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What The Funk?! Mark Farner’s Excellent Adventure (Interview)

Written by: Marc Shapiro

(photo: flint journal file)

So much has been written about the life and times of Grand Funk Railroad – the hits and the misses, the legal fights and the mismanagement, the groupies and the drugs, the critics who universally hated them and the fans who universally adored them.

It almost seems redundant to be interviewing former Grand Funk guitarist and self-styled radical Christian Mark Farner to simply go over old times.  The 64-year-old rocker has heard all the questions, and the interviewers already know the answers.   But the easygoing Farner – currently prepping for a recording session in Boston – is  all good cheer about an in-the-works PBS documentary I’m Your Captain: The Mark Farner Story.   And despite a recent autobiography that pretty much tells it all,  Mark Farner says…

“There is no last word.  There’s nothing you could ask me that would make me roll my eyes at this point.  You got a question that’s going to make me roll my eyes? (laughs) Go for it!”

Rock Cellar Magazine:  OK.  Can religion and rock ‘n’ roll truly co-exist?

Mark Farner: Rock and roll is religion. The love for religion has always been in rock and roll.  Just look at songs like Jesus Is Just Alright With Me and Spirit In The Sky.  Our song So You Don’t Have To Die off the Phoenix album had that vibe.

RCM: Countless performers come to Christ.  But you have to admit you don’t come off like the typical Christian musician, right?

I’m Christian but I don’t go to church and give money and all that shit.  I don’t believe in it.  I believe in love, and that Christ did all those miracles because of love.  The church wants to see all these miracles but they’re preaching bullshit.  Christ said don’t owe any man anything.  In love there is no debt.

RCM:  Well, you’re definitely not Stryper.  Wouldn’t you say that perspective qualifies you as radical?

MF:  When I decided to go to Christ, I was going and finding God myself.  The circumstances in my life led me to think that I had to turn things over and let somebody else run the ship for a while.  I went to established, organized Christian churches for a while.  But it was all about the money, and for me, that wasn’t God.

RCM:  Has finding God allowed you to make peace with all the people who wronged you in Grand Funk?

MF:  Absolutely.

RCM: Let’s go down the list. Terry Knight – who mismanaged and cheated the band and was found murdered some years ago.

MF:  I made peace with Terry a long time before he checked out.  We got on the phone and we had our words and everything was all good.

RCM:  Mel Schacher?

MF:  No problem with Mel.  He was an only child and when his mom and dad left, that guy was definitely going through changes.  I have love in my heart for that man.  He’s a grown man who has made his own decisions.  Over the years, he’s been led into situations where he’s been compromising who he is.  But I think we all do that.

RCM:  And finally, Don Brewer – who had you sign over the rights to the name Grand Funk Railroad.

MF:  I still have forgiveness for Don.  I realized a long time ago that if somebody does something that is eating at you, it’s your power that they’re using against you.  I don’t give Don Brewer or anybody else my power.

RCM:  That all sounds very diplomatic but could you sit across a table from Don Brewer right now and be civil?

MF:  Not a problem.  If there’s any animosity left because of what went on in the past, it’s not with me. We’ve been in the same room before and there’s been arguments and accusations and things were thrown.  But the animosity toward Don Brewer is way in the past for me.

RCM:  So there’s not a whole lot of things that will rattle your cage at this point?

MF:  No.  I believe in the unconditional nature of love.  It’s the best place to be when you have to deal with so much shit while you’re in this bone suit.

RCM:  When you were with Grand Funk Railroad, you were a young kid who had not turned to religion.

MF: Absolutely.

RCM:  So you were basically enjoying the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle MF:  I only smoked marijuana and the reason for that was that was that I saw what happened to all those other people who went a bit further.  A lot of my friends checked out early because of some of the things they got behind.  As for the women? Hell yeah – that was a lot of fun.

RCM: How do you see Grand Funk Railroad’s place in music of that time – musically and lyrically?

