The story of Hamilton’s Mark Howard was ripe for a biography but it wasn’t until a life altering epiphany that he actually decided to put pen to paper or at least fingers to keyboard.
The famed producer had spent nearly three decades travelling the world to record important music but when he was diagnosed with melanoma, Howard’s examination of his record career developed into a book entitled Listen Up!: Recording Music with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, R.E.M., The Tragically Hip, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Waits... (ECW Press). While the last eighteen months has been a struggle, Howard is on the other side of beating cancer and with a clean bill of health and now is offering a special live music concert celebration, book signing and fundraiser in his hometown.
“It was 1980 when I dropped out of Grade 9 at Westdale and I became a soundman for Lou Furlaneto,” recalls Howard. "It was a cool music scene at that time — early punk scene going on but I got involved with the blues and hooked up with Richard “King Biscuit Boy” Newell. We went on a cross Canada tour in a cube van, with Biscuit, me, seven guys and a dog. That was quite the tour, I tell you, but after we got back, I got into a motorcycle accident and so I wasn’t able to go back out on the road anymore and got a job at Grant Avenue Studio with Bob Doidge here in Hamilton and that’s where my recording career started.
“I started making coffee at the studio and then within six weeks I’m like the chief engineer doing all of these night sessions,” adds Howard. “I was pretty green at the time but Daniel Lanois ended up coming back after he’d made this record for U2 called The Joshua Tree and he ended up using me on that set. I did that session and then he was working on his own album Acadie and he called me up to help set up a recording studio he was building in New Orleans to record the Neville Brothers. It was only a six month deal but those six months turned into 30 years so I think I made the right choice. Right after the Neville Brothers, it was Bob Dylan and then Chris Whitley and REM, Pearl Jam — jut one huge band after another. It wasn’t until I sat down and started writing this book that I kind of stepped back and said, ‘I guess I’ve done a lot of work’.”
Howard was at the right place at the right time with the right skills and attitude and Hamilton figures only in the introduction and then Howard crisscrosses the globe. There are stories on Iggy Pop and Willie Nelson as well as Mumford and Sons, the Tragically Hip and Sam Roberts — Listen Up is a compact page turner and if you’re curious it offers Howard’s production thoughts and if you’re a fan it offers an exclusive backstage pass for readers to explore what producing was like for Howard with these people. Naturally, when you’re living it, everything simply becomes a given — until life throws a curve ball.
“I was diagnosed with melanoma cancer,” says Howard. “At first I didn’t think much of it until it spread to my liver, my spleen and my brain. Once I got scared, I lost a lot of weight and went into the hospital. I was asked to write this bio page but once I started writing I couldn’t stop. I started to document how I went from Hamilton to New Orleans to Mexico to California and all over the world. Because of the cancer, I sat on the couch a lot and so I dedicated every morning to writing and within six months I had the bones of the book. I sent chapters to my brother in London, England where he’s a writer and he made it readible.
“I’ve always been a renegade when I record bands so it’s always been a guerrilla style because you get one chance to do it so you better be on top of it,” adds Howard. “Because of my background, I treated every session like a live show so as soon as the musician walks in to the room I was ready to capture the sound before it began to wander. Schools might teach technical stuff but there’s a whole nother level of psychological levels that they can’t teach you like how you deal with a heroin addict. The book touches on some of those experiences.”
While Howard’s family has always remained in the Hamilton area and he’s regularly visited, this weekend marks a public celebration of the music, the book and the life Howard has created with some important people to him in the Hamilton area. The Mark Howard Cancer Free Benefit Concert is in memory of Jennifer van Leeuwen, the person that helped Howard get the treatment he needed but sadly passed herself. It’s also raising funds for the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre that helped him beat cancer. The event showcases some local name talent and even a former Hamiltonian musician who’s best known for his role in the film Empire Records. Coyote Shivers hosts a musical night to celebrate all things Mark Howard.
“It was a rough ride for a minute but I’ve surfed right out of there and I’m back to work,” says Howard. “The book started because of the cancer but now I’m cancer free so I’m putting on a celebration for that, for the book and for Hamilton and Hamilton musicians like Tom Wilson, Teenage Head and all of the local bands I worked with over the years. I’ve invited them to come to the show and play but I’ve asked each one to do a song from one of the artists I’ve worked with in my catalogue so Dave Rave is doing Bob Dylan, Tom Wilson is doing a Tom Waits song. So it’s a cool evening of music I’ve made with people I’ve worked with — celebrating their careers and their musicianship. It’s going to be a great night of singers and songs. They’re all people I’ve already had some chapters making music and now I’m coming back and we’ve been talking about maybe making some new chapters together. Chris Wilson and the Perennials, I got my start with them in the basement, they’re called Under Popularity now and they’re going to be doing a medley of four Iggy Pop songs so it’s going to be cool.
“There is going to be a lot to see and hear,” adds Howard. “Last week, the book became a number one best seller on Amazon but at this book signing I’m also displaying some of my behind the scenes photos taken over the years with Robert Plant, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell. You can read it in the book but if you come to the show, you will be able to see these photos for the first time. It’s going to be a great night of music and memories and I want to raise awareness about cancer and how I beat it. I’m making it my mission to spread the word on protecting yourself from the sun to prevent skin cancer. It is all very important to me... What do I want to be remembered for? I feel a lot of the records I’ve made are timeless and that would be a good way to be remembered.”
The Mark Howard Cancer Free Benefit Concert happens Saturday June 1 at the Music Hall with Dave Rave, Tom Wilson, Jon Harvey from Monster Truck, Melissa Marchese, Chris Caddell, Jesse O'Brien, Ginger St. James, Hailee Rose, Tim Gibbons,Amanda Jean,Harm & Ease, Lynn Rosenblood, Under Popularity, host Coyote Shivers and more. Tickets are $30 or $70 for a VIP Backstage Pass and the book signing starts at 6 pm while the concert starts at 8 pm. Click on ecwpress.com/products/listen-up or find Mark Howard on Facebook.com