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Mark Craney: Sioux Falls Sage of the Skins

We don’t get many in this life. Genuine, true friends, in the deepest and rarest sense. The best of friends with whom you can talk about everything. Mark and I shared a rich, colorful history together which began in 1976 and crossed all borders of common interest. He had an enormously wide circle of friends, one wider than I ever imagined, until recently. I began to hear about and from people that I never knew, from his past who had heard about his condition and began reaching out to see what they could do for him.

Some of the closest friendships that I share today are directly because of Mark, introducing me to so many people that I might otherwise have never known. I think a lot of people could say the same thing. He was the vector that we all intersected with and a major thread of continuity through so many of our lives. Mark had many “best” friends and I feel honored to have been among them.

He had the heart of a lion. Strong, proud, dignified and fiercely loyal. His business card read, “Mark Craney-Drums-No excuses.” I thought that was brilliant, succinct and very Zen. Quite a bit like him.

How do you encapsulate the enormous life Mark had, in a few paragraphs? You cannot. I can only offer some treasured moments from our own shared past.


One day Mark was over at our house and we were sitting around in my office talking. He knew I loved to read and at one point he got up and walked over to my library wall and silently perused through the titles. He turned around and asked,
“You read all these books?”
“Pretty much.” I said
He sat himself back down again and was silent for a moment, then turned to me and with one eyebrow arched upwards, said,
“You really ought to be a lot smarter.”

Well, Mark was innately smarter, more intuitive, and wiser than almost anyone I ever knew, in music and in life. This did not come from books but from that much deeper, inner source to which Mark always seemed to have access. Maybe it was from growing up in the large, silent spaces of the Midwest. He had a great sense of humor and a dry, wicked wit that was counterbalanced by the soul of an artist, a philosopher and a country farmer. Deeply connected to nature, animals, people and possessing a powerful, empathetic spirit despite a body that eventually had trouble keeping pace, his reflective, searching and philosophical nature remained unbowed.

The Drum Club

Mark was undisputedly the president of the Woodland Hills Drum Club. It is not a zip code. We have no membership cards or billable dues. It is a brotherhood of hundreds of drummers and friends from around the globe, although we’ve grudgingly allowed in a few other instrumentalists along the way for general harmonic support. A non-discriminatory, non-denominational, ecumenical society of drummers which all began in Mark’s garage in 1985. Unless you just simply can‘t play! I mean, we do have some standards.

Getting the Drum Club together after we had all returned from various gigs and tours was always a happy event. In earlier years we also used to have a little group of floating members that met for lunch or dinner occasionally, which Mark aptly entitled The BBC or The Bitter Bachelors Club, comprised at the time, of all of us single guys. We would just get together and have a really good moan. It was always a cathartic little group outing.

Somehow, I always imagined we would all be sitting around a table at a Drum Club lunch at the age of 65 or 70, talking about music, life and our various aches and pains. I’ll miss him calling up and asking, “Hey Doanut, want to have a spontaneous lunch?”


Mancini’s Club in Canoga Park hosted the Woodland Hills Drum Club Night in L.A. which Mark led and they were always an event. We would customarily have two to three drum kits set up and have different combinations of some of the best players in L.A. turn up to play together. That was a really fun, informal gig where we could all go and blow out the fluorocarbons.

It seemed as if at one time or another, every great player that we knew locally or who was in town visiting, came and sat in. And every night Mark threw down the gauntlet. Sometimes it was a little scary, but always fun and often an “E” ticket ride with player after player egging each other on. Tony Williams showed up one night and sat in the front row. I can tell you that put the fear of God into just about everyone except Mark.

I had such admiration for the stalwart rhythm section of bassist, Mick Mahan and guitarist, Larry Wilkins who gracefully negotiated the sometimes turbulent musical waters into which they were thrown each evening. But Mark was always the heart and soul of it and commandeered the vessel like a fearless sea captain, keeping things in check and moving everyone forward.

