EDITOR / PUBLISHER BLITZ MAGAZINE
When John Mars released his debut solo CD, Whasup? several years ago, it was apparent that he was living proof that spending too much time with one's record collection was not necessarily a detriment to one's character. Indeed, as those who have toiled in the loosely defined record collector industry can readily attest, the chasm that separates provider and consumer therein is more often than not greater than like divisions found in other industries. Whereas the former group is blessed with a relatively higher percentage of participants with that all too rare combination of academic savvy and passion for the art, the latter has found itself at frequent odds with the former because of a perceived insensitivity and/or inability to discern the parameters of their highly specialized demands.
For example, a label may respond to requests for a reissue of a given artist's material with an elaborately packaged individual CD or a box set rife with prime tracks, meticulously detailed history, session data, unreleased material, rare photos and other perks that would seem to assuage the appetites of musicologists and music enthusiasts alike.
However, there will inevitably be a small but vocal element for whom such efforts will never be sufficient. Their reactions are few in number, but voiced frequently:
"It's not an original pressing".
" It's in stereo. I wanted mono".
"I have the original 78, 45 and/or vinyl album. I don't want it on CD".
"The one track I really wanted was omitted".
"The label design is different from the original issue".
If such perceptions are valid, then the question arises as to whether or not such individuals are even interested in the music itself, or are merely pursuing the record industry equivalent of stamp collecting.
Enter John Mars.
Although by definition he is a record collector in that his personal archives are rife with vintage recordings in a myriad of styles and formats, Mars is likewise a musicologist, scholar and unabashed music enthusiast, which places him in elite company with such notorious collector/musicians as the Guess Who's Randy Bachman, the Jive Five's Eugene Pitt and Canned Heat's Bob Hite.
As a musicologist and music enthusiast, Mars honed his pedigree through the less conventional (though generally more effective) hands on method. To an extent, this involved research, academic discipline and internships. But it also necessitated the inevitable hours of combing collectors shops and thrift stores in search of that elusive item that not only fills in the missing gaps within personal archives, but that will also provide yet another link to the rich and diverse history of that which is most commonly referred to as popular music.
Mars was raised in the greater Toronto, Ontario area. As Canada's default entertainment capital and largest city, Toronto is in the unique position of seeing its native sons aspire to careers in the arts and entertainment; perhaps even more so than the national convention of vying for a position with an NHL team.
In Mars' case, geography and the media played an integral role in his musical education. His father served for 52 years as the technical superintendent for the local newspaper, The Brantford Expositor. The younger Mars at one time assisted with research for CBC-TV documentary films in Toronto. Eventually he became a part-time music columnist at that same Brantford newspaper.
Likewise, Toronto is a relatively short distance from other like minded communities, including Buffalo, New York and Detroit, Michigan. As was the case with countless other Toronto teens during rock and roll's most productive years, Mars would accompany family members on regular sojourns to these neighboring cities.
Whether their destination was a Red Wings or Tigers game in Detroit, historical research at Greenfield Village in neighboring Dearborn (or in later years at the Detroit Institute Of Arts or Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery), these visits would often include, at the teenage John Mars' urging, at least one or more stops at whatever retail outlet offered the most esoteric selection of 45s and LPs.
In the Detroit area, that was often the E.J. Korvette's outlet in suburban Southgate. E.J. Korvette's and other such unusually astute retailers like the Arlans department store chain were representative of a more savvy and sympathetic time in North American retailing, when vendors operated under the premise that the customer was always right and stocked their shelves accordingly.
In terms of their musical clientele, the retailers' mission was aided tremendously by sympathetic AM radio giants such as Toronto's CHUM, Buffalo's WKBW, Windsor, Ontario's CKLW and Dearborn's WKNR, all of whom supported music for music's sake in a manner not seen in radio before or since. What this meant to a music enthusiast in the mid to late 1960s such as John Mars was a selection that afforded greater options than the thirty or so (albeit essential) 45 RPM singles that graced their weekly charts. The E.J. Korvette's department store chain even went as far as to publish its own weekly singles chart, which quite often included at least a dozen equally worthwhile selections that may have been overlooked by one of the aforementioned radio stations.
