The ride down I-95 from Jacksonville to West Palm Beach is interminably long. Spanning the entire length of Florida's east coast, I was its captive audience - or maybe it was the other way around. Nonetheless, I had made these drives many times before, and as always I was only about two hours into the drive when I began to get bored. This time, however, it wasn't your run-of-the-mill "I wish I were there already" bored, but one of those soul-deep "I could turn around and get back home in plenty of time for Nick at Nite." Which is, incidentally, really bad when the only show you usually watch is "The Sopranos." After all, nobody ever gets whacked on Nickelodeon.
What the hell was I doing anyway? Blowing my entire weekend to see a classic rock band that I had seen at least 15,000 times before (okay, that's an exaggeration, but it sure didn't seem like it when I was kicking myself - which, by the way, I wouldn't recommend you try while driving. I am, after all, a writer (which also means I'm a professional masochist). Hey, it all seemed like a good idea at the time, when I was throwing back a few with my old high school buddies. Unfortunately, my friends are smart people. I make that statement with all due regret because, as smart people are wont to do, they all backed out as soon as they'd sobered up - after all, it was one helluva drive, and we weren't kids anymore. However I, filled with the youthful exuberance one really only finds after a couple of beers, had by that time already bought my ticket online. Even worse, I'm just too cheap to let a good ticket go to waste. So anyway, there I was, driving for what seemed like forever, and thinking longingly of Leave It To Beaver reruns ...
Eventually, my mind led me onto yet another nostalgic road: Grand Funk Railroad, the band the fans loved and the critics loved to hate. I attended the shows in the beginning simply because the critics told me I shouldn't - your typical college town "rebel without a cause" attitude of the early '70s. After a while, it was pure force of habit. However, one thing remained unchanged through the years, as it must do by its very definition: repetition. Sure, they changed the set list as albums were released, but that repetition always underscored the performance. Years ago, I read a quote from one of the band members: "All the food at all the Holiday Inns tastes all the same" (accompanied by a photo of the band eating, presumably, in a Holiday Inn.) So it was with your typical Grand Funk concert.
Mark Farner, the forever shirtless, swinging-haired front man, was endlessly energetic but sang and played with the quality of a man who had somehow stumbled accidentally into the music business. The drummer, Don Brewer, retained the distinction year after year of The World's Largest Afro On A White Guy (is there a Guinness Records category for that? I should call them sometime and find out ...) His distinction was being a good drummer, who endlessly thrilled the crowd by beating the drums with his head (was the afro there to deflect the blows?) And last, but not least, Mel Schacher, the coolest bassist alive. I mean, this guy always wore black, always wore dark shades, and never, ever moved or showed any emotion whatsoever. The only real break from the dolldrums came when they added Craig Frost, keyboardist extraordinaire, who stayed with the band until its breakup; he later joined Brewer and Schacher in "Flint." (I liked that band so much that I should have known they would only release one album.) Just as my musings started to actually become interesting, I saw "The Sign I'd Been Waiting To See:" West Palm Beach. Go figure.
I entered the grounds, filled with people literally as far as the eye could see. I dutifully waited in the ever-present five-mile-long line, bought my overpriced beer, and found a semi-clean place to sit on the ground. I watched the beers spill as drunken concertgoers weaved and bobbed, barely able to stand. I even saw a short-lived fight break out nearby and, to top off the evening, noticed a guy urinating behind a dumpster. It was then that someone with the sponsor noticed my press pass, and invited me over for free beer and barbeque.
I was finally home, in the arena where I, the Great and Powerful Rock Critic, rule. Sure, I hadn't come here to review the band, but I figured they wouldn't care if I took a chicken leg and a couple of beers. They didn't.
My solitude and semi-drunkenness quickly turned to confusion, however, when Grand Funk finally took the stage; I couldn't believe my ears, or my eyes for that matter. This was a five-piece band -- lead and rhythm guitars, a bass, keyboards and drums -- and Mark Farner had cut his hair and stolen Max Carl's voice. (Okay, you caught me; I actually had three free beers, in quick succession.) Sobriety is always disconcerting (if you'll excuse the pun) when it arrives without warning. I even wondered for a brief moment if maybe I'd somehow stumbled into the wrong concert (I'd drank another free beer in the meantime). Boldly leaving the free food and keg behind -- a move unprecedented in the history of rock journalism -- I went on the prowl to get a closer look.
Moving stealthily through the crowd as only a rude shrimp-like creature such as myself is capable, I dodged elbows and falling drunks (no, I wasn't one of them yet) until I was close enough to see their faces. In the meantime the music played on, and it was melodic, professional, polished. This, I knew instinctively, was not Grand Funk; at least, it wasn't the Grand Funk I knew. In fact, it wasn't the Grand Funk anybody knew. I was in awe.
It took me a while to place the band members. The voice, which I had recognized immediately, was definitely attached to the person better known as Max Carl -- that was a huge relief, mostly because my original thought was kinda scary to contemplate. The lead guitar was being played by none other than Bruce Kulick, formerly of KISS; and the keyboards were manned by Tim Cashion, formerly of the Silver Bullet Band and one of the few musicians in rock who actually have a Master's Degree in Music (from UF, of course!). Well hidden behind the massive drum kit was none other than Don Brewer, sans afro but still recognizable as the man who wrote and sang lead on Grand Funk's party anthem, "We're An American Band." Mr. Cool himself, Mel Schacher, had lost a few hairs here and there as genetics sometimes demand, but other than that he hasn't changed much in the last 30 years.