One notable exception occurred however at the end of one evening when two fairly over- refreshed participants got up for the last drum trio performance of the night with Mark, who as always, was in the center position. During the middle of the song a short trading of fours amongst the drummers was supposed to take place but quickly degenerated into a drum bloodbath between the other two drummers. Mark had a very low tolerance level for that sort of nonsense. He finally just stopped playing, crossed his arms and gave each of the duelists a withering “Are you quite finished now?” look, which somehow cut through the haze of their considerable inebriation and shocked them back into momentary sobriety, whereupon he counted the rest of the band back in and finished the song with the two offending knuckleheads towing the line.

It does seem that some sort of mysterious brotherhood exists between fellow drummers that allow us to be great friends while still being friendly competitors. As a well known virtuoso bassist so eloquently put it at the first benefit given for Mark at the Guitar Center in L.A. in 1988, when every drumming great within 500 miles turned up, “Bass players would NEVER do this for each other!”

Driving Miss Daisy and Other Moments

One night we went down to the Catalina Bar and Grill in L.A. to see the amazing Joe Zawinul Syndicate and brought along Mark’s wonderfully youthful 80 year old mother, Daisy. At the end of an awe inspiring night of music we are looking around for Daisy. Where has she gone? Perhaps she was tired or bored and fell asleep in the back?…. Nope. Bathroom?…. Nope. Bar?!….. Nope! THERE she is, fully engaged in an in-depth conversation with the fearsome Zawinul on the bandstand!!! Daisy herself was a hell of a good stride piano player, not an easy style in itself, so they were probably comparing piano techniques. Mark and I couldn’t believe it and just laughed but……..Daisy was just as fearless as Mark or perhaps it was the other way around.


At one point during the 1980’s Mark had decided to move back to his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On my way back from New York enroute to Los Angeles, he invited me to come visit him in his new pad. And so I did. And what a pad! Huge, open, bright, three stories, overlooking the beautiful, sprawling plains of South Dakota. A quiet, bucolic paradise with the drum room every drummer dreams about, which resided on the bottom floor. Picture this: one room the length of the entire house and nearly as deep, with two enormous double bass drum sets side by side in mirror image of one another. Don’t forget, Mark was a southpaw, so he sat on the left side and the right handed kit sat on the right. Flanking the outside on the far right was his little Jazz kit and flanking the far left side was his small Funk kit. I lost track of the hours we spent in that room playing and playing. His wife Bobbi and step-daughter Brooke seemed to take it all in stride or maybe they just simply left the house. But the best part of the room was the view. All the drum sets faced a floor to ceiling wall of double glazed windows that overlooked fields of wheat which gently swayed back and forth to the muted thunder. Every field mouse within 100 miles probably moved to North Dakota. Oh woe be to us poor misunderstood drummers.

After the ritualistic purging we would then go off for a drive over the plains or a long walk in the fields followed by some organic tea. It was Heaven.


So many fond memories wash over me:

The Thanksgivings, Christmases and New Years spent together with each other’s families.
Hanging out together with our dogs. He loved dogs and dogs LOVED him.
Playing double drums in his garage in Woodland Hills.
Trying my first and LAST cigar with him!
The Benefit Concerts. Such an outpouring of love from the music community! So many notes!!!
Meeting up in Budapest and having lunch together by the Danube before we were both due to play at the Budapest “Woodstock” Festival, when Mark was working with Eric Burdon. That was exotic!
Flying to London together in 1993 for a few days to join with past and present Tull members for the band’s 25th Anniversary Celebration get-together.
Working in my studio on the liner notes and art layout for his CD, “Something With a Pulse”. How touched he was by all the remarkable artists generous contributions for his benefit.
Going together to a Weather Report or James Taylor concert or a local L.A. gig when one of our pals was playing and afterwards all of us congregating for a late night, artery-hardening dinner at Denny’s or Jerry’s Deli.
Many warm, happy moments and laughs together.

