Mark Farner (ex-Grand Funk)

by Roger Catlin

Highlights from his time with Grand Funk, including working with Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa, and his thoughts on reuniting with the band.

Grand Funk Railroad, the Michigan-based power trio, in its time epitomized loud, unfettered 1970s arena rock. Homer Simpson was a huge fan.

Mark Farner, their guitarist and lead singer, founded the group in 1969 with drummer Don Brewer and bass player Mel Schacher. They disbanded in 1976 and regrouped from time to time, but never with their classic lineup. The band is still active, but Farner has been out since 1998. Now, at 72, he has six solo albums to his credit and fronts a group that takes the name of one of his old act's most popular songs: Mark Farner's American Band. His new DVD, From Chile With Love, features a lot of familiar old songs as well as some new ones.

We spoke with Farner about the possibility of reuniting with Grand Funk, the story behind "I'm Your Captain," and what it was like working with producers Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa.
Roger Catlin (Songfacts): Tell me about your new DVD coming out.

Mark Farner: From Chile With Love. We played South America a few times, and in South America they really appreciate American rock and roll. Chilean audiences are fine audiences. They sing the songs louder than the PA at certain times. I tell you, it's awesome. The love that they have for yours truly when we get up on that stage, it just pours out. And this is what the DVD shows. It shows that this audience is not fickle, like a lot of American audiences. We have so much here, we've been spoiled with whatever we want, we don't realize that the rest of the world is hurting.

The DVD includes 18 performance tracks, two bonus videos and five bonus songs that have not been released in this manner before. Out of each that gets sold out, my wife and I are putting $3 towards the Veteran's Support Foundation, which is an organization that is of veterans, by veterans and for veterans. Due to their exposure to Agent Orange in the 'Nam era, they have increased diabetes and prostate cancer. And of course the Gulf War, illness has affected a lot of our troops that came back from Iraq and Kuwait and Afghanistan.

I love this organization. These are the same people that in 1968 had the Guitar Army in Detroit. It was at a nightclub called Harpos, and there was Dick Wagner from Alice Cooper's band and The Frost. It was the MC5's Rob Tyner, Randy California, it was a bunch of people who got together to honor our veterans, and the guy that headed it up then is the same guy heading up the Veterans Support Foundation today. He had me come in for the 25th anniversary of the monument there in DC because they took a vote of Vietnam veterans and they found that my song "I'm Your Captain" was their favorite song among the Vietnam veterans.

Songfacts: What is it about "I'm Your Captain" that connects with that audience in particular?

Farner: Well, I can only speculate, brother, that it is the refrain: "I'm getting closer to my home." If you're in a foxhole in Vietnam, you're pinned down by so much fire coming in, you want to be Closer To Home. And that song "Closer To Home" just really registered with our Vietnam brothers and sisters.

"I'm Your Captain (Closer To Home)" is not only one of Grand Funk's biggest songs, it's also their longest, with the single clocking in at 5:31 and the album version nearly twice as long, at 10:09. That's because the anthem, essentially presented in two parts, repeats its parenthetical refrain to a shifting symphonic crescendo. Accordingly, it's been listed five different ways on subsequent Grand Funk albums: "I'm Your Captain," "I'm Your Captain / Closer To Home," "Closer To Home / I'm Your Captain," "Closer To Home (I'm Your Captain)" and "Closer To Home." It first appeared on the band's third studio album, Closer To Home. It reached only #22 on the singles chart, but repeat play on FM rock radio kept it around for generations.
Songfacts: How did you come up with that song? It seems so unusual - so long and it changes gears in the middle.

Farner: Initially the song came to me after I said my prayers one night and I put a P.S. on the end of my prayers. I asked God to give me a song that would touch the hearts of people that the Creator wanted to get to. I got up at 3 o'clock in the morning - I'm always getting up at different times of the night and writing things down. A lot of them are not songs but this happened to be one.

I got up and I wrote it, and as I'm writing it, I'm between the state of subconscious and conscious. I've got one foot in dreamland and my pen is writing these words down. It didn't make a whole lot of sense. It was kind of weird, I thought, as I was writing it. I didn't sit there on the edge of the bed and read it over and over, I just wrote it down, and when I got to the end of it, I just folded it over and put it on the nightstand. There it was.