Then, the impossible happened. Mel moved! Not only was he moving, but jamming, laughing, singing and obviously having the time of his life. In fact, they ALL seemed to be completely in the moment, and their pure joy at just being onstage was so apparent that it was almost palpable.
Overall, my impression was that I had somehow wandered into Superman's Bizarro World -- but I didn't care. In fact, I liked it there. A lot. Even without the free beer.
So shoot me. I know I'm supposed to hate these guys (it's a credo all rock critics must swear by) but I couldn't help feeling the exact opposite. If I know bad music when I hear it and can recognize the mediocre with only a note or two, then surely I can tell what's really good. Grand Funk -- completely re-formed and infused with new energy from some of the best talent in rock -- had finally made the grade.
This is just great, I thought. Now I've got to find new outlets for my poison pen and scathing remarks ... what a pain.
After the encore, I couldnt resist wandering backstage to meet the band. However, I was saddened to discover that they were, one and all, genuinely nice guys - my mean streak had been foiled again. What am I going to do with all this cynicism, all this mean-spiritedness that I had carefully honed through the years? It was then that I concocted a brilliant plan - I'd pocket it and get these guys to make some cheap shots at their former bandmates. As I approached the band, a small yet imperceptible grin of pure evil was on my face, and in my mind.
I spoke first with Brewer and Schacher, the founding members. Brewer, who had always struck me as the brains in the outfit despite having beaten himself senseless night after night on the drums, was gracious, relaxed, and friendly. He was also no mental midget - you can ascertain that by his manner of speech alone. He seemed quite at ease with it all, as if Shea Stadium were just yesterday, and spoke frankly about the changes. "This is not the same exact Grand Funk, but we're still Grand Funk. We're still The American Band. We're older and hopefully wiser, but from tonight's reaction I'd say that's a good thing."
It was then -- when he least expected it -- that I threw in a leading question about Farner. No bite; just a warm smile, as if he were suddenly reminded of a dear friend. "There's really not a lot to tell. He was with us for the reunion tour back in '98, but wanted to get back to his solo career. So he left, obviously, but Mel and I just weren't ready to call it quits. There's no ill will here, just a desire to move toward the future."
Schacher agreed "We've got this new energy, and we're ready to see where it goes. We're the same guys, but with new priorities. If we never play Shea again, that's okay. For now we're having fun, the fans are having fun, and that's what it's really all about."
Another leading question, which Schacher deflected with ease. "Mark? Hey, he was with us from the beginning, and the rest is history. What do you want me to say? He's a friend." Foiled yet again -- but for some reason, I couldn't seethe about it as I usually do. These guys were just too nice to incur my infamous wrath. It was then that I spied the New Guys On The Block: Max, Bruce, and Tim. Another opportunity awaited.
To my never-ending chagrin, the newest members of this former power trio are just as friendly and equally optimistic. Max, the personification of blue-eyed soul, is exactly as laid back as any singer/musician/songwriter of his talent could hope to be. "We're having a good time here. For me to play with Grand Funk is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Don and Mel had a vision of where they thought the band should go, and they fulfilled it. We work so well together, it's almost as if it were destined to be."
Kulich nods his head in agreement, and recalled the day he found out about the new band. "I was at my parents', in between projects, and they told me I'd gotten a call from Don Brewer. And I was like, 'yeah, right, Don Brewer called me.' Of course, I knew who he was - Grand Funk was the pioneer, the original garage band who made it. What kid doesn't dream of that kind of success? So anyway, I called him back and I couldn't believe it -- it really was Don. He told me that he was putting the band back together with a new lineup, and wanted to know if I was interested in maybe talking about it. I said 'yeah!' without even thinking about it. I didn't have to, I mean, this is GRAND FUNK!" No dirt there. Yet, the innocent one, Tim, awaited ...
... And my resolve to commit evil dissipated with every word he spoke. I just couldn't win with these guys! I talked with him about keyboards, admitting that I play (albeit badly). He threw back his head full of blond hair -- the personification of the eternally young Florida boy -- and laughed his infectious laugh. He then recovered well enough to give me the best advice I've ever gotten about playing keyboards - "Don't overthink it." He followed up that serious moment by jokingly suggesting that next time I get up on stage and give him a hand -- and it was my turn to laugh. This one, I can tell already, is destined to be the band's heartthrob. Although the most underutilized in the band at this point, Brewer is encouraging him to find ways to more fully incorporate his multiple musical talents into the show.
When it was time to return home and thus find true fulfillment in my Nickelodeon fantasy of earlier in the day, I found myself reluctant to leave. I was having WAY too much unexpected fun -- the music, the band members -- that I didn't want it to come to an end. Ever. I've interviewed a lot of bands in my time -- I even interviewed the original Grand Funk back in '75 -- but I had never felt the kinship with any of them that I experienced on that balmy South Florida night.
Reflecting on the much shorter ride home (isn't it strange how it feels that way after a long trip?) I realized that, at least for a while, I had been transformed. I was 18 again, penning rock reviews for the local entertainment weekly to pay the dorm fees; the outside world had no significance for me yet, and everything was fresh, new. The world was a friendly place, filled with endless opportunity. Somehow, the worldly skepticism and obligatory boomer angst which had attached itself so firmly to my soul had melted away, and I once again became one with the music, the excitement, the pure rush of it all. It had been as if I was hearing the music for the first time, and I reveled in this innocence once lost, yet magically regained.
I guess that, in the end, it was my own rock'n'roll heart that desperately needed a second chance, and I didn't even know it. Smiling to myself, I drove the rest of the way home in silence.