Inner Reserves

I would often ask him “where he went” during those periods when he seemed to be physically so incapacitated and racked with discomfort. Fortunately, he rarely seemed to be in real pain, but I know his level of pain tolerance was exceedingly high as he was so accustomed to living with a certain level of discomfort all the time. The night before leaving for Latin America, in late August, 2005, I visited him again at the Thousand Oaks hospital. His sister Jeanne and I were in the room together. I had never seen him like this. Hooked up to a dozen tubes, suddenly small, frail and so vulnerable, a body-shaking cough and eyes glazed over, he was unable to focus or speak. I stood next to him, held his hand and spoke to him as he stared off into the middle distance. I had no idea if he was even aware of our presence or aware of anything at all. I had the dreadful sinking feeling that this might be my last visit with him. I didn’t expect him to last through the night. As I was leaving he was wheeled into the ICU. Perhaps this is where the body and mind’s self defense system kicks into gear in self preservation mode as this was the point from which he says he remembers very little. And probably mercifully so.

The first month that followed this recent stroke was a very tough one. He had a tracheotomy tube in his throat and couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat and was being fed intravenously. He had trouble moving his arms and even more trouble with his legs.

As to “where he went”, I was particularly curious to know if he remembered the night when I came in immediately preceding my departure for Latin America. To my utter amazement he said he did remember me being there, not necessarily the specifics, but that I was there, speaking to him. It is interesting that when people are in these dreadful physical states, probably halfway out of their bodies, there are still faculties that remain fully functioning and cognizant. They are very much alive in there, functioning however on a very different level, yet still connected.

Throughout the tour I continued to stay in touch with all our friends stateside, absolutely astonished that not only had he lived through that ordeal but actually seemed to be making a bit of a recovery. When I returned from that tour he had been moved to a nursing facility that allowed more frequent visitor access. He now had a trach tube in his throat but still couldn’t speak or swallow, making eating an impossibility. He began communicating with us through an alphabet board and silently mouthing words. I am a completely useless lip reader, which used to make him laugh because I serially made so many ridiculous misinterpretations of his words and sentences.

We did have one particularly memorable “talk” on the alphabet board. There had been some earlier discussion about trying to sort out his medical directives and we were trying to get his case worker at the nursing facility involved, to help facilitate the process.

At one point later in the day he picked up the alphabet board and spelled out, “CHRIST – Y”. Mark had taken to occasionally using a sort of abbreviated shorthand for certain words and phrases to speed up the spelling process and I had gotten used to this more telegraphic means of communication.

I threw up my hands and said, “I know Mark, WHY, why is this happening to you? It’s all so unfair!”
He just gave me a puzzled look and again he spelled out, “CHRIST-Y” and again I responded, “I know, this is horrible, I don’t know WHY this has to happen!”

A third time, and now exasperated with me, he spelled, “C H R I S T Y”. Suddenly the light bulb went off. AAAAHHHHHH…. He was spelling “Christy”, the name of the case worker assigned to help with the medical directive, wanting to know if I had spoken to her. Realizing that I had finally gotten it, he just looked at me, smiled and rolled his eyes in the back of his head, giving me one of those, “You’re an idiot” looks.

He never lost his sense of humor.


At various times all of his friends and family had asked him if they could bring down something to the hospital to provide some diversionary activity. He didn’t really enjoy T.V…..small wonder and probably too many food commercials anyway, which were a painful reminder of all that he was missing. He declined CD players, radios, iPod’s. Eventually he showed some interest in board games. They engaged his mind and were interactive.

A huge step forward occurred when they were able to provide Mark with a “fluted” trach tube that finally allowed him to talk again, albeit a bit haltingly, but nonetheless, understandable. That was an enormous step forward and was a great boost to his spirits and ours too! We could have a conversation again! How much all of us had missed that and we all made the most of the opportunity.