Well, in the morning, I got up, I was drinking my coffee, I was looking at the horses out in the pasture, and I got my feet kicked up. I thought, I'll grab my flattop here. I had an acoustic George Washburn, a resonant guitar from my kitchen - everybody would grab it when they came here. I started playing. Wow, that's nice, what the heck is that? Then I made that C chord. I made a mistake. I was going for the G and it was a little short and I hit the C. And I looked down because that chord spoke to me in such a way. I've never heard that come out, that inversion of the C. I thought, Wow, that's a cool chord. Then I thought maybe with those words in the other room, maybe that's a song, so I grabbed the legal pad and laid it down on the table next to my coffee and I just started strumming. "Everybody..." And it just started coming out.

I took it to rehearsal that day with all the changes except for the orchestration on the end. Tommy Baker from the Upbeat show on Channel 5 in Cleveland wrote all of the strings and all that orchestration. He said, "Mark, when you get to that refrain, 'I'm getting closer to my home,' just do it over and over and over until you can't even do it anymore."

So I told the guys in the studio, "Tommy Baker said just stretch this thing out." So we went over and over and over. We'd sing, "It's getting closer," and we said, let's go one more time. He took advantage of all the time and all the refrains and he tactfully placed the things in there: the oboe, French horn, the strings. All of those real woodwind instruments, they don't come from a synthesized keyboard, they come from people blowing on it with their lungs and really putting the feel in that song. And I thank God for that part, especially because I don't write music. I can only sing what's inside of me. I can't read music, so I'm stuck with whatever is in here. But for that purpose, for that song, stretching it out gave something to the song that helped sell it.

Songfacts: Wasn't it a departure from what you were doing with Grand Funk?

Farner: Yes, it was a different type of song for sure. When I took it to rehearsal that day after writing it that night and playing it in the morning, I said, "You guys, I got a song last night, it's kind of a long song." And when I got done playing for them, they said, "Farner, man, that song's a hit." And I guess they were right.

Terry Knight was a self-made Michigan rock and roller who started off as a popular DJ, first at Flint's WTAC, on to Detroit's WJBK and CKLW, then across the river to Windsor, Ontario, where he became an early advocate of The Rolling Stones. He quit to become frontman for Terry Knight And The Pack, who scored locally with a cover of the Yardbirds' "(You're a) Better Man than I" and Ben E. King's "I Who Have Nothing."

He'd work with two former members of The Pack, Farner and Don Brewer, in their new band Grand Funk Railroad, for whom he suggested both their name and its third member, Mel Schacher of ? And The Mysterians. As manager and producer of Grand Funk, Knight helped establish the band before they parted ways in 1982.

Knight's other big band while working at Capitol Records was Bloodrock, famous for the song "D.O.A." His death in 2004 at 61 came in Texas at the hands of his daughter's meth-head boyfriend, who was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing him to death.
Songfacts: You began your career with Terry Knight And The Pack, who were a pretty well known regional band in Michigan with hits like "Better Man Than I" and "I Who Have Nothing."

Farner: I joined Terry Knight when I was 19 and I played bass with Terry Knight And The Pack. I had never played bass before, but he needed a bass player and I said, "OK, I'll buy one." So I went down and put my $25 down on it. We knew the guy at the music store and he let us take however long it took to pay for it, but we always paid for whatever we bought from him.

I went to play bass for those guys, but we decided Terry Knight couldn't sing as well as Brewer or I. We said, "Why is he the frontman?" Brewer said, "Well, he's a salesman, he's got the gift of gab and he can talk to the audience."

We decided to start our own group, so we told Terry Knight it was the end of the relationship. He went on and had the Terry Knight revue and we had the Pack.

Songfacts: You were on those singles "Better Man Than I" and "I Who Have Nothing"?

Farner: Yeah.

Born in Detroit, Vincent Furnier moved with his family to Phoenix at 11 and in high school started a rock band that he moved to Los Angeles. When the band got weirder and Furnier changed his name to Alice Cooper, they got the attention of Frank Zappa, who released their first two albums.

