Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

September 16, 2012

Pilgrimage I: Old Mark Mars Is Alive and Well, Sir

And old, too, but let's not belabour that.

It's December 1970, and a nine-year-old boy has just opened a Christmas gift from his grandparents: a Westinghouse transistor radio. He turns it on and somewhere between the crude rotary dial's 9 and 12 finds CHUM, Toronto's Top 40 powerhouse. In no time—pun intended—he encounters what will become for him the Holy Trinity of Rock 'n' Roll: The Guess Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Three Dog Night.

By December 1975, two of these bands will have split acrimoniously; the third will plunge into irrelevance, lost in the pulsating throb soon to be called disco. And our boy, now a brainy, socially awkward teen, has moved on to prog rock and protractors. Fond memories of his first musical heroes are tempered with regret that he never saw any of them in concert.

Fast forward to 2000 and a warm summer's eve at the Ontario Place Amphitheatre. (Yeah, it has a spiffy corporate name; no, they won't get free advertising from me.) The Guess Who have reunited for a cross-Canada tour with, oddly enough, a new lineup: Bachman, Cummings, McDougall, Peterson, Wallace. It's almost the version of the band I remember best: the 1972-74 edition, with Randy Bachman subbing for the late Kurt Winter. (The idea of Randy subbing for anyone is borderline preposterous, but Kurt really was that superb.)

I'm in the main seating area, pretty much dead centre, about forty rows back. I've never liked sitting too close and have rarely had the cash to do so anyway, so this suits me fine. If memory serves "Runnin' Back to Saskatoon" opens the show. The band is tight, their harmonies spot-on, the onstage joie de vivre infectious. As is customary for boomer reunion tours, the setlist is hit-heavy. At this late date, most people don't pay fifty bucks to see The Guess Who warble some obscure tune off Artificial Paradise.

Most people. The devotees—for whom this is a pilgrimage—own every album, can sing every lick, know why (and when) a Greg Leskiw or a Don McDougall joined and left the band. We are the Mark Mars Army, and we want our moment.

What's a Mark Mars? You tell 'em, Burt: "There's this kid in Virginia who's been a fan since the beginning. He calls himself Mark Mars and he's always written to me. So I put this line in 'Road Food' about 'Old Mark Mars is alive and well, sir.' You know he must have dug hearing that. Stuff like that is just fun to do." (Burton Cummings, quoted in John Einarson, American Woman: The Story of The Guess Who, Quarry Press, 1995.)

And I'll be damned if the boys don't serve it up. Two-thirds of the way in, sandwiched between lesser-known-hits-but-still-hits ("Glamour Boy," "Rain Dance") the band chugs into an off-kilter boogie that can only be ... "Road food," Bill, Donnie and Randy croon. "Jollywood, Jollywood, chippa-chippa chee-chee," Burton answers, punctuated by piano stabs on the one and the three. I'm the only one singing along, I tell myself, but every Mark Martian feels this way. It'd be uncouth if we all sat together bellowing "drag queens, rhumba boogie, grabbin' for the prime time" in unison. Besides, coming to the show alone (as I have) is a badge of honour.

"Road Food" ends to the weakest applause of the night, a din so quiet that my clapping—and his, and his, and maybe even hers—reaches the stage. Bill takes a sip of water and, placing the glass on his amp, shoots a wink Burton's way. Burt grins—they know!—and counts in "Laughing," a hit from the prime years that kicks off the final lap, hurtling band and fans to the boomer-fuelled climax (probably "American Woman"; your friendly neighbourhood Mark Martian can't recall.)

No matter. The Army has had its three glorious minutes. "Old Mark Mars is alive and well, sir."

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