During his last six weeks I had decided that I really wanted to play Mark some music during our visits. Some of his music. So I brought down my iPod and two sets of my good Bose headphones and said, “Mark, you HAVE to listen to this.” He had no idea what I was going to play for him and the first thing up was the live version of “Brother to Brother” from his solo CD, “Something with a Pulse“, which Gino Vannelli had generously donated. In fact, every single artist who appeared on that CD donated their tracks, some of which Mark appeared on and others that were donated from people who simply admired his work and wished to help him. As soon as “Brother to Brother” started, his face just lit up. After some particularly wicked and perplexing fill, a big smile crossed his face and he looked at me, whereupon we both cracked up in delight. He held up five fingers, silently mouthing, “those were fives” during another blistering break. I think it made him feel really good to hear that and to allow him to relive some of those wonderful, magical musical highlights. After that stunning display with Gino, he said, “So, what’s next? “. It was one of my all time favorite performances of his, “Black Sunday” with Tull, live at the LA Sports Arena. I was so happy he was enjoying music again, especially some of his own musical contributions. And on it went. Track after track. At the end of all the music and the talking I looked at the clock, shocked to see it was 1:30 in the morning. Amazed that the staff hadn’t kicked me out, I think they too, realized that Mark was having a great time and simply pretended I wasn’t there.

I said to him, “You must be tired, I should let you go to sleep.” He replied, “No, I’m really
enjoying myself, I‘ll let you know.” So we talked until about 2am and then I gave in. He wore me out that night!


Over the many years that he endured such physical indignities and insults to his body from diabetes, strokes, surgeries, dialysis and a myriad of associated ailments, he remained a powerful living example of overcoming adversity. Mark faced obstacle after setback and yet continued to rebound, astonishing all of us and occasionally himself too.

His keen powers of observation never left him, even when one thought he probably was not taking notice. He was always showing interest and concern for each one us, particularly if he sensed something different, reading the subtle, nearly imperceptible changes in his friends. Perhaps, his condition made him more finely attuned to the subtleties of changes within each of us, giving him an ability to “read” his friends in a more finely detailed way.


Always the stoic mid-western gentleman, he would say, without fail, “Please tell Heather if there’s anything she needs, to just call,” before I would leave to go out on tour. Imagine that. There were many times when he was using a walker or a cane to get around and moving around wasn’t at all easy for him. But if Heather had picked up the phone and called, asking him to come up and split some firewood, he would have been there in an instant with his cane and an ax!

But he was quite a tough S.O.B. and despite or perhaps because of his handicaps and disabilities, he lived a richly textured interior life, of which we were all the lucky recipients. At times stoic, even ascetic, he was always available, warm, and understanding of his friends and family.

Where did he derive that deep faith that rooted him throughout those darkest periods while providing light and comfort to those around him? It’s hard to imagine but I do know that he always remained deeply connected spiritually. And he suffered more in his lifetime than most people would have to endure in three, yet still he decided he wanted to remain here a bit longer with us.

We always had a good laugh together, usually about ourselves. At times we grieved together and he quietly understood why I needed that and I realized he needed to do that too.

We talked about death and dying on many occasions over the years. I know he wasn’t afraid of death but this time he knew things were quite different…..we all did….. and the real proximity of it was tangible in a way in which it never had been in our abstract, objective previous discussions. Now it had become a very subjective point of view for him and for the first time was a little scary. There was still so much he wanted to experience. However, he openly expressed his doubt as to whether he would be able to make the long journey of recovery back to what he jokingly referred to as his “full 30 per cent.”

He knew that I had been having some health problems on the road in the past year. However, despite the seriousness of his condition, he worried about me and always wanted to know how I was doing. He was that way with all of his friends.


I was in a Detroit hotel on a freezing Thanksgiving when we had our last phone call, about a day before he passed. It’s unusual in almost any relationship but recently it occurred to me that we had never had a cross word between us. There was not a lot left unsaid either. Our conversation that Thanksgiving evening ended this way,
“I love you Mark.”
“I love you too,” he said.
And that was it. I think that is a wonderful way to end a conversation with a friend. You just never know.

I think for so many of us who watched him through these final struggles there is a deep sense of relief for him, that all this is finally over. He is mourned and missed profoundly by all and I have to acknowledge that the selfish part of me wishes that we could have one more lunch at Ruby’s together. But I am lucky and blessed to have known him and had all the time that we did have together in this life. It was a gift.

And the Music

A stunning player. A natural. A giant of his instrument. Gifted with an extraordinary musical imagination that left me many times just simply shaking my head. How did he do that?!!! Always sensitive to the music. Capable of great dynamics, subtle shadings, ditch-digging or wonderfully complex grooves and jaw-dropping breaks.