But it wasn't until they moved back to Detroit in 1970, amid the similarly hard-charging rock of the MC5, Stooges and Amboy Dukes, that they began to fit in, releasing a string of hit albums, including their breakthrough, School's Out, in 1972.

"Detroit City has always been the hard rock capital," Cooper says in a promo video for his new album Detroit Stories. "The sound of the machines and the car factories has something to do with Detroit wanting loud rock and roll."

For the new album, Cooper amassed a Detroit cast that includes Farner and Wayne Kramer of the MC5, and reunites him with producer Bob Ezrin. On two tracks, three surviving members of the original Cooper group, guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith, join him.
Songfacts: You're on the new Alice Cooper Detroit Stories album that relives that city's rock heyday. How did that come about?

Farner: It was great. I got the call that Alice was going to do a record about Detroit, and he wanted to include some players from Michigan to re-record some of this stuff, some of the Suzi Quatro, the Bob Seger early stuff, "East Side Story." I thought it was great. I love Alice, and my friend Dick Wagner was with Alice for years and spoke highly of him, and spoke highly of Bob Ezrin, the producer that's been with Alice all this time. I said, "Yeah, put me down."

So when I showed up in the Rust Belt Studios in Detroit, Wayne Kramer was there and I knew Wayne from way, way, way back. Even before Grand Funk was getting off the ground, we played with those guys at the Detroit Fairgrounds - MC5 was there, Iggy, the Rationals, Savage Grace, a bunch of Detroit bands and Michigan bands. I remember when the MC5 took the stage. It was like, Wow! What is that? The energy that came off that stage.

So it was great to hang with Wayne Kramer and discuss our old days. And Johnny Badanjek was there, Johnny "Bee" from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. He was my solo band drummer for two years, him and Mark Gershon from Detroit toured with me a couple of years. We did a three-piece solo band thing, so I knew of Johnny Bee from playing with him so much. That boy's got a backbeat in him that is undeniable - he can lay down the law.

Coming into the studio, I was really high on the expectations of what we were going to do. I met the bass player, Paul Randolph. He is a Detroit boy, and he is a good bass player, but man this boy can sing. He's in there playing the bass and doing his stuff, and Ezrin would holler out at him, "Let's try this," and he was right on it. Then we go in, we're doing the background vocals on some of these tracks. I'm standing next to Paul and he's 6-foot-4 or something, and I'm down here at 5-7 and I'm looking up at that guy and that voice came out of him, and I was impressed. I love singing like that with someone that can sing.

After our recording session I asked Paul if he needed a gig, because I was looking for a bass player, and I loved the way he could play the bass and sing. So we tried him out and he is in Mark Farner's American Band now, from that gig with Alice.

Songfacts: There's something unique to that Detroit rock sound. Do you think it has to do with the auto industry?

Farner: It does have to do with the automotive industry. It's a result of all the families that moved to Michigan to get jobs in auto factories, including my mother's family, who came from Leachville, Arkansas.

The whole family - I'm talking about grandpa, grandmas, uncles, aunts - everybody came to Michigan to get jobs in the auto industry. And not only Arkansas, but Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, a lot of people came up to get these jobs. Most of the jobs are gone now, with the Big Three pulled out of Michigan, but all these people are still here, and this is home for them. And this is where all that music came from, where North meets the South.

Songfacts: I understand that the turning point in the early days of Grand Funk was playing the Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1969, which was more than a month before Woodstock. You didn't have a contract, but you slew this audience, which was estimated to be as many as 150,000, got signed and had your first Capitol album out within a month.

Farner: Yes, exactly. When we got this gig, it was due to Terry Knight's attorneys in New York City. They were doing the legal work for this pop festival in Atlanta, Georgia, and Terry asked them to work a deal with their promoter. They'd give them a break on their attorney fees if they'd let this band, Grand Funk, open the festival and we would play for free. So we borrowed a friend's van, rented a U-Haul, and hauled all our stuff to Atlanta to play this important gig.

