene for the residents of Batesville, Arkansas."
George wanted him to be his boyfriend, Buford would come to learn. But after a few months, the weight of it all sent Buford packing.
By this time, many locals knew of "Geo" Bartlett via Rolling Stone.
"I said, 'George, we're in a small town here. People are coming and going, they're sticking their noses in our door. They're extremely curious about what we're doing.' Because by that time, the word had gotten out that we could possibly be something that was going to put the city on the map."
Buford left, moving to a different apartment outside of town. "I told him I just could not do this anymore."
Meanwhile, the family's turmoil only increased.
"Dad tried to put him into a mental hospital," Leigh Ann said. "And he somehow got released from the mental hospital and lived with my mother for awhile in a little town."
"After that, he left," she said. "And we never saw him again."
The two older sisters, living in different places, last saw their brother in 1982, while the youngest, Lisa, spent a few months with him in the summer of 1983 at their mother's place. Then, he disappeared.
He went missing for a few months.
Then, a year. Then, five years.
And then, 10 years. And 20.
Gone, finally, for more than a quarter century.
One day, in late 2009, a phone rings in Arkansas in the house of George's Aunt Bernice. It was a call from Charleston, W.Va. From that one call telephones started lighting up across Arkansas and Oklahoma.
'George is alive! He's in West Virginia!'
But he doesn't call himself George anymore.
She calls herself Elizabeth.
And she wants to see her family again.
Coming in Tuesday's Charleston Gazette: A Charleston reunion.
Part 2 of 3 Parts
Part 1: Elizabeth in Charleston
Part 2: A musician on the go -- then gone
Part 3: A long-sought reunion, but with who?
@tag:Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.