Thursday, March 22, 2018

MARS COWLING: A Personal Tribute to a Rock Legend

MARS COWLING
A Personal Tribute to a Rock Legend
_________________________

New Year's Eve '78-'79. It was only my
third legit rock concert experience 
a bona fide Southern-fried bash starring
Florida's "Guitar Army," The Outlaws.
I'd just turned 16. And I can still recall
rather unique fragrance permeating
the 10,000-seat, sold-out arena as
special guest, The Pat Travers Band,
hit the stage  "makin' magic," indeed!
_________________________

"Uh, excuse me. You don't know me, but I was in the band that opened for you tonight." I was so freaked out I could barely speak — which was odd, given that in the fall of 1992, my band DEAD SERIOS was one of the mightiest forces on the southeast rock scene.

"I know who you are" the bass player of the headline act responded warmly, with a distinct British accent. "I stood right there and watched your whole set!" he added — leaning in close enough to be heard over the backstage clatter. Or was it my knees knocking that was making all the racket?

Back in the day, DEAD SERIOS opened for more national-level bands than I can even remember. And honestly, I couldn't have cared less about many of them. But on this particular night in Palm Bay, Florida, we hadn't opened for just another College Radio flavor of the week or up-and-coming hair metal hopeful. We'd just "crushed it," opening for the legendary Pat Travers Band, and bassist Mars Cowling had apparently seen us perform.

"This dinosaur bullshit I play with Pat is fucking boring," Cowling confessed as we continued our backstage conversation. "I wish I was in your band," he added. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Mars Cowling was one of my all-time rock heroes, and the words of praise gushing from his mouth were surreal to me. I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or piss in my pants. So I just gasped for breath, shook the man's hand and went on my way. Besides, he had a show to play that night too.

All I wanted in 1978 was to be cool — like the surfer dudes who mocked me in class for being UN-cool. They all had the hottest chicks, authentic puka shell necklaces, quality dope and a firm grasp on the coolest new music. In 1978, The Pat Travers Band was THE band of choice among my school's pot-smoking surfer alliance, and I had to discover for myself what all the buzz was about. So, in the fall of 1978, I bought a vinyl LP copy of the latest PT album, Heat in the Street. Simply put, the eight-song set clocked me harder than even the debut Van Halen record just a couple of months earlier. And by New Year's Eve '78-'79, I was standing in Florida's Lakeland Civic Center, witnessing the band live onstage. It was a high-octane performance that I can only describe as intense, brutal and ferocious. And it was the first time I'd ever heard "an old rhythm and blues, boogie woogie number called, 'Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)'."

The Pat Travers Band circa '79
Oh sure, The Pat Travers Band's namesake's engaging vocals, screaming Melody Maker and poster boy looks were sufficient to hook and reel in rock fans by the scores. And the blistering, companion fret work of Pat Thrall also attracted legions of guitar aficionados. Plus, the band was (at the time) the current home of one-time Black Oak Arkansas drummer, Tommy Aldridge — another of my early teenage rock faves. But what really closed the deal for me with The Pat Travers Band was the bass stylings of Mars Cowling.

As a dumb 17-year-old punk, my typical weekends were spent doing stupid stuff that teens (still) do. Then, come Sunday night, I'd be holed up in my bedroom  head buried in my stereo hi-fi headset as I struggled to complete my neglected homework assignments before the Monday morning school bell rang. The soundtrack to those Sunday night "cram sessions" always featured the double-whammy combo of Heat in the Street followed by the platinum-selling PT live set, Go for What You Know. But even then, I recognized that Cowling's style was unique — holding his Fender Precision bass way up high. Onstage he oozed slick, slinky swagger. On record, his bass grooves moved me. Cowling's talent also was recognized by many of rock's most prominent players.

"No matter how I tried, I could
never get a bass to growl like Mars
could. He had such a unique tone
and unorthodox way of playing."
-Rodney O'Quinn
(Bassist / Foghat)

One-time Pat Travers bassist and current
Foghat bassist Rodney O'Quinn (L) in
South Florida with Mars Cowling (R) - 2017.
"It was such an honor to be friends with
Mars Cowling for the past nine years."
-Rodney O'Quinn
(Bassist / Foghat)

By the time 29-year-old, England-born Cowling joined 21-year-old native Canadian Travers in 1975, he already was an established name on the British rock scene, having played in a number of blues-based cover bands. Cowling would go on to record eight records with Pat Travers before leaving the band in 1982 — an impressive string that included the 1980 Top 20 smash, Crash and Burn

Following his initial PT run, Cowling had a brief stint playing in the Miami-based, duel female-fronted rock band, Gypsy Queen. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform live with GQ in 1984. By 1989, Cowling had rejoined the PT ranks — remaining on board until 1993.

Sadly, Cowling was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia in February 2018. Long retired from the music biz, he lived in South Florida, where he passed away on March 20th.

Over the last 40 years, I devoured Cowling's recorded work, and I was fortunate to have seen him perform live numerous times. And I was honored to have been a member of his opening act on that incredible night back in 1992. I will never forget Mars Cowling. And the music he created will remain forever fresh and powerful — "makin' magic," to be sure.

-Christopher Long
(March 2018)

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