Minnesota musician dying, but his dream is living on with northern Minnesota rock 'n' roll camp for youths
BRAINERD, Minn.—Mark Munson is dying, but he knows now his dream will live.
The inaugural finale concert of the Mark Munson Memorial School of Rock brought a capacity crowd to its feet Thursday while a mile away, Munson lay in a hospital bed recovering from major surgery. Although his health prevented him from feeling the vibrations of the bass solo in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" in person, Munson viewed the performance via livestream to a waiting room at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd.
"What Mark told me is he wants the youth of the Brainerd lakes area to experience the musical joy that's made his life so special all these years," Munson's friend and bandmate Adam Rees told the audience at Franklin Arts Center. "While he may not be in this auditorium, he's very much a part of this event."
As colored lights illuminated fog cascading across the stage, young musicians demonstrating a range of experience levels delivered impressive covers of well-known rock songs. The audience offered raucous support of the bouncy tones of Blue Streak, sweet melodies of The Conditioners, impressive harmonies of Point VI, boundless energy of Echo and rocking anthems of Almost False. Their performances were bookended by student mentor group The Upperclass and instructor band The De-Structors, before the nearly 50 people involved in the summer camp joined together for a rendition of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care of Business."
"I want them to go home with the beginning of what Mark still has going on, which is an ability to make music and love music for their entire lives," said Marlee Larson, camp director and Munson's friend. "That's something you can take with you no matter where you go or what the circumstances are. That's what I'm hoping for them. I've already seen their confidence grow."
Munson, a lifelong musician, spent the last year while suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer bringing his vision of a rock 'n' roll summer camp for area teens to life—a vision he wasn't sure he would ever witness realized. Although beating the odