Mark Farner is on the phone from his northwestern Michigan home, the day after Memorial Day. It is also two days after a U.S. Army veteran, possibly suffering from PTSD and depression, went on a shooting spree in west Houston that killed one, wounded others and resulted in his own death at the hands of police.
When not preaching the gospel of meat-and-potatoes rock and roll as the ex-lead singer/guitarist/main songwriter of Grand Funk Railroad or the gospel of Jesus Christ as a devout Christian, Farner talks a lot about veterans and veterans’ issues, issues he had long been involved with. And he’s pissed about what he sees today.
So, if he had a magic wand to do one thing for returning U.S. servicemen and women, what would it be?
“I would welcome them with loving, open arms and have people that are qualified to counsel and minister to these boys and women who have been in this nightmare,” he says. “They were programmed to accept war. When you engage in real combat, it’s not what they saw on a television, or the movies, or video games. But when a guy sees his best friend in the sand and it’s soaking up the blood and he’s gone…that’s reality.”
The real work, Farner feels, starts when the vets get off the plane bringing them back from Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever they are coming from. “What do they get to deal with their issues?" he says. "They get the damn drugs, and that’s messing our soldiers up. Holy Christ! How many suicides do we have to have before we wake up to it? It’s ridiculous.”
Farner’s energy and passion on the topic crackle through the phone line. He brings the same energy to his live performances, which include a generous portion of GFR classic-rock staples like “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Bad Time,” “Inside Looking Out,” “Time Machine” and his magnum opus, “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home.”
“I always look at it, especially the last hour before I go on, I’m psyching about the show and I’m not thinking about anything but the music. I think that just that effort gets me in touch with the energy,” the 67-year-old Farner says.
That energy is being somewhat redirected on the tour, which brings him to Houston, a two-man acoustical show that finds him partnered with Canadian guitarist Dusty D’Annunzio.
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And while the format and presentation are different from the bone-shattering, stadium-rattling volume of what fans may be used to — in 1971, Grand Funk Railroad sold out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles — he says it actually won’t be that far a leap.
“Most of the songs started that way, acoustically," he says. "That’s how I play here at home. I just grab one when I’m ready, when I feel the inspiration. So it’s easy for me to go back that way. And people love hearing the stories behind the songs.”
Mark Farner’s last appearance in Houston was as part of the package tour "Hippiefest," which hit Houston's Arena Theatre. That’s the same venue that provided his most lasting memory of Houston, sometime in the early ’70s.
“One time, there was a ruckus after the show out back. Everybody was scrambling, and all the backstage crew and our guys ducking and hiding. So I walk over and we hear gunshots. And it was a couple of cops shooting each other!” he laughs. “I will never forget that.”
One subject he feels less mirth about is his former bandmates, drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher. As Farner detailed to the Houston Press before Hippiefest, he was unceremoniously ejected from the group in 1999 as Brewer and Schacher added new players and have gigged consistently since then. Some wags have come to calling that group “Grand Fake Railroad.”
Today, Farner says he communicates with his old bandmates only through lawyers. And while he would favor a reconciliation one day, he’s not holding up his life or music to do so. In 2014, he released a new single on his website, “Take You Out.” The record encourages men to take to the dance floor if they want to impress a lady.
“I believe it’s just a thing of self-confidence that men have been dealing with for eons," Farner says. "Men are just egomaniacs, and if there’s a chance of them not looking good out there, they just don’t want to participate, to look like a klutz! You gotta drop that thing and take a chance, take a risk and get out there. Because the payoff is life-changing! We can all dance, man!”
He relates his own experience winning dance contests as a teen in his native Flint, Michigan, with his sister as a partner – encouraged by their mother. He also credits another family member, an uncle, with helping him to work on being able to sing a lyric and play a different melody on guitar at the same time through a trick.
“Uncle Woody took a newspaper, put it upside down on the table, and told me to learn to read the bold print backwards and upside down. That way, you are using both hemispheres [of the brain],” Farner recalls. “And it worked! That got me over the hump, buddy!”
One hump that the members of Grand Funk Railroad (which was later shortened to Grand Funk) may not be able to mount, despite their massive popularity and record sales, is membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During a 1996 stop in Houston, Don Brewer proudly waved a banner making the case for their induction.
But while the Hall has made some headway this year in catching up with the Classic Rock Gap by inducting Deep Purple, Steve Miller and Chicago, there are still plenty of GFR's contemporaries waiting in the wings, like the Doobie Brothers, Peter Frampton, Yes, Jethro Tull and Journey. But don’t look to Mark Farner to solicit membership on the group’s behalf.
“I knew it was politically plugged in. The people who run it…they’re the same people running the music business,” he offers. “I always tell people that the reason that Grand Funk isn’t in the Hall of Fame is that we don’t have the brown ring around the lips!”
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Today, Mark Farner alternates the acoustic duo shows with full band concerts, while working on new material. He and wife Lesia also care for their son, Jesse, who is permanently paralyzed from a freak accident. But he’s quick to point out that his faith and love of family keep him going every day at home and on the road.
“My future includes rockin’ until I can’t breathe. And I thank God I can still perform and sing those songs in the same keys!” he says before noting that, outside his window this early morning, he spots eight wild tom turkeys gathered underneath his bird feeder.
“That’s a beautiful sight,” he says, trailing off. “And I’m taking that as a sign of good luck!”
Mark Farner performs Friday, June 10 at Dosey Doe's Big Barn, 25911 I-45 N., The Woodlands. Dinner services begin at 6 p.m.; music starts at 8:45. $98-$138.