MF:  We were a bunch of 20-year-old rock and rollers who were putting our thoughts out there and looking for answers, and so were our fans.  We were saying what everybody wanted to say.

RCM:  You’re known for being very “pro-veterans.”  How did you arrive at your stance on the military?

MF:  My dad was a tank driver in World War II and my mother was one of the first women to work making tanks in Flint, Michigan.  It’s always been in the blood and in the family.

“I want to know what happened to All The People, By The People, For the People” — “For The People” (2006) – Mark Farner

RCM: But you didn’t think that way back in the day, correct?

MF:   Not really.  I acknowledged the war because a lot of my good buddies were Vietnam vets.  They told me that I should move to Canada or do whatever I had to do to avoid getting into it.  A lot of my friends died in Vietnam.  A lot of them fell for the propaganda and the bullshit and that’s why they went.

RCM: If your number had come up, would you have gone to Canada?

MF:  You’re damned straight I would have!

RCM: But didn’t you actually go down to the draft board and take a physical?

MF:  I did.  There I was in my skivvies, walking around with my clothes in my hands. The doctors looked at me.  At the time, I had colitis and some other problems.  They said ‘no you can go and sit this one out.’

RCM: One of your fellow rockers, Ted Nugent, has been quick to wrap himself in the flag and has gotten into some trouble for being so controversially outspoken.  What’s your opinion of Ted?

MF:  I don’t know if what comes out of Ted’s mouth is the real shit or sound bites.  I know the man’s heart and he is definitely for the family and this country.  I just tend to stay away from that sort of thing.  I don’t want any part of it.   Ted uses his statements to promote himself. When he’s shooting off his mouth, it’s always about how great he is.

RCM: There have been different accounts of what broke up Grand Funk Railroad. What’s your take on it?

MF:  It was Don Brewer who broke up the band in 1976.  He was late to a rehearsal that we were having.  Finally he walked in and said ‘I’ve got to find something more stable to do with my life.’  That was it.  He was calling it quits.  I asked him ‘Are you saying the band is over?’  He said ‘yep’.  So I immediately got on the phone and started calling people up.  I had to have a gig and I had to play music.

RCM:  So you were suddenly faced with going from being in one of the biggest bands on the planet to starting a solo career?

MF:  I wasn’t nervous about it.  I knew there would be opportunities to play music and that’s all I was looking for.

RCM:  Your first couple of solo albums sold only o.k. Why do you think they didn’t sell near as well as Grand Funk records?

MF: It all boiled down to the timing being wrong. The guy who signed me to Atlantic Records was shit-canned the week I was signed to the label.  Suddenly I had to establish all new relationships with people who didn’t even know about the record.

RCM:  You went back for a Grand Funk reunion tour in ’81 and then went back out on your own. The second time around as a solo performer, things have gone much better. Was the second time the charm?

MF:  It’s always been a matter of playing music that people simply wanted to hear.  I was pretty much out on my own and doing things my way.  But the main thing was that people knew me from Grand Funk and my solo albums and continued to get behind what I was doing.

RCM:  On a serious note, you have a special needs child?  

MF:  That’s correct. My son Jesse.

RCM: Can you talk about that a bit?

MF:  Two years ago, Jesse broke his neck while doing a backflip off a picnic table.  He was camping with some buddies and they were trying to impress some girls.  After it happened the other kids waited 11 1/2 hours before they called 911. They put him in the back of a pickup truck with his broken neck and just laid there.  They could have killed him but they were just kids and they just didn’t know. There was a window of about four and a half hours.  If they could have gotten him to the hospital, they could have given him an injection of steroids that might have helped him.  But by the time they got him to the hospital it was too late.

RCM:  What was it like to see your son lying there?

MF:  I was thinking ‘My poor baby! That’s my son!’ I was there with his mother when they brought him into the ER.  It was tough watching his mother react. At first she was totally hysterical and who could blame her? But then she immediately went to ‘Well what are we going to do?’ Our attitude was that we weren’t going to babysit a head in a bed.  That we were going to get his ass out of bed and get him back on his feet.  To go at this from a rehab standpoint, rather than just taking care of somebody who was now a quad.

