(We’re interrupting Ricki’s three-part series – The Perfect Age For Rock & Roll – for this time-sensitive entry.
The Perfect Age For Rock & Roll will conclude later this week. Click here to check out part one & part two )
Today is Mike Parks’ birthday. I’m not sure exactly how old he is, but he’s older than Mumford & Sons and too young for Social Security & Medicare.
I thought I first met Mike when I joined the road crew of Willie Phoenix & The True Soul Rockers in 1990, but after Mike and I got to talking one night at a gig and discovered our shared West Side roots, it turned out we had actually met – though fleetingly – 20 years earlier when I was a senior at Bishop Ready High School.
The band Mike was in at that point – The Tree (which later went through various permutations and ended up as Pure Prairie League of “Amie” fame) – played a dance at Bishop Ready and my Catholic nerd rock & roll friends and I put together a “light show” to accompany the appearance. (Said light show was cobbled together from oils made with colored Jell-O and overhead projectors from the Bishop Ready audio-visual lab. I think Life Magazine had run an article on “hippie culture” that week and provided a tutorial.)
The members of The Tree – including, I believe, longtime Parks friend & bandmate Phil Stokes – were drawn from that most dangerous of 1960’s subcultures: Greasers Who Took Acid. Laid-back run-of-the-mill hippie types who did acid were problematic enough when bad trips got into the mix, but Mike’s particular band of brethren – working-class toughs who had formerly beaten up on longhairs before they discovered the pharmaceutical joys & benefits of the late 60’s – were a particularly volatile mix. (Think, those clearly whacked-out-of-their-skulls bikers at the side of and ON the stage in the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter.”)
Anyway, The Tree sauntered into our Bishop Ready high-school gym like gunslingers: arrayed in a mix of boots, blue jeans & black leather jackets, topped off with the longest hair we had ever seen close up. They looked, and moved, more like a gang than they did a band. My friends and I were afraid to even speak to them. After the dance, Mike came up to us in the gym at our pathetic little audio-visual station and said, “Hey, cool lights.” We couldn’t have been prouder, but were struck so dumb by Mike’s acknowledgment of our existence that I think only one of us managed to stammer out, “Th-th-thanks.” Mike just turned and walked off in a haze of badass guitar slinger cool. (Somewhere around that time, Mike lived in the house The MC5 maintained at 1510 Hill Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, FOR TWO WEEKS before the communal-living residents figured out that no one in the house knew Mike and that he didn’t belong there.)
By time we met up again 20 years later, Mike had become one of the five best lead guitarists I have ever seen in Columbus, Ohio. (Actually, we later discovered I had seen him one other time in the intervening years, when I was writing for Focus magazine and reviewed Brownsville Station in 1978, a show Mike’s then-current band – Shakedown - opened.) (Right around there Mike also served time in The Godz, see photo below.) Mike’s white-hot guitar style was especially cool when he played alongside Willie Phoenix – no slouch of a lead player himself – in The True Soul Rockers. Mike’s straight-ahead solid-rock lead guitar attack contrasted and dovetailed with Willie’s more idiosyncratic playing to killer effect in The Rockers: having Mike & Willie onstage together was like employing Duane Allman & Richard Thompson in the same band, no small musical feat and treat. (Sadly, there is not one bit of recorded evidence of the dual-lead guitar fireworks Mike & Willie deployed nightly. Tragic.)
One of the things I love about Mike is that he doesn’t just PLAY rock & roll, he actually THINKS about rock & roll, has IDEAS about rock & roll. One of those ideas about rock & roll brought about his and my biggest dust-up ever. By their natures, guitar heroes and roadies are gonna run into problems. One night at Ruby Tuesday’s when Willie gave me the song list for the first set I had the bright idea that I would line the guitars up in the order Willie & Mike were going to use them, so it would be easier for me to hand them up to the stage between songs. We didn’t have a guitar rack in the True Soul Rockers, just individual guitar stands. More to the point, we had EIGHT OR NINE individual guitar stands between Willie and Mike, some with guitars in alternate tunings.
As I was sorting out various Fenders & Gibsons, Mike walked up, watched for a minute and said, “What are you doing?” “I’m arranging the guitars in the order you’re gonna use them,” I replied. Mike was quiet for a coupla beats, then said, “You can’t do that. It’s not very rock & roll.” “I don’t care if it’s rock & roll or not,” I said, with an edge in my voice, “I’m juggling eight or nine guitars here and it makes things simpler.” “It’s still not rock & roll, though,” Mike said, “I’m taking all my guitars onstage with me. I don’t want you handling them anymore.” I watched incredulously as Mike made six trips back & forth to haul all of his guitars up on the stage. It was the only time in my roadie existence that I ever wished for a guitarist to break a string, so that I could refuse to help.
Mike and I got along ever so much better when I wrangled guitars for The League Bowlers – Colin’s offshoot covers band when Joe Oestreich first moved away and Watershed was on hiatus – and we could use Watershed’s guitar rack. Again, Mike’s endlessly inventive lead guitar style – imagine Chuck Berry if Chuck had ever deigned to PRACTICE the guitar after 1957, or picture the bastard mutant offspring of Keith Richards & Wayne Kramer – was set off perfectly against Colin’s Cheap Trick-inspired stylings. Mike’s playing in the Bowlers really was quite stunning. He could play anything Colin tossed at him – from Gawel/Oestreich originals to Tom Petty to George Jones to Georgia Satellites to Dwight Yoakam – and, on top of that, Mike could play ALL NIGHT LONG without repeating a lick. I’m pretty sure I saw, from my roadie station at the side of the stage, every show the latter-day incarnation of The League Bowlers played and I don’t think I ever saw Mike play the same solo twice. (For a full eyewitness account of the last night of The League Bowlers when they imploded and broke up ONSTAGE at the old Thirsty Ear in 2008, check out Growing Old With Rock & Roll, The Friday Night Massacre, August 1st, 2012.)
Happy birthday, Mike, it’d be great to see you on a stage again sometime. – Ricki C. / January 25th, 2014
Mike (extreme left) in Shakedown, mid-1970's.
Mike (second from left) in The Godz, late 1970's.
Note: I am frankly amazed that Mike was not pistol-whipped by Eric Moore (extreme left)
for showing up at a Godz performance in this outfit.
Mike (extreme left) in The True Soul Rockers, 1992.