Those beautiful, angular and abstract fills and such an unbelievably good sense of time, note placement, phrasing. All the elements that gave Mark his uniquely identifiable sonic identity. That effortless fluidity and deeply rooted musicality provided him the ability to play in any musical setting and yet still leave that immediately recognizable stamp, that it was him.


A favorite memory of him occurred in 1979 on Gino Vannelli’s “Brother to Brother” tour and is a pretty good illustration of Mark’s relaxed approach to everything. This is the point where Mark and I really began to be great friends. At the time I was playing with Phyllis Hyman, who was an extraordinary R & B jazz singer and we were the opening act on the tour.

Mark was quite simply, amazing. I often stood directly behind him, on the other side of a thin scrim backdrop where I could see him perfectly, watching his every move, while remaining invisible to the audience. He was like a dancer on the drums. Relaxed, fluid, powerful, dynamic, and possessing an incredible technique, he punctuated the music while seeming to freely improvise between all the complexities of the arrangements. Effortlessly driving the large ensemble like a Ferrari, Mark was a phenomenon to watch and hear. Gino’s band were insanely
good, sounding like a record every single night.

Even though we were just the opening act I would routinely go through these elaborate pre-gig rituals which involved practice pad warm-ups, stretching and just trying to generally get into the right frame of mind, all of which usually lasted longer than our 40 minute set! Mark used to quietly observe this, probably chuckling to himself. I thought it odd that I never saw him go through any of these rituals before he had to go out and perform for an enormous audience.

We were playing at the Omni in Atlanta one night and I happened to be in their dressing room shortly before show time. Mark was stretched out on one of those hard wooden benches that are the standard dressing room decor of most American sports arenas. Eyes closed, possibly asleep, while all around him people were tuning up, laughing, talking, practicing, all preparing to go onstage and play this very demanding music. The road manger walks in and announces, “Five minutes.” Mark slowly opened his eyes, sat up, stretched (once!) and casually walked on stage before a loud, excited audience of 15,000 people and played like a fire-breathing dragon. I just could not even comprehend how he could possibly do something like that.


Joining Jethro Tull in 1984, I have over the years, had innumerable people asking about Mark. Many knew that he had experienced some serious health problems and just wanted to see how he was faring and to pass along their best wishes. He was so loved and respected, making a huge impression on people with his brilliant playing. I wish they had the good fortune to have known him, but of course, in a way they all did.

In his very quiet and understated way, Mark was tremendously proud of his association with the Jethro Tull family. When I would speak to him from the road, he would often conclude the conversation by saying, “Give my love to the lads.”

He always felt a deep connection with the band, turning up whenever we played locally and really appreciating the music, as only someone who has had the unique perspective of experiencing it from the inside out can have.


I received the news of his passing when Jethro Tull were in Benton Harbor, Michigan on Saturday, Nov. 26th, 2005 and I was devastated as I have rarely ever been. It was so sudden, so unexpected. We all knew it was coming, but it still just seemed to catch all of us completely by surprise. The very last thing I wanted to do was to go onstage and play a concert that night.

Ian and I discussed whether or not something should be said about it during the gig. In the end, he decided against it because I think he didn’t want to minimize or trivialize the event and perhaps, more realistically, he also did not want me to become completely unglued, as he could see I wasn’t all that far away. Instead, he felt he could better express it by writing something for Mark on the website. Well, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference as I had two or three meltdowns anyway during the gig, but somehow I managed to play reasonably well.

It was some comfort that I felt him around me, sitting at my shoulder, during those last three concerts of the tour, steadying me and moving me on, even playing a little practical joke on me at the end of the first show. I know you did that.


My wife Heather and I join together with all of his many friends, colleagues and family to say goodbye with great love and affection to our dearly cherished friend. I suppose I’d prefer to think he has just slipped away for a while for a well deserved rest somewhere and that we will be seeing him again at some future destination. At last, he is off on a great new adventure of his own.

So long for now old friend.

DEP, December 2005

MARK CRANEY – AUGUST 26th, 1952 – NOVEMBER 26th, 2005

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