The story of how Frank Zappa learned to shoot a gun in Livingston County. And loved it.

Frank Zappa

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So it turns out that Hartland Township was pretty much the center of the rock ’n roll universe in the 1970s.

We’ve already heard the incredible story of how KISS played a concert at the old Nordic Ice Arena in Hartland in April of 1975. We’ve also learned that Rush and REO Speedwagon played at that very same arena in the very same month.

And we’ve heard the story of how Waldenwoods hosted Livingston County’s very own version of Woodstock in 1978 – a three-day rock festival that featured legendary bands like Brownsville Station and MC-5, along with some drugs, sex, naked people swimming in Lake Walden and a stabbing.

Now comes the story of how Frank Zappa (yes, that Frank Zappa) not only produced and recorded an album in Hartland Township in the 1970s, but also how he learned to shoot guns (and possibly love guns) here, too.

Yes, that’s right. Frank Zappa learned how to shoot a gun in Livingston County.

Here’s the story. It’s a good one.

It has to do with the legendary rock band Grand Funk Railroad, which formed in the Flint area back in 1969. A year or two later, the band’s leader, Mark Farner, bought a sprawling spread in the Parshallville area of northern Hartland Township.

Throughout the 1970s, Grand Funk Railroad spent a lot of time at Farner’s place in Hartland Township, which became known as the Swamp. Farner had a recording studio built on the property, and Grand Funk recorded a lot of their albums and songs there. Several tracks from Grand Funk’s signature song, “We’re an American Band,” were recorded at the Swamp.

So the story goes that in 1976, Grand Funk Railroad started working on its 11th studio album, which came to be called “Good Singin’, Good Playin’.” Farner wrote a bunch of songs for the album, and Grand Funk assembled at the Swamp to start recording.

This is where Frank Zappa comes in.

According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, Grand Funk Railroad had actually broken up in early 1976 because their career was starting to stall a little bit. Frank Zappa was a friend of theirs, and when he heard they had a potential new album to record, he offered to produce it. So because of Frank Zappa, the band decided to stay together and record the album.

So in May of 1976, Frank Zappa came to Hartland Township to produce “Good Singin’, Good Playin’.” He actually appears on the album, too. He played lead guitar on the song “Out to Get You,” and provided background vocals for “Rubberneck.”

Frank Zappa (second from left) and the Grand Funk Railroad guys, horsing around at the Swamp in Parshallville during a studio session in 1976.

In any case, as they were recording this album in Hartland Township in the Bicentennial summer of 1976, the Grand Funk guys and Frank Zappa spent a lot of time at the Swamp. I’m assuming they all just slept there, too.

And these guys – especially Mark Farner – loved their toys and they loved their guns. They rode dirt bikes all over the property and shot guns all the time.

Farner himself is a BIG gun guy, and he’s never made any bones about it. He even wrote a song for “Good Singin’, Good Playin’ ” called “Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun.” To this day, the Second Amendment people love that song.

As you might have guessed, this is the part of the story where Frank Zappa learns to shoot a gun in Livingston County.

Farner himself tells the story in the video you’ll see at the bottom of this story. This is how Farner explains it:

“There’s a song on the album called “Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Guns.” He wanted to know, ‘Why you singin’ this?’ I said, “Because of the Second Amendment, the Bill of Rights, dude!’ The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

“I said, ‘If we didn’t have guns, you’d be licking the boots of your master.’ He said, ‘Ah, bullshi*t.’ And I explained it to him, because he was kind of anti-gun. So I said, ‘Have you ever shot a gun?’ and he said no, so I said, ‘I’ll be right back.’

“I went over to the farmhouse and I got a .44 magnum. All he wanted to do was shoot a can like they did in the movies. So we put some beer cans out there, and I talked him through how to do that first shot. How to squeeze and not jerk the trigger, let it be a surprise, and he hit the can. He freaked out. He just wanted to stay out all day shooting the gun.

“It was beautiful. He became a life member of the NRA, because someone took the time to explain it to him.”

So if you were driving in the area of Parshallville Road in the early summer of 1976 and you heard a lot of “blam, blam, blam!” – that was just Frank Zappa shooting cans.

Frank Zappa (center) and Grand Funk Railroad.

Now, Farner has told this story numerous times through the years, and while there’s little doubt that Frank Zappa shot guns that day in Livingston County, we can’t be sure just how much he really loved it. Nobody has also been able to verify Farner’s claim that Zappa became a life member of the NRA. Zappa died in 1993, so we can’t ask him. And his wife and kids went on to become very vocal anti-gun activists.

So while we aren’t sure about that detail, there are plenty of other facts that make this story just as good.

Frank Zappa produced an album here, he recorded some songs here, and he learned how to shoot a gun here. That’s cool enough for me.

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About Buddy Moorehouse 195 Articles
Longtime Livingston County journalist Buddy Moorehouse is director of communications at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

2 Comments

  1. Hey, Buddy. do remember when the edit staff, on one of our bi-annual tours to familiarize new reporters with Livingston County, searched for Mark Farner’s farmland? We never found the damn place. Good thing, too, because we might have been picking buckshot out of our rears. Where did you get this story?

    • I do remember that, Dennis! I found out about this story because someone commented on my KISS story about this, and when I looked into it, I saw that Farner told this story a lot.

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