The phrase “magic bus” refers either to the 1968 song by the rock group The Who (it’s about a guy who haggles to buy a city bus so he can see his girlfriend more often) or the bus that author Ken Kesey and his “Merry Pranksters” began using to cross the country a few years before Pete Townshend wrote the aforementioned tune.
There are other magic buses, to be sure, but the enchanted transports cited above are the ones that are relevant to the ensuing story.
When Michigan musician Mark Harrington decided a dozen years to form a tribute act to a specific era of popular music, starting with the Summer of Love in 1967 and ending with the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, he decided, adroitly, to name it Magic Bus.
It was a phrase that was designed to instantly register precisely with the people the band wanted most to reach.
Magic Bus will perform on Sept. 11 as part of Buck Lake Ranch’s Hippie Living Fair.
No Novelty act
Magic Bus is no novelty act. There is nothing lampoonish about it. Harrington and his fellow band members lived through that era and love those songs. Harrington said he has always been exacting about the music he creates or helps create.
“I’ve always adhered to the concept that you can’t fix what isn’t broken,” he said in a phone interview. “So I never thought, ‘Oh, I am going to redo these songs my way.’ In my opinion, the reason that these songs were hits songs is because they were perfect exactly the way they were.”
After Harrington had rounded up five likeminded guys to furnish the Magic Bus project, they all agreed that they would try to recreate the music as faithfully as possible.
“I have always had the ability to imitate voices,” he said. “I can do Bob Dylan. I can do John Kay from Steppenwolf. I can do John Lennon. And we have four other singers in the band. We really sit down and try to microscope the music.”
Magic Bus’ first press photography session left Harrington slightly perplexed. The resulting images were not quite right, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly how.
“After a while, I realized it was the hair,” he said. “Our hair was all wrong.”
The men lacked the long hair that so scandalized a society that was used to seeing crew cuts.
So the band members wore wigs for a while until their hair grew out.
Finding a female voice
Another way the band was limited early on was in not having a female vocalist who could credibly cover the work of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, women who first made their mark on music in the 1960s.
Harrington despaired of ever finding someone who could meet his persnickety standards.
“I am pretty particular about how things go,” he said, “particular about how the songs are put together.”
Then Harrington heard Melissa Wickson.
The two were performing in different bands at a Detroit music festival.
“The first time I heard her sing, I said, ‘There it is. That’s what I’ve been looking for.’”
Harrington told Wickson about Magic Bus and asked her to sit in with the band on a couple of songs.
“She came out and sang ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and that was it,” he said. “She sang one song and I was like, ‘Done.’”
Harrington and Wickson are now romantic partners as well as musical ones.
Letting their hair down
The most devoted male fans of Magic Bus express their devotion hygienically or sartorially, Harrington said.
In other words, they grow their hair out.
It’s likely not the first time they’ve worn long hair, but it has doubtless been many years since they have. Magic Bus reminds such men of bygone things, Harrington said.
“It’s almost like this generation forgot who they were for a while,” he said. “They got caught up in jobs and kids. They forgot who they were as teenagers. They forgot what their principles were back then.”
Asked what made this era of music particularly special, Harrington said it was more about art than commerce.
“You watch the Monterey Pop Festival,” he said. “And these cats weren’t hiding backstage surrounded by security. They’re out in the audience appreciating each other’s music. They grew up musically together. They shared ideas. They admired each other’s concepts. There was a great camaraderie in it.”
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