We didn't know it was going to be that kind of audience. We were busy trying to put our amps back together because we rolled that U-Haul trailer on the way down to Georgia. We had to get another trailer and switch out all our equipment into it, and when it flipped over, the chassis of those amplifiers were made of aluminum and the transformers ripped right off of them, broken wires and everything. So when we got to Atlanta we were hustling trying to put our amps back together. We were soldering wires, the roadies were humping it just to get this stuff up on stage because we were going to go on first. Well, prior to us getting up on the deck, from ground level, all we had was a view into the first few rows of the audience when you'd peer out between the fence, below the stage. We got up there and they announced us as "Grand Frank."

After he announced us, we did "Are You Ready." It was all the songs that were on the first album, plus we did "Land Of 1000 Dances," Wilson Pickett style. I took off my guitar, danced around the stage, and got the audience revved up and dancing, and they loved it, they loved that stuff.

I had bought this paisley print shirt, that was like a see-through paisley print. I thought the girls would love this stuff. I paid $50 for it. I'm in the middle of "Land Of 1000 Dances" and I feel like I'm in a straitjacket because this material is just sticking to my sweaty body. I said, "I gotta get this off!" And I ripped that $50 shirt off, and the audience went nuts. And I went, "Ooh, that worked." So that was part of the evolution of me going on shirtless with nothing but an armband on, because it worked on that very first gig. I thought if it worked then, I'm just going to keep it up, and that was part of my trademark.

Songfacts: Two years later, after a debut that went Gold and four others that went Platinum, you set a record by selling out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles had. The Beatles always said they had sound problems at Shea. Did you?

Farner: We had a good PA, a big one that the guys from Custom Audio Electronics out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who were on the road with us, had. But it was 1971 and there was no Ticketron or anything else. All the tickets that were sold were sold from the box office of Shea Stadium, and people camped out on the lawn there. And when that ticket office opened, they were standing in line to get their tickets, and they sold out 55,000 seats in 72 hours. It took the Beatles two weeks to sell it out, where it took us just a short time.

The advantage of having a huge billboard in New York City sure didn't hurt us at all. We were paying like $50,000 a month for this billboard, but it took up a whole city block in Times Square, and it just so happened the billboard workers went on strike, and we got four months out of that for free, so it was quite a stroke of luck and it helped sell out Shea Stadium. One of our best audiences was New York City.

Songfacts: I understand that show was filmed but it's never been released.

Farner: It was filmed by the Maysles, the same people that did the Rolling Stones and that festival they did on the coast. It is in the hands of two members of the corporation and they don't want to release that because I'm the star of that show and they're trying to present a different Grand Funk with three other members.1 At least I can say it took three guys to replace me.

Albert and David Maysles made their name as top documentary makers with films like Salesman (1969), about door-to-door Bible salesmen, and Grey Gardens (1975), about an eccentric mother and daughter living in a broken-down mansion in East Hampton, New York. But the Maysles are known among rock fans for creating Gimme Shelter, which chronicled the Rolling Stones US tour in 1969 that culminated in the notorious concert at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. The Maysles had made other rock films, including a documentary of the Beatles' initial US visit in 1964. Albert Maysles had also been a cinematographer on D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop.

After the death of David Maysles in 1987 at 55, Albert went on to make films such as The Love We Make (2011), about Paul McCartney in New York following 9/11, and Rufus Wainwright - Milwaukee at Last (2009). Albert Maysles died in 2015 at 88.
Songfacts: How big is your American Band?

Farner: Four-piece. We got keyboards, bass, drums and me.

Songfacts: Have you been able to tour at all during the pandemic?

Farner: No. The band has been shut down for a year. I tell you what, this has been a very unusual and strange time for all of us musicians. I've been doing these Zoom videos - I did the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, I did Nugent's podcast, and for Veteran's Day we gave away free downloads of the video single "Rock And Roll Soul." But all this is building up.

Everybody's always saying, "When are you guys gonna get back together?" I keep telling people, whenever they make up their mind. Because I've been trying to get the other guys to go out. Here's my pitch: Let's just bury the hatchet. The fans don't give a shit about who's mad at who or whatever.2 They just want to hear the music that we do. Why can't we do that? For 20 years, I've been trying to put that together. For the life of me, I can't figure it out. They must not like money anymore.

