In late August of 2007, Curt Johnson – lead guitarist of legendary Flint rock group, Terry Knight and the Pack – phoned me. “Hey Rob, Mark is playing down in Pontiac at Arts Beats & Eats for Labor Day. I talked to Lisa and got our names on the list. Let’s go!”
Curtis and I have shared a road long and winding – good times and some others, too. Money could never buy the times we have shared.
I hadn’t seen Mark Farner perform live since the Pine Knob concert in 1996. Old high school chum, Tim Stallcup, had performed “A Timmy Hendrix Experience” at a talent show – a modest, three-ukulele interpretation of Jimi’s first album. He had a gal pal with down-front tickets to the Pine Knob show. So, off we went to see the Grand Funk Railroad reunion of Mark, Mel Schacher and Don Brewer, plus the big band.
What a great sight to see these Flinttown rockers going full blast through tunes written decades before, sounding even fresher and tighter than rehearsals at the old Union Hall on Averill in 1969.
Watching that full trainload of industrial strength rock and roll soul shake the stage, the hall, the hill and the surrounding countryside made me laugh until my ribs ached. The sounds that had shaken the world were back on track, barreling down that rockin’ trunk line of love! Wow! Shazam! Super Duty Nifty!
Now, all these years later, Curt and I were backstage at a Mark Farner and NRG show, shaking hands and laughing at our old selves. Petey Woodman, original drummer for Dick Wagner and the Bossmen was there too, smiling and hugging and mugging with Curt for pictures with Mark.
Through the din of glad-handing chatter, I told Mark how happy for all his success everyone was; his trials and tribulations hadn’t soured him or his spirit. Then I went to blend in with the wall and watch him grip and grin his worthy self to bits. Not everyone can be as courteous and accommodating as Mark; I’ve seen other big name acts discourteously treat their fans. Not Mark. In the old days, he would tell security folks, “Let him in, he’s my cousin!” Mark makes everyone feel like they are his cousin.
After the show, Curt and I drove back to the wilds of Shiawassee County to his house – amazed, stunned and pleased as punch at another massive performance by our old chum.
This little tale of remembrance cannot be told without the stair-step story, albeit short and incomplete, of how Mark and I crossed paths swinging on the trapeze of the rock and roll circus.
In June of 1965, for my 15th birthday, my old man took me to a music store long gone now, Del Ray Music on the Dixie near Pontiac. He got me two gifts: one was a shiny, new Fender Stratocaster, and the other a payment book. There aren’t enough “wows” at a Boy Scout Jamboree to express my awe. From plastic ukulele to a Silvertone single-cut archtop to a Stratocaster, all in a mere nine years. “Envy of all the guys?” You bet.
At Holly High, where my matriculation was attempted, a bunch of senior classmen had a band called The Noblemen, led by drum major, Mike Connolly with Steve Watson on guitar and a couple other fellows their age who dropped out of the band. High school band tuba player Pat Wood and I were drafted to fill things out. We played big contemporary hits like, “Walk Don’t Run,” “Pipeline,” “Wipeout,” lots of instrumentals. Our manager was Mrs. Witte, school bus driver and adult band fan. She got us an audition at the famous Riviera Terrace out on Corunna Road. We packed our stuff in Wattys’ old Dodge wagon. We had a couple Airline amps we shared and Pat was playing bass on a four-pickup Teisco with so many buttons it looked like launch control at Cape Canaveral.
The Riviera ballroom looked like a massive, dark, underground cavern; the stage looked tall, very big-time shadows and a mirror ball. The manager came out of his office to watch us struggle with our equipment, told us to set up in front of the headliners’ gear already on the stage. “See those drums?” He pointed to a giant set of gold-sparkle Ludwigs glistening in the stage lights. “If you touch those, the guy who owns them will find you and break your arms!” That was my first encounter with Don Brewer and he wasn’t even there!
Oh – we didn’t pass the audition.
But the path to success is often fraught with failure. The Noblemen went on to play other dates until after Mike and Steve graduated. That left me and Pat to team up with Mickey Johnson and Jim Striggow to start The Esquires. Not quite 16 years old, and we had ourselves a rock and roll band. We played “Last Time,” and “I Can’t Get No,” “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” and “House of the Rising Sun.” We had a Dodge van with our name on the side that we weren’t old enough to drive, just like Jeep Hollands’ bands from Ann Arbor like The Rationals. We played all the teen clubs, high school dances, the Lakeland Castle in Caseville, the Fenton Community Center, the Ponytail in Petoskey, and lots at Mt. Holly opening for everybody and their brother. I can remember Mr. Hanks at Mt. Holly counting out the singles to pay us at the end of the night. Sometimes there were rolls of coins …
Agents like Jeri Patlow, Al Nalli and Ray Shelide booked us into every high school, armory, fairground and teen club from here to Battle Creek, around the thumb of Michigan and north to the Big Mac Bridge. We had matching jackets and polka dot shirts and crazy looking sarapes! We had a roadie and a manager old enough to drive! We were modern! We had a great beat and you could dance to it!
