Spoiler alert: I am a Mark Farner fan and like Homer Simpson professes in the Homerpalooza episode, I have a special spot in my heart for the, “Wild, shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner” and his body of work with Grand Funk Railroad. I watched some interview clips with Farner recently where he mentioned the Simpson’s reference and called it “one of the greatest things that happened in my career.” As a young musician, I held a lot of musical artists on the same plane as the astronauts I watched rocket into space. They were larger than life, almost mythical beings who were living the dream. It took me a lot longer to realize that they were also real people.
Mark Farner blew out a knee in high school thus ending his football and track career. His firefighter father was killed in a car accident when Farner was nine, so it was up to his mother to find a way to channel all that pent up energy when he could no longer play sports. She rented him an acoustic guitar and six lessons. His guitar teacher had health issues that limited young Farner to only four lessons, but by then, the seed had been planted and he began to put his youthful energy into playing music. By his own account, Farner had an altercation with a teacher and was “laid off from high school. I tried to finish with night school but it was interfering with my music gigs. My mom and stepdad were good about it and told me to make my own choices. Guitar seemed to be a better vehicle for a career in music than the tuba I played in the school band.” Forty plus years down the road, it seems to have worked out even though it has been a career filled with high peaks and low valleys.
Farner mentions the lessons, both good and bad, that he learned from hooking up with Terry Knight and the Pack and Dick Wagner (The Bossmen, The Frost, Alice Cooper). Knight took Farner on the road, first as a bass player even though he had never played bass before. Farner and future Grand Funk Railroad drummer Don Brewer continued with the Pack after Knight departed. It was partly at Knight’s suggestion that Brewer and Farner formed a power trio like Cream. The foundation of GFR was firmly in place with the addition of Mel Schacher (? and the Mysterians) on bass. Those were the positives Knight brought into Farner’s life. The negatives came from the less than optimal business contract he had them working under. It eventually boiled over and as Farner himself now admits, they pushed all the wrong legal buttons and broke their contract with Knight. The lawsuits that this breach of contract generated gave Knight a large pay off and the band realized after the fact they should have just hunkered down for a few months until the contract ended. This was Farner’s first lesson in the deep legal end of the music business pool. Sadly, it would not be his last.
Farner’s time with Dick Wagner was more productive. He learned at the master’s knee and it was Wagner that encouraged him to start writing his own songs. His first effort (Heartbreaker) became a GFR standard and Farner has played it more than forty years with his various bands. Musically, GRF was loud and bombastic, but they also wrote a bevy of hard pop tunes that took them from the level of cult band to a chart topping, platinum album selling tour de force. Their triumphant show at Shea Stadium sold out faster than The Beatles and they rocked the house so hard that they literally rocked the stadium. Film of the bleachers bouncing up and down leads one to believe there must have been some thoughts along the lines of, “Do we end the concert and risk a riot or hope that the stadium holds together?” This was the highest peak of their early career. Even if it is a long way from the pinnacle to the pit, GFR found it can be a mighty quick trip when a band begins to have internal problems. The band broke up in the late 1970s and then came together for a couple of albums in the early 1980s with Dennis Bellinger (Rusty Wright Band) filling the bass slot. This modestly successful semi-reunion was followed up by another three year reunion of the classic line up. The entry in Wiki simply says, “After 1998, Farner returned to recording as a solo act,” but this short passage pretty much glosses over the bigger picture.
According to Farner, Brewer convinced him that it would be better to have each band member sign on to be one third of a corporation that would handle all of their business affairs. He calls what happened next being “sucker punched” by his former friend and drummer. Farner suddenly found himself outvoted 2 – 1 by Schacher and Brewer which ultimately lead to him being fired from his own band. He ignored several court orders to “cease and desist” using any promotional materials connecting him to Grand Funk until he had the letter of the law spelled out to him by a judge: “Stop or go to jail!”
In the midst of all the band turmoil, Farner and his wife separated for a time due to unspecified marital discord. While separated, they both found their Christian faith reawakened, leading to a reconciliation that lasts until this day. Farner’s youngest son Jesse took what Farner calls “a bad fall” in 2010 and was left a quadriplegic. “We wanted Jesse at home because in the long run, we will be the best caregivers for him; and both Lesia and I are committed to that responsibility like any good loving parents would be.” To add to his trials, Farner suffered a heart attack that required him to have a pacemaker implanted (“I died twice and they brought me back,” he says). The Mark Farner story begins to sound less like living the dream and more like just surviving day to day. Through it all, Farner remains fiercely devoted to his family and says he has forgiven his former bandmates.
How are the prospects for another reunion? Says Farner: “Those guys keep turning me down every time I say, ‘Why not put the band together for the fans, while we’re all still sucking air?’ I remember with the Beatles, I really wanted to see those guys. I kept thinking, ‘Why not bury the hatchet and do it for the fans?’ I can see, from being that fan, that the Grand Funk fans would dig it if the three of us bury all that crap and get out there and do it for the fans. I’ve been rejected every time. I don’t like to sound gloomy, but it doesn’t look very good.”
Many fans feel that without the man who wrote 90% of their hit songs, GFR is a glorified cover band. How this will play out in the future is anybody’s guess. For now, GFR fans can hear some of their tunes with the Brewer/Schacher version of GFR and others with Farner’s own N’rG Band. I recently noticed that the Rusty Wright Band had relocated to Florida without Dennis Bellinger on bass. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he has reconnected with Farner and is currently touring with him. Maybe Dennis will put in a good word with Mark and get the band to the western U.P.
The last burning question for GFR fans: Will they ever make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Again, only time will answer this question but other bands with discordant histories (KISS being a prime example) have been voted in. Whether they are enshrined or not, I walked away viewing Mark Farner as a regular guy with regular problems who just happens to make great music. Maybe there should just be a hall of fame for people like that.
Top Piece Video – I don’t usually post concert length videos but this just seemed to fit – note our buddy Dennis Bellinger late of the Rusty Wright Band on bass and vocals. It is also worth noting the smile on Farner’s face – do you think he still enjoys performing?