Jesse Farner. (photo from markfarner.com)

RCM: How did you personally deal with this in your own head?

MF: I got rid of the victim consciousness.  That was the first thing that had to go.  Shit happens.  What happened to Jesse could have happened to anybody.

RCM: How is Jesse doing today?

MF:  There have been some small improvements.  All we can do is help with his treatment and then it’s all in God’s hands.

RCM:  You’ve been on the road with many performers over the years. Did you ever have a romantic relationship with anybody of note?

MF: It never happened. But…

RCM: But?

MF: Donna Hall was a backup singer with the band Wet Willie who toured with us a lot. I was recently divorced from my first wife and Donna and I started hanging out together. The next thing you know, she was living with me at my home in Michigan. We were together for a year.  But then I fell in love with my wife Leisa. Donna saw what was going on and she gracefully bowed out of my life.  She said she didn’t want to be a hindrance and that she wanted me to be happy.  What I didn’t know was, at the time, she was pregnant with my baby.

RCM:  Ouch.

MF: So her mom calls me up and says ‘my daughter is going to have your child.’  I told her I was engaged to be married.  Her mother said she wasn’t calling to lay a guilt trip on me; that she was just happy that her daughter was having my child.  I said ‘wow that’s awesome’.  I assured Donna and her people that I was not going to be irresponsible and that I would do what I could for them.  Donna got married not long after that and her husband didn’t want her son Adam to know who I was.  It would be 21 years later – after Adam’s stepdad died – that Donna’s mother called and asked if I would like to meet him. I had been praying for 21 years that I would someday get to meet him and now he’s a big part of my life.

RCM:  Rock Cellar Magazine just interviewed all the members of Ringo’s All-Starr Band.  You did a couple of tours with them in the ‘90s.  What was that like?

MF:  It was awesome.  I learned a lot being on the road with Ringo.  It was a great lineup – people like Billy Preston, John Entwhistle and Randy Bachman.  It was a solid band.

RCM:  You’ll be 64 in September.  Have you found that physically and mentally you’re slowing down?

MF:  Not so far.  I work out, do a lot of strength training.  It really helps me as far as my wind.  My wife is 13 years younger than me and that definitely keeps me going.  I’m not a big partier like I was in the old days. These days I’m usually in bed by ten.

RCM:  Nowadays you seem to be a pretty easy going guy. Can you credit your spirituality for that?

MF:  I got that from my mother and her mother and all down the line. I’m an eighth Cherokee and Cherokee men esteem their women to be equal with them. I’ve found a peace with my wife that every man should have. If we esteem our wives to be equal to us then we can give them all our love.

RCM:  And the music helps as well?

MF:  Absolutely. When the wave of appreciation of an audience hits you, it’s overwhelming.  It’s habit-forming.  You’ve got to have more of that.  You need that!

RCM:  It hasn’t been an easy life for you but at the end of the day you seem to have been pretty lucky.

MF:  I love the shit out of this.  I love the happy endings.

I’m Your Captain; The Mark Farner Story is a 60 minute documentary, to be released theatrically prior to its PBS Broadcast, in 2013.

More information at: I’m Your Captain – The Mark Farner Story

[DONATIONS for Mark Farner's son Jesse] If any Rock Cellar Magazine readers would like to make a donation towards the on-going rehabilitation of Jesse, you can make checks payable to: Mark Farner FBO (for benefit of) Jesse Farner.

Checks can be mailed to:
The Bank of Northern Michigan
406 Bay St
Petoskey, MI 49770

RELATED: Did the Bee Gees Kill Grand Funk Railroad? Drummer Don Brewer Tells The Story of We’re An American Band

5 Responses to What The Funk?! Mark Farner’s Excellent Adventure (Interview)

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