After high school, personnel shifted and so did the sonic landscape. Terry Knight and The Pack had a big hit. We watched them on network television, “Where the Action Is!” They were big time, on the radio, on the TV, on a real record label with Bob Seger and The Last Heard, and Question Mark and the Mysterians. If I had a nickel for every Friday or Saturday night my little band warmed the stage for Question Mark, I could buy you dinner at the Redwood Steakhouse, with dessert and Irish coffee, too!
Back home, I had witnessed a drunken Terry blowing his brains out on harmonica with The Pack thundering behind him at the old failed ski hill north of Fenton called Grand View. Brewer was driving the band like a stolen hot rod Lincoln. They started the show with “Smokestack Lightning” and never backed down the intensity. They did several Yardbirds numbers and their own radio hits. It was a great show.
Music was getting heavier: think Uncle Bob Seger “Heavy Music.” Pat Wood and I found jazzy smasharoo in the pocket drummer Mark Kirsten on the near east side of Flint to meld a trio. Just three of us made for some busy playing; but by then, I had the vocal shouting figured out, and we managed to snare lots of dates. We went into Bob Baldoris’ Lansing Sound studios to record “Black Eyed Peas,” which ended up #27 on the WTAC guide to music. Our group, called Bhang, did just that – we banged them out.
We needed bigger amps. The Fender Super Reverb and Bassman were fine quality amps and served us well through high school, but we were knocking on the big door. We needed bigger iron. Marshall Music was still in Downtown Flint, and we were hearing rumors that a new amp company, local and loud, was coming on line. We searched and found Dave West building amps out near Davison. When I pulled up in my VW Beetle, the windows in the building were rattling.
As I opened the door, the speaker waves blew my long hair back into a ponytail. There was a mustachioed, big-haired dude playing a jazz bass that looked bigger than he was! It was Mel Schacher, and he helped push our decision to move into West amps. Mel was then with Question Mark and was a low-low-end register player and a real refrigerator, a real cool guy.
Lots of us local guys bought West amps. We all had a greater sound, because they were full throated, perfect for the new era of arena rock to which we all aspired.
Back in Holly, I had a little practice space in my dear Polish grandmother’s garage. Pop had passed away, and my personal circumstances were rambling and humble. While many days and nights were spent out on the road with the rock and roll circus, I could come home to a little peace in a small bedroom at the corner of Hubble Drive and Saginaw Street.
I kept one 100-watt West Grande amp and a few 15-inch speaker cabinets in my grandfather’s workshop. Windows would rattle all the way to town when I was strangling my Stratocaster. Alice, my dear grandma would cook up cabbage and noodles, feed me and any fellow bandmates who came through the door with me. Even my chums from the north side band Ice Nine chowed down. We were all pretty skinny. One day she came home from a trip across the street where Mrs. Smith was doing hairdos for little old ladies. My grandma told me one nice lady getting her hair done had mentioned that her son was “in the greatest rock and roll band in the world.”
“Grandma, what was this lady’s name?” I inquired. She replied, “I think she said her name was Mrs. Schacher.” Wow! The tales these ladies tell at the beauty parlor!
I started spending more time in Downtown Flint. The West amp factory was now downtown, just north of the Masonic Temple, and close to the Kewpee Burger. In addition to wiring and soldering, woodwork and finishing, there was constant circuit testing. I would happily bang away on a guitar while Dave twiddled the knobs and flipped his switches. What better job could there be?
And of course, other West amp artists would frequent the shop. Dick Wagner, Melvin and Mark and all the local West users would come in. As Grand Funk got fired up, they had to travel by plane and their backline of giant West amps would suffer greatly at the hands of airline ground crews. The West amps we produced had giant transformers, and after being thrown around like luggage, amps would return to the shop nearly destroyed.
One day, Mark came in carrying his amp in one hand and a wooden box in the other. Setting both on the workbench, he explained that the trannys had ripped out of the chassis and he had to rewire the mess to get it to work. He used a Leslie nine-pin plug to mate the trannys back to the main chassis, and built a sturdy wooden box to hold them. Rube Goldberg would have given Mark an award for his inventive solution to disaster. “What am I supposed to do with this crate? How do I get them out?” Dave asked. Dave was a pretty straight arrow. The rest of us shop workers were pretty amazed by Mark’s revival of the smashed device. Mark searched the work benches, found a hammer and pry bar and smashed the transformers free. “Get her going, Dave,” Mark said. “There’s your parts.”
“Hey, I got a new car. Wanna go for a ride?” Mark asked me. “You bet!” I said.
We left the mess on Dave’s workbench and lit out down Saginaw on the bricks in Mark’s new-to-him 1969 Cadillac convertible, top down with our freak flags flying. This was big – rollin’ hard down by the Flint River across to the north side, by the Giant Ballroom – grinnin’ like fools with nothing to lose.