Songfacts: There's still hope I suppose.

Farner: Yeah. You know, it's like two people getting a divorce. Try putting those two people back together.

Songfacts: I wanted to ask about another song you wrote that was a big hit, "Bad Time." That was a little different than other Grand Funk songs.

Farner: As a matter of fact, I have a BMI Award, a plaque for "Bad Time," because it was played more than any other song in 1975. It didn't go to #1, but it got played more than the one that did. It was all before the deregulation of the FCC and people would call in and request songs. We had DJs, local people who knew what was going on locally, they kept us all in the loop. They wanted to hear "Bad Time." It got requested more than any other song in 1975.

It was kind of a different song. It was different when I wrote it. My first wife was in the kitchen. I can remember sitting at the piano - I had a little spinet in the dining room - and she's threatening to put a 12-inch cast-iron skillet through my forehead. And I'm in there writing "bad time for being in love."

Songfacts: That song has hung around for a while, and there was a cover of it by the Jayhawks. Did you hear their version?

Farner: Yes, I did. I thought they did a good job on it. It's such a compliment for somebody to imitate. They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Songfacts: That's still part of your repertoire when you play live, right?

Farner: Absolutely. We did a polling on the internet - you can ask your fans what they want to hear in a live set and that's what we did. I think we had like 2,700 responses. We asked people to send in the Top 10 songs that they wanted to hear, and that's how we built our set. It's from the people's desire. And it's been working for us.

Songfacts: I know you didn't write "We're An American Band," but there was always that mystery of who the "young Chiquitas in Omaha" were. Did they really exist?

Farner: Well, there were the four young Chiquitas. Definitely four young Chiquitas.

But as far as Don writing the song, he wrote the lyrics. I said to him, "I can hear it like this," and I played my rhythm: ba-da-da-bomp-bomp.

I said, "We need a cowbell."

He said, "I don't have a cowbell."

"We can fix that dude. It needs a cowbell."

He says, "OK, I'll pick one up on the way to rehearsal tomorrow."

"No, pick up six, and we will pick the one that is the closest match to the key we're doing this song in."

So he brought in six cowbells and we ended up picking one of them and putting a little duct tape on it to give it more of a cank. It doesn't go "cink, cink, cink," it goes "cank, cank, cank."

So the cowbell is my idea, that drum lick on the intro is my drum lick, because I wrote that in my head. I said, "This is how I'm hearing it," and I expressed it to him and he finally got it. And all those chord changes and the background vocals, I wrote all that.

But after we got the recording down there at Criteria in Miami, Brewer came to me and he says, "Farner, I've never had 100 percent writing credit on any song. Do you mind if I take it on this one?"

I'm standing there, thinking he never had 100 percent writing credit because he never wrote 100 percent of any song. But I said, "You know something, Don, I'll let you have it." So I gave him my half. And I kind of half kick myself in the butt for it at times over the years, but really my heart was: I'm a nice guy and I'm not going to let life screw it up. I'm going to remain a nice guy in spite of all the temptation to react and respond to the BS that people try to dump on me.

Songfacts: And you worked with Todd Rundgren on that album right?

Farner: Yeah. What a joy he was. He was the first producer we worked with that got the band to actually sound like the band on vinyl, and it was no effort on his behalf. He did it just like getting out of bed. It's part of who he is, I believe. It's part of his musical genius. He doesn't have to reach far to get anything. Musically, he's just set that way.

When we were recording, we would be in the studio, just giving all that we got, trying to stay locked in to the beat and keep it loose enough to keep the feel and keep it funky, but you're really pouring everything you've got into this, and here's Todd in the control room. You look in there, he's tipped back in the chair, his feet are up on the console, he's reading a book while we're playing our brains out. There was no effort from him to do any of this. This is part of my education as far as what to do with music and how to treat sound while you're recording.

I had sat there and was listening to one of the mixes, and I said, "Todd, do you think you could add a little 3.5 kilohertz to the guitar just to bring the clarity out a little bit in that top end?"