For John Mars the record collector, such routine border hopping meant (for example) not only discovering that Joe Tex's singles were issued on the red and black Dial label in the United States, but that those same singles were concurrently released on Atco in Ontario. Conversely, for many of his fellow music enthusiasts, it meant learning that the monster hit singles by such Detroit area greats as the Wanted, Unrelated Segments, Rationals and/or Tim Tam And The Turn-Ons were relatively unknown back home in Toronto, a mere four hour drive away.
By that same token, Toronto developed an impressive music scene that earned its progenitors no small degree of notoriety on the home front. Bands like the Ugly Ducklings, British Modbeats, Little Caesar And The Consuls, the Checkmates and (later) the Paupers, Kensington Market, Madrigal and Motherlode received a hero's welcome in their own backyards, yet experienced comparatively modest success elsewhere.
Relative acclaim notwithstanding, the hometown heroes made a substantial impression on Mars. This was apparent when he fronted John Mars And The Martians while a student in high school. Years later, while pursuing a career in music journalism, it was the driving forces behind those veteran Toronto-area bands that he sought out first and foremost as interview subjects. One such subject was Motherlode's Kenny Marco.
"Ken was certainly a mentor to me, from the first time I heard When I Die by Motherlode on the radio", Mars explained. That record is still to this day one of the most amazing things that anyone can hear coming out of a radio. It gives you the chills!
"I met Kenny Marco when I was a kid. He was the nicest guy in the world. He let me sit and listen to his rehearsals. He didn't have to say a word to me. Once in a while, he and I discussed certain records. But he really just said everything to me with that Fender Telecaster.
"Kenny is so gifted. I just tried to absorb his musicality while I sat there, listening to him in a concert or at his rehearsals. I have been blessed by friendships with some of the most incredible guitar players in the idiom: Ken Marco, Jack deKeyzer, Danny Weis. They continue to blow my mind".
True to form, with this current project, Mars has taken his admiration a step further. On Detroit Or Buffalo, those mentors include Rhinoceros alumni Danny Weis and Michael Fonfara. Guitarist Weis' pedigree as a musician is as diverse as John Mars' record collection, having also served with Iron Butterfly, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper and Bette Midler. Piano and organ virtuoso Fonfara's pre and post-Rhinoceros resume also includes collaborations with Lou Reed, as well as the aforementioned Checkmates, the Electric Flag, Solomon Burke and others.
In turn, as Buddy Starcher once observed, History Repeats Itself. Just as he learned from the best, Mars in turn is now sharing his expertise as a mentor for other artists. He likewise collaborates with such relative aspirants as Lucas Stagg and Barrie, Ontario native Mary 5e. Mars served as co-producer for Stagg's two most recent solo CDs, and the promising singer/songwriter returns the favor here. Likewise, Mary 5e contributes the occasional backing vocal and a most engaging original composition.
Indeed, Detroit Or Buffalo presents a balance of both original and cover material. Although the selections herein represent a cross section of music rarely seen in any such undertaking in this era of aesthetically stifling special interests, it carries throughout each of its sixteen tracks the common undercurrent of varying degrees of desperation, tempered with optimism.
That optimism is largely the result of Mars' innate ability to discern the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Witness, for example, his take on the Animals' May 1967 hit, When I Was Young. Largely a vehicle for the braggadocio of front man Eric Burdon, in Mars' hands, When I Was Young becomes a celebration of youthful naivete that remains an integral part of life's mission statement despite the ongoing trials and tribulations of middle age.
In fact, unbridled optimism has seen John Mars through all of his previous solo endeavors, from his Cut Her Hair 45 fronting the Brian Jones-inspired Brian's Children, to the reckless abandon of his instrumental album with Stuart Broomer. That optimism is fueled in part by faith in his sidemen, whose proven capabilities have earned them the freedom to improvise within the given structure as their individual muse moves them. It is a blueprint that worked in 1966 for Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde album and continues herein as a viable option for the twenty-first century.
"I don't tell them what to play or how much to play", Mars explains. "I hire them because I admire them. They do what they feel."
Indeed, Mars, Stagg, Weis, Fonfara, keyboardsman Ray Harrison and backing vocalists 5e, Craig McNair and Suzie Sweetman rally to the cause with Blonde On Blonde ambition. While it remains to be seen whether Detroit Or Buffalo will garner the ongoing mass adulation still afforded the likes of Blonde On Blonde or the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds more than four decades since their creation, it is within reason to assert that, like those genre standard bearers, this latest addition to the Mars canon is worthy of track by track analysis.
DETROIT OR BUFFALO
The title track opens the set, and it is a most captivating piece from start to finish. Originally released on the 1972 eponymous album by former Kangaroo lead vocalist and songwriter Barbara Keith on Reprise Records, the track initially attracted Mars' attention for its focus upon the two communities that played such an integral role in his life. However, Detroit Or Buffalo simultaneously maintains a subtle element of urgency by reason of related distressing circumstances extant in the lives a number of Ontario citizens, some of whom Mars counts amongst his closest friends. "When I sing that song, I always think of all the friends that passed away way too soon", he explained. "I have lost ten friends (that were) 40 or younger over the years. In a sense, it is always dedicated to the dearly departed and to the two cities. Those are two places to which I feel a huge connection. They are both homes away from home.
When I say those place names in a conversation, I feel something. When I sing those place names, I feel even more." Stylistically, the listener will find comparisons to the Band or Arlo Guthrie to be inevitable, although Mars is quick to point out that the real inspiration stems from a source a little closer to home. "I certainly have no objection to those artists", he explained. "But I wouldn't say that their styles were in the front of my mind when I picked that song or while I was arranging it with Luke and Mike. Certainly, all of us Canadians are influenced by the Band to some degree. In my case, I would say it's more of a Kensington Market vibe. And I've heard a lot more Woody Guthrie than Arlo!" KEEP A SECRET Possibly the hidden gem of this set. This instantly accessible original maintains a subtle groove not unlike the Rolling Stones' No Expectations, You Got The Silver or even their cover of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain. Further proof that a well written hook is still within the grasp of the contemporary songwriter.
COMIN' DOWN THE PIPE AT YOU A John Mars original, Comin' Down The Pipe At You is to rockabilly what the Fugs' The Belle Of Avenue A is to country. That is, a thoroughly engaging piece that is both fun and flippant, yet respectful of its inspirations. The interesting quasi-rockabilly guitar from Danny Weis therein possibly owes more to James Burton than Chet Atkins (or Hasil Adkins, for that matter), recalling the cream of Burton's work on Rick Nelson's best Imperial sides.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG
During their 1964 - 1969 chart run (and subsequent reunions in 1977 and the mid-1980s), the Animals recorded an abundance of singles that were so well crafted, that any attempts at covering them would be redundant, at best.
Nonetheless, no matter how proficient a given artist is at their trade, there is always the occasional stray track that could benefit from astute revision. In the Animals' case, When I Was Young was as prime a candidate as any in their legacy for such reinterpretation. The fact that lead vocalist Eric Burdon is one of Mars' key inspirations was no deterrent.
"Meeting Eric Burdon in 1998 at a show we did together in Georgetown, Ontario was one of the highlights of my life", Mars recalled with considerable enthusiasm.
"Everyone has heard that Eric can be a bit arrogant or moody. But when I met him, he just chuckled at first sight of me and, said, 'Come on man'; asking me to follow him outside because he was sick of the whole backstage scene at the concert.
"I could not believe it! I was being invited to hang privately with my childhood hero! I didn't have to tell him, 'Gee man, I have all your albums and I'm like your biggest fan'. He already knew all that at a glance. Just like Joe Tex has influenced me, Eric has influenced me. They are two very different characters. But I needed them both to become whatever the heck I am as a singer. So it's important to me if I'm going to attempt a song of his to get it up to a level where I won't be ashamed if Eric ends up hearing it."
With its subtle yet poignant lyrical revisions (delivered with obvious relish), it can be argued that Mars' take on When I Was Young has accomplished the improbable in superseding the original.
IN A LITTLE ROOM
In A Little Room comes from the pen of John Finley, co-founder of the Checkmates and Rhinoceros. Mars' ongoing admiration for Finley's talents became readily apparent during the recording of this track. "Along with Paul Rodgers, John Finley is still one of the best rock and roll/rhythm and blues singers, in my opinion", Mars said. "Knowing that he will hear me do his song makes things slightly intimidating for me, and I am not easily intimidated. "I met John Finley just recently for the first time via Michael Fonfara after a Checkmates reunion concert. When Finley indicated to me that he was sincerely impressed that I had recorded In A Little Room, I just joked: 'Well John, you'd better wait 'til you hear my version!' Obviously I can only hope that Finley will dig my version. But I know that it cannot possibly top the original Rhinoceros version. "When I was a kid, I listened to John Finley sing that song over and over in my own little room. Out of all the records that I owned at that time, that was truly one of the performances that made me want to aspire to be a singer of some sort."
JUST ANOTHER BROKEN HEART
Best known as the composer of Maria Muldaur's Midnight At The Oasis, David Nichtern's resume also includes musical contributions to the long running soap opera, One Life To Live. His Just Another Broken Heart was covered by Kate And Anna McGarrigle in 1978 on their Pronto Monto album. Mars and the band herein maintain the melancholy essence of that earlier rendition. To his credit, Mars' plaintive delivery also gives the piece a credibility and accessibility factor that, for all of their efforts, the McGarrigle sisters inadvertently overlooked in their endeavors to prioritize the fine tuning of their subtle vocal harmonies.
THE HOLIDAY BAR AND GRILL CAFE
Written by Ray Materick, a native of Brantford, Ontario, who is best known for his 1974 hit, Linda Put The Coffee On. Originally released by Materick on his 1975 Best Friend Overnight album, The Holiday Bar And Grill Cafe is a coarse, brash celebration of the excesses of night life in Materick's hands. Herein, Mars assumes the role of a sympathetic interpreter and brings the piece a greater degree of universality.
Lucas Stagg recalls this particular session's impact on the song's author with considerable amusement: "When we got to the Materick song, I wanted to rock it up a bit. I thought it might make Ray happy. So did John, Ray still doesn't like the line John changed. Smokin' ain't good for you, right? But Ray sure had a big grin on his face the day he was listening to the playback though, I'll never forget it. Too funny."
SWEET SWEET WOMAN
Early in his career, the aforementioned rock and roll pioneer Rick Nelson lamented that he wanted his singing voice to sound more like Ray Charles. Only when he realized that his remarkable musical gifts were best expressed when he endeavored to sound like himself was Nelson free to cover material like Charles' I Got A Woman with conviction.
Likewise, Joe Tex amassed an impressive legacy with a unique preaching/singing style that was at once bombastic, celebratory and profound. As noted, Tex is in the upper echelons of John Mars' short list of inspirations. And like Rick Nelson, Mars brought his own distinctive personality into the mix here; in the process doing this most technically challenging of Tex originals justice.
John Mars' admiration for Joe Tex dates back to his days of record hunting at E.J. Korvette's in Southgate, Michigan. During frequent family outings to visit family members in Trenton, Michigan, Mars" father would stop at Korvette's to allow John the opportunity to satisfy his musical appetite.
"My dad would give me a twenty dollar bill, which usually was spent on a handful or 45s, as well as one or two special albums", he recalled. "I was on top of the world!"
During one such visit to Korvette's in 1968, a store employee made a particular impression on him via her endeavors to bring to his attention a particular new 45.
"I bought a lot of 45s, mostly by Sam And Dave, Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels, Wilson Pickett, Don Covay, the Buckinghams, Paul Revere And The Raiders and artists of that ilk. There was an employee at that Korvette's store who was a real R&B fan and just a bit older than me. She always asked me what I wanted to hear and whipped out all the latest 45s and stuck them on for me.
"One day she played Joe Tex's I'll Never Do You Wrong for me. I was by then already very familiar with Joe Tex, but I hadn't heard that track yet. This cute, mini-skirted department store clerk made quite an impression on me. She seemed so exotic to me and so did that record. Later, I ended up recording I'll Never Do You Wrong myself! Now, it seems like it's almost my mission to keep the music of the late Joe Tex alive. Maybe I will try and do one of his songs on each of my subsequent albums. Thanks, girl!"
John Mars' rendition of I'll Never Do You Wrong can be found on his Whasup? album.
I'M FEELIN' A LITTLE BIT UNDER THE TABLE
"That's a true story, but just a total comedy", according to the intrepid artist. Comparisons to Hank Thompson's Wild Side Of Life are inevitable, with traces of the Fugs' aforementioned The Belle Of Avenue A again thrown in for levity's sake. The echo that underscores the narrative in the bridge also does a remarkable job of bringing a bit of Ghost Riders In The Sky flavor to the proceedings.
A SWALLOW IN WINTER
On their landmark Chase The Moon album, the legendary E-Types broke precedent with Violet; an acoustic ballad with an airy arrangement that enabled its profound message to shine. In like manner, the ballad setting allows Mars to get introspective and poetical.
WHERE I USED TO HAVE A HEART
Philadelphia's Craig Bickhardt was in the spotlight in the late 1960s as part of the band Wire And Wood. He relocated to Nashville and garnered even greater attention as an Academy Award winning songwriter. He subsequently earned considerable accolades as the author of the Judds' landmark I Know Where I'm Going single. Most notably, he succeeded Paul Overstreet in SKO, enabling the trio to continue along their successful path as SKB. His Where I Used To Have A Heart caught the ear of country rocker Martina McBride and also found its way into the soundtrack of the motion picture, Switchback. Mars' mid-tempo arrangement makes it an asset to the proceedings at hand .
DON'T THINK TWICE, IT'S ALRIGHT
One of the most covered songs in the Bob Dylan songbook, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright found its biggest success in a faithful 1963 reading by Peter, Paul And Mary and in an irresistible, upbeat retooling in November 1965 by the Four Seasons, masquerading as the Wonder Who. Mars plays it straight here, giving credence to the notion that familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt.
THE SHOWERS OF RAIN
The closest thing to a purist track in this collection, The Showers Of Rain very much recalls Swing Time label-era Ray Charles. Mars' professed inspirations of Sleepy John Estes, Will Shade and Lightning Hopkins also factor in accordingly, and are certainly not out of step with the sort of repertoire-enhancing originals that the like-minded Rationals developed in their most fertile period of creativity.
GET WHERE I BELONG
Get Where I Belong first surfaced on a live album by the band Free. Best known for such straight-ahead rockers as Wishing Well, The Hunter and the 1970 monster hit, All Right Now, this 6/8 ballad marked a return to the introspective side of the band that was hinted at in such earlier originals as Over The Green Hills and Lying In The Sunshine. Long a student of Free's music, Mars transformed this Andy Fraser/Paul Rodgers composition into a personalized appeal for restitution and restoration. By his own assessment, the longing for reconciliation is indigenous to the human experience. To be sure, Mars articulates that need handsomely.
I ONLY WANT TO BE WITH YOU
A southern California writer once astutely observed that Dusty Springfield's October 1963 original recording of I Only Want To Be With You is one of the most perfect records ever made. Yet in 1976, The Bay City Rollers learned the hard way the futility of attempting note for note renditions of such beloved rock and roll classics.
On one hand, their cover of I Only Want To Be With You had an automatic audience amongst the multitudes who were unfamiliar with Springfield's definitive original. That tactic that worked well for such artists as Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett and Hall And Oates in their contemporary attempts to gain additional mileage out of other artists' standards. However, the Rollers knew that their real strength as a band came not from bleaching the life out of time tested masterpieces, but by asserting their creative muse via such ambitious originals as Money Honey.
The Tourists' rendering a mere three years later was comparatively more impressive in its ability to approximate the atmosphere of the Springfield version. Nonetheless, the ultimate effect was to merely reinforce Dobie Gray's January 1965 maxim: "Other guys imitate us, but the original's still the greatest".
Indeed, the only way to do a musical milestone such as this one justice is to bring to it an element of one's own personality. Mars' persona actually fits succinctly when taken in the light of his personalization of When I Was Young. Executed with the wide eyed optimism of a young man hearing Springfield's original for the first time when it was a chart hit, Mars poignantly and retrospectively articulates in like manner the collective voice of millions of contemporaries for whom music was the ultimate means of self-expression.
I'LL FIND TRUE LOVE
"I needed a new, original song with a positive message to conclude this record and she supplied it", said Mars with regards to his musical colleague and good friend, Mary 5e. Multi-instrumentalist 5e came up through the Ontario cafe and club circuit and earned a well deserved reputation in the process as a first class songwriter. At one minute and twenty-four seconds, her Hank Williams/Rick Nelson-flavoured, I'll Find True Love is brief but poignant; saying as much in that time frame as Bob Dylan's Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands said in an entire vinyl album side.
Mars' enthusiasm and vast experience as a record collector and musicologist was a major source of inspiration during the sessions, which took place at Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario, as Lucas Stagg noted:
"John has the greatest knowledge of music history than any gent I've met. Hence, we are very close. So close that we've worked with each other on several projects in the past few years, which has built into a kinship of musicality. John makes a point of letting people know we are equals. But as far as listening knowledge goes, there is no comparison, nor will there be.
"When I met John, I was playing a show with my rock and roll outfit, Room 101, which was a cross between Mott The Hoople and the Rolling Stones. Though some might not see the difference between the two, after hearing Mars' Whasup? record, I knew this cat would get it. He had Lou Reed, Joe Tex, Iggy, Mick and a whack I'd yet to realize existed, and wouldn't have, if it weren't for the 'Martian'. There are still some to this day, five years later. I'll say, 'Hey man, that sounds like...'. Sure enough, he'll fill me in on it."
Mars also learned at the sessions that he had a long time fan in the form of engineer J.P. Riemens.
"On day one of the Detroit Or Buffalo sessions, Riemens was talking to my driver, Vic Mirco, an old friend of mine who is also a concert promoter. Mirco had just finished telling Riemens that he had known me for many years and that he and, I and J.P. were all from the same neck of the woods, the Brantford area.
"Riemens said to Vic that the first band that he ever saw live at age 14 was John Mars And The Martians. I was putting my book on the music stand in the studio. I said to J.P., 'And, despite that, you decided to opt for a career in music?!' ".
"Riemens said, 'You guys were great.' I asked him, 'Where the heck was this?' He s
aid it was at Burford District High School, around 1971.
"J.P. Riemens is now a singer/songwriter/recording artist/engineer/producer. When he started his own band in the 1970s, he hired former Martians members Stan Baka (lead guitar) and Kevin Cosman (bass). Those two nutty lads were the other two Martians on the night that J.P. first saw John Mars And The Martians. Stan died in 1977 at age 23 in a tragic motor cycle accident. It wasn't his fault. He got hit by a drunk driver. He was an absolutely gifted guitarist. If he was alive today, I'll bet that he'd be up at the level of a Jack deKeyzer. The music just flowed from Stan's fingers. I miss him and I will never forget him."
To add the icing to the cake, Mars enlisted the services of Nick Blagona to assist with the mastering. Blagona's curriculum vitae reads like a who's who of musical legends, including Julie Rogers, Crispian Saint Peters, the Flirtations and Tom Jones, to name but a few. The results reinforce the fact that Blagona remains a formidable presence behind the boards.
Of course Detroit Or Buffalo is not Blonde On Blonde or Pet Sounds. Yet there are those who have asserted that Bob Dylan is sometimes too obtuse for his own good. And as the Beach Boys once observed, You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone.
To that effect, Detroit Or Buffalo is a great example of how a properly researched and assimilated record collection (combined with a superlative support team, such as that assembled here) can do wonders for an astute musician who endeavors to rise above the herd. Indeed, it is not out of the realm of possibility that forty years hence, Detroit Or Buffalo will generate the ongoing level of interest that those earlier classics do now. Timeless art has a way of doing just that.
*Danny Weis of Rhinoceros played on the original version of In A Little Room and, also plays on the new John Mars version.