One day, Dave West and I delivered some sound reinforcement gear over to the Union hall where Terry Knight was working Mark, Mel and Don like rented mules. Dave started to plug things in and test them, Mel and I took a break – out the back door and over to the Burger King on Davison Road, and Mel’s house next door. I met his mom and told her about my grandma getting her hair done at Mrs. Smith’s, the same place she did. Mel had a gold record on the wall for “Time Machine,” Grand Funk’s first single release. Wow … and wow, again.
Back at the hall, it was back in the barrel for the boys. Rehearsals were conducted at appropriate live stage sound levels. I’m sure that Union President, Frank Tamburino’s desk was vibrating under his pen.
As Grand Funk started rolling, Mark started fleshing out his instrument ensemble. The old green Messinger guitar replete with masking tape over the F holes was joined by a set of drums, a Fender Rhodes electric piano, and a Hammond B3 with Leslie speaker. Tools of the trade, Mark set these up in the house he acquired on Jennings Road, southwest of Flint. He set out to become proficient enough to compose on keyboards, as well as guitar.
Now, there are plenty of stories that songs sometimes materialize for some musicians nearly written, complete – like Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” I remember seeing them on American Bandstand back in 1959. Santo or Johnny, can’t remember, was telling Dick Clark, “I woke up with the melody in my head. I got up and wrote it down. That’s why we call it ‘Sleepwalk!” And so it is with many of the memorable songs that stick in your head. Mark tells a similar story about how “I’m Your Captain” came to him.
Having said all that, Mark worked hard at writing and composing. Even a simple, three-minute radio hit can consume hours of trial and error, lyric and tempo changes, rehearsal, recording, not to mention charting and publishing. Dedication and hard work are the real key to success, and Mark was relentless. He was churning out tunes like GM was turning out Chevrolets.
My band was still bouncing along, playing whiskey bars when the drinking age changed in 1972. All the teen clubs died and budding musicians were forced into bars to perform. Our group was playing an upholstered sewer Downriver Detroit called “The Painted Pony” and Mark went along with me one night. On the late night ride back, just as we were approaching the Holly exit on I-75, Mark explained to me he had a lot more songs written than the band could play; some were controversial. Would I want to try some songs Terry Knight wouldn’t green light?
Like a big dope, I told Mark we were already writing a lot of our own material. We had produced a couple albums worth of originals. But yours truly was truly a big dummy for not trying to help Mark get out material he thought important enough to share. My chandelier was a few bulbs short that night, and I made a real dumb career blunder. Doh!
In the early 70s, our little band had purloined rehearsal space in downtown Holly across from the Citizens Bank. My Aunt Celia Boncher worked there with lots of other ladies I knew from my paper route. Mark liked to use the Holly branch of Citizens when he moved out of Flint; he could get in and out without causing too much ruckus and visit our Odd Fellows’ Hall studio across the street. If our band wasn’t playing, someone was usually practicing or mixing a recording. The door was always open, there were long jams with great players from all around, and sometimes Mark would walk right in. Word would come back from the bank teller ladies wondering who the young man with the long hair, purple cape and rings on every finger could be. It was a chuckle; Mark did step out rather outrageously for a small town, and tongues would wag. Many of the oldsters weren’t too taken with the new look.
Mark decided he wanted a farm, so he bought one out in Parshallville. Now, a farmer needs implements, and Mark would occasionally shop at Mid State Equipment on Baldwin Road. As his career path broadened, mine sometimes went sideways and I’d end up back at Dad’s light construction company. We had an old John Deere crawler, and when “Old Betsy” broke down, we would take her up to the farm boys at Mid State for repair.
The parts and service counter was run by a pair of older gentlemen, congenial geezers if there ever were. One man was short, stubby and funny, the other tall, dour and practical. On one visit for repairs, they were chatting about the wannabe farmer hippie who was buying equipment he wasn’t sure how to use, and generally not looking the part of the typical toiler of the soil. “He didn’t look the farmer, but sure had good enough manners he might turn into one.”
Mark Farner is the musical equivalent of an astronaut. After years of working around the rock and roll launchpad, teen clubs, whisky bars, damp basement rehearsal halls, high school dances, cheesy recording studios, he finally found himself atop a rocket aimed at the stars. As he blasted off, the quaking and shaking made for quite a rowdy ride all the way to the very pinnacle of international stardom. All these decades later, he can still deliver a performance that can knock your socks off and touch your heart. He stands on a song catalogue of his own writings and recordings a mile wide and a mile deep. This he built with his bare hands and dogged determination, a legacy of life and work millions enjoy to this day. He still writes new tunes, all the time. That is what he does.
The old band? I still love ‘em to bits, but they had to hire three guys to replace Mark.
Rock on, Brother!