He says, "I'm not going to add 3.5 because when you add frequency to your mix, you're adding noise to the noise floor. And the more gain you put on, the more you add on, the more noise floor you're going to have in there." He says, "We'll pull all the frequencies down on that guitar until 3.5 sticks out. We'll pull the frequencies that are preventing you from hearing the 3.5 that you want to hear there."

And the light went on. Ding! OK! That was a heck of a tip. I've used it all my life since to deal with sound. I don't want to add hiss and 60-cycle hum - that's worse than B-flat. Instead of adding to a mix, if you have a certain frequency you're after, you pull all the other ones down until that's the one you got coming out of that mix with less noise floor. Good lesson!

Because Frank Zappa showed some interest in producing the band in 1976, Grand Funk, which had been considering breaking up due to a recent commercial downturn, decided to get back in the studio. On the resulting Good Singin', Good Playin', Zappa not only produced, but contributed lead guitar on "Out To Get To You," and backing vocals to another track, "Rubberneck."

Farner, an outspoken conservative, maintains that Zappa was initially skeptical of the track "Don't Let 'Em Take Your Gun" until Farner took him out to shoot a gun for the first time. But his claim that Zappa "became a life member of the National Rifle Association as a result of this trip to Michigan" is questioned - in part because Zappa poked fun at gun nuts in his scathing 1988 song "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk." Also, the rest of Zappa's family had since been put on an NRA "enemies list."
Songfacts: You worked with Frank Zappa as well.

Farner: Frank was a good producer, great guy, good-hearted man. When he came to Michigan to hear the songs, we had sent some tapes out to him, some of the songs, just rough. We had a microphone put up and it was recording all the instruments, plus the drums, and that's what we sent out to Frank. He wanted to come to Michigan and sit with the band to determine whether he wanted to work with us or not, so we went, "Cool, man let's get him here!"

So we get him to the swamp - we lovingly call the practice studio the swamp because we had to dig a pond where we built it for the groundwater to drain into the pond, so we could get a perc test to put septic in there. So he comes to the swamp, and we're back in the woods - this studio you can't see it from the road, the woods cover it up and it's forest between it and the road. It's nice back there, but for Frank, he's used to buildings. If you're going to the studio it's going to be some skyscraper in LA, but here we were back at the swamp. Frank said what sold him on working with us was when we told the engineer to make him a pot of coffee, because that boy drank more coffee than any 10 people should have.

Songfacts: What's important to you now in your live show, and this DVD?

Farner: To show the audience involvement we have emotionally. Because when I take the stage, it's not like I'm going to stand there in one place at the microphone and sing my songs to you - I'm going to be all over that stage. I'm going to be 73 this year, but I'm going to be all over the stage because that's who I am.

I want this message to get out. God put love in me and that's what's driving me and my ability to forgive and keep love at the top of the pile where it belongs. Sometimes it's a chore, but it's something that needs to be done, brother.

Songfacts: So it doesn't sound like retirement is in the cards.

Farner: Oh no. I'm thinking I'm going to draw that last breath on stage.

March 10, 2021
Mark's website, where you can get the From Chile With Love DVD, is markfarner.com. You can contact the Veterans Support Foundation at 800-882-1316 or online at vsf-usa.org. Here are more interviews you might enjoy:

Todd Rundgren
Don Brewer
Suzi Quatro
Question Mark from ? and the Mysterians

Footnotes:

  • 1] Since 2000, Grand Funk has toured with five members, including founders Don Brewer and Mel Schacher, and ex-Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick. (back)
  • 2] Farner and his ex-bandmates have battled it out in court over use of the Grand Funk name and its variants. (back)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Bill from UsYou can't measure such a thing but I wager that in the early 70's Grand Funk inspired and launched thousands of young men to pick up an instrument and form a band, maybe millions!
    Thanks Mark Farner for rock and roll, you didn't invent it, but you and all the GFR, and your engineer, certainly invented a certain sound that inspired and lifted a generation.
  • AnonymousMark you forgot Ron Kane. He worked at Citizens bank and somewhere in your life he helped you. It is interesting how people that made it in the music business forget those that helped them get where they are.
  • Jeff Scott from SaginawWe all know Grank Funk without Mark Farner is like the "big 3" without GM
see more comments

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