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'Funk' frontman recalls Shea Stadium gig
05/27/2008 1:15 PM ET
It was July 9, 1971, and Mark Farner couldn't believe what he was seeing and hearing.

As the lead singer of the multi-platinum rock group Grand Funk Railroad, the Michigan native had seen plenty of packed arena crowds grooving to his music in the recent months as they climbed up the charts. But this was a little "heavy," to use a popular period term.

Grand Funk had already set a record by selling out Shea Stadium faster than anyone, including a quartet from Liverpool, England, known as the Beatles. And when Farner and his bandmates were whisked from Manhattan to the Shea parking lot by helicopter, the magnitude of this accomplishment hit him like a Tom Seaver fastball to the ribs.

"We took off from East River, and we were supposed to land in the parking lot, where a limo was going to pick us up," Farner said. "And when we got over the stadium, with Humble Pie already on stage, we could actually see the building bouncing up and down from the fans so excited from the music.

"And to really describe it, I'd have to say it was something you'd have to experience to really know what it was like. The emotion that comes over you when you see that -- there are no words for it."

After a police escort to the backstage area, Grand Funk pulled off what Farner still considers their most memorable gig.

Among the high points was the ballad "I'm Your Captain (Closer to Home)" which would become a radio hit but at the time was simply the song that connected the most with the younger audience, Farner says.

"New York had been a great audience for Grand Funk Railroad, and we had done shows at Madison Square Garden and Randalls Island with Jimi Hendrix," Farner said. "The people loved what we stood for and what we had to say, and that's why we were popular."

Grand Funk Railroad at Shea
courtesy Mark Farner Music

In particular, the ending of "I'm Your Captain," in which Farner sings, "I'm getting closer to my home" over and over, became the refrain that seemed to truly captivate the crowd.

"It was the Vietnam era and everybody wanted the war to stop," Farner says. "They got behind 'I'm Your Captain,' and even today, it's the most requested song of all Vietnam veterans. It's easy to see why. A soldier who's dug in, he wants to be closer to home, and maybe that's why he can survive day after day with the bullets flying. It still fits today in that theater of war.

"And it was powerful. Women were crying. Guys were crying. It was a very emotional time. New York City in 1971 was ready not only to hear the song but to react to the feelings it stirred up. And they reacted. They sang it louder than the damn PA, dude. I could hear them singing louder than I was singing."

Thirty-seven years later, Shea Stadium is in its final season of existence, and Farner says he'll miss the yard where all of this drama once unfolded.

"It saddens me," Farner says. "As long as it was standing, it was a visible memory. It was a reminder to everybody that was there. And now that it'll no longer be that landmark that it's been for all these years, it's disturbing to think about. But it's also a happy memory because that was a high point in my life."

Grand Funk Railroad at Shea
courtesy Mark Farner Music

Grand Funk would go on to play more memorable shows in baseball stadiums, including a particularly wild -- and wet -- one during monsoon season in Osaka, Japan, in which the band was forced to "dodge manhole covers that were blowing up from the street in front of us," as Farner remembers.

And even now, with Farner still enjoying the rock n' roll lifestyle that keeps him touring his favorite cities -- a complete listing of current album and concert information is available at www.markfarner.com -- while taking breaks to enjoy the pastoral comforts of his home on Michigan's lower peninsula, he says he still thinks about that one magical night in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

"The attendance record still stands," he says, "and that's something to be proud of. The kids slept overnight on the lawn in sleeping bags. Wherever there was room for a body, there was one laying there waiting to buy a ticket. I thought it was pretty special that they were that devoted to what we all had to say when we got in that stadium.

"It was a time like that when people were willing and able to hear what we had to say. It's time to go back to that. It's a vivid time that's burned in my memory forever."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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