Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad: Interview

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There aren’t many musicians of the classic rock era who don’t have wild drug stories, whether they’re talking about what they did themselves or what they observed of what went down around them.

Mark Farner—co-founding singer-songwriter-guitarist of Grand Funk Railroad, a band that’s sold more than 25 million albums—has both kinds of stories. One is a doozy. It’s about him and Jimi Hendrix.

“I knew Jimi,” Farner says, on the phone from his home in Petoskey, Mich. “Every time we were on the same bill, we would make sure our paths crossed and say howdy. At Randall’s Island [a New York City rock festival held in July 1970, headlining Hendrix and GFR], Jimi Hendrix’s right-hand man came over to my dressing room after we got offstage and said, ‘Hey, Jimi wants to see you.’ These guys have got some stuff lined up on the dressing room table that looks like snow drifts and [Jimi] says, ‘Come on, do some of this.’ And I said, ‘No, man, I don’t do that stuff. I’ll watch you guys. Knock yourself out.’ He says, ‘Well, just do a little bit.’

“So, I do a little snort of this stuff. I’d never done anything like this before but, Jimi says to me, ‘I wouldn’t give you nothing that could hurt you and you know me.’ That’s my guitar god telling me he’s not gonna hurt me. Then I do this stuff and, holy crap! I just found out how much somebody could lie.”

Mark Farner performing at Lawrenceburg, Indiana’s Fall Fest on September 26, 2009 (Photo from Wikipedia, used with permission)

Farner, who turned 69 on September 29, 2017, says it was a combination of cocaine and heroin. “That took me someplace where it put the fear of God in me about ever doing anything like that [again] and it also gave me compassion for those who are caught up in it,” he continues. “You have to lose part of your sanity to let that get ahold of you, and that’s the part that really scared me, brother, because I would have to allow this to happen. Man, I knew it was bad. I fell off the equipment truck because this stuff was getting to me.”

Wait, there’s more. “Then I saw Jimi get onstage and he couldn’t find the neck of his guitar. He was missing it by two feet! And this longhaired kid with no shirt with bare feet with a pair of bellbottoms walks out on the stage, grabs Jimi’s arm, hooks it to the neck of the guitar and Jimi starts playing. But Jimi’s music isn’t making any sense to me and that’s when I got sick and fell off the truck and threw up.”

***

Grand Funk Railroad—originally guitarist Farner, bassist Mel Schacher and drummer Don Brewer, with keyboardist Craig Frost joining in 1972—was, in the early ’70s, the most popular American band of its day and, in some critical quarters, the most hated. The trio, from Flint, Mich., was the “people’s band,” a hard-rock outfit that came out of a garage. They released two albums in 1969, On Time and Grand Funk, and two more, Closer to Home and the double Live Album, in 1970. The following year they sold out Shea Stadium in 72 hours, faster than the Beatles.

It’s Farner’s most memorable moment. “I was flying over Shea Stadium in a big helicopter, a big Huey, and the side door is open and I’m looking down—Humble Pie is onstage, which is set up at second base—and there are 60,000 people in the stands and it is bouncing up and down. The stadium looked like it was gonna collapse. It was bouncing so much I was thinking, ‘Wow those guys are rocking it!’ I couldn’t hear them because of the helicopter rotors, but man, visually.

“Then, when we landed in the parking lot where the limousine is supposed to be waiting for us, there was nothing. We’re in an empty parking lot. The guy with us who was riding along runs down to the phone booth and makes a call. Within two or three minutes we got cop cars in the parking lot, with the lights and sirens, picking us up. They haul us into Shea Stadium and we get out of the back of the cop cars and the crowd loses it! Wow! What a moment!”

Mark Farner in a 1971 publicity photo

Grand Funk plays the concert. “And the crowd,” says Farner, “they’re singing ‘I’m your captain—I’m getting closer to my home’—louder than the PA system! I got huge chills.”

Still does, he says, “It’s a spiritual experience. It takes me close to who I really am and every night I dedicate that to our troops and to our veterans because it means the most to them, it really does. I’m still in the spirit, because it means so much and it has carried so many dreams and hopes. It has carried love and people sing it to me when I’m on stage. And it works, because it’s love. We are spirits in a bone suit here and we get mixed up. We think we’re gonna be here forever, but no.”

At the peak of their ascent, Rolling Stone called Grand Funk Railroad “the biggest American group in rock history,” but in the same article asked the question, “Is this band terrible?” Implied answer: Pretty much “yes.” But it didn’t matter what the critics thought. In 1973, having previously logged 10 Billboard chart singles—none of which had reached higher than #22—GFR vaulted to #1 with “We’re an American Band.” The same-titled album, produced by Todd Rundgren, was their sixth to make the top 10 of the trade magazine’ LP chart; it out-ranked its predecessors, settling in at #2.

Related: The story behind “We’re an American Band”

Brewer sang the single and has the sole songwriting credit for the gleeful, anthemic song about loving the rock life—hotel destruction and groupie adoration. Until that point, Farner had been the primary songwriter, by far, but Brewer was starting to move into the mix. On the album, Brewer sings four of the leads and Farner the other four.

Grand Funk (they’d officially abbreviated the name with We’re an American Band) broke up, for the first time, in 1976 after a couple more top 10 albums It was time for them to go; their fans had moved on. But while other hard-rock outfits have been hailed as rock game-changers, Grand Funk Railroad never did get much respect from the critical elite. They are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will likely never be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Farner does not give a rat’s ass. (Rolling Stone, of course, is the driving force behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Related: Other artists who’ve been shunned by the Rock Hall

“I believe it’s so politically oriented,” Farner says of the Hall. “If it hasn’t shown itself to be that way [to you], I’d say put a rubber band around your head and snap out of it. It’s really about kissing ass and Grand Funk does not kiss ass. We kick ass. There is no brown ring around any of our mouths and there will not be. I could not give a shit less about them. I’m serious. Period. I care about the fans. The critics, they can go and have their time, go write their stuff, but as long as the fans keep showing up, I’m gonna keep showing up.”

Grand Funk Railroad still exists, and has pretty much for 48 years, excepting a decade or so from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. But Farner is not part of it. Max Carl has taken Farner’s slot and has been there since 2000. So, when Farner’s talking about Grand Funk kicking/not kissing ass you gather he’s pretty much talking about history—the band during his tenure—and, perhaps, what he does as a solo act (including the two years he spent as one of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in the ’90s).

The Grand Funk of today is co-founders Brewer and Schacher alongside three others who all joined in 2000: Carl, ex-KISS guitarist Bruce Culick and keyboardist Tim Cashian. Today’s version of GFR doesn’t really come up in conversation with Farner.

Farner has a band that’s been with him for more than a decade: drummer Hubert Crawford, bassist Dennis Bellinger and keyboardist Karl Probst.

Mark Farner Tour Dates
10/4: Kalamazoo, MI, The State Theater (with Blue Oyster Cult)
10/6: St. Charles, IL, Arcada Theater (with Blue Oyster Cult)
10/20: Salisbury, MA, Blue Ocean (with Jefferson Starship)
10/21: Portland, ME, Aura (with Jefferson Starship)

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Read Part Two of our interview with Mark Farner here.

Watch Grand Funk Railroad play “We’re an American Band” in 1974

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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  1. Jack
    #1 Jack 25 August, 2017, 03:33

    It’s a shame about the RRHOF, Grand Funk did accomplish more than some of the inductees. Like them or not, they were relevant in the late 60s and early 70s. Were they The Beatles or Rolling Stones? No, of course not. However, they were American rock ‘n roll at that time. Again, like or hate, you don’t sellout Shea Stadium, playing your own songs, playing your own instruments, and not have incredible talent. Nor do you write songs like “Closer to Home/I’m Your Captain” with no talent. Name one song by Kiss (who is in the Hall) that is as complex, mood-wise, as that and some of the other GFR songs. Farner is correct when he calls the Hall “political”. They are truly as political as the sports Halls. Bottom line is, GFR should be there, and there are a lot of others who should be there as well. To be truly legitimate, the RRHOF has to come up with some kind of consistently applied criteria with which to determine whether an act is worthy of being in it, then, they must apply it across the board. Me, I can take or leave GFR, but fair is fair. I was around back then, I know how relevant and popular they were.

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    • Little Bill
      Little Bill 26 August, 2017, 03:10

      Grand Funk Railroad without Mark Farner is like the Stones without Mick Jagger just caint pull it off!!!

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  2. JJK
    #2 JJK 27 August, 2017, 18:31

    I was at the Shea concert, and it ranks up there with my all time favorite concerts that I ever attended. To me they were one of the most rockin bands of the 70’s. I still think their “Live Album” is one of the most underrated live albums ever. Overall, I saw them about five times. Most in Madison Square Garden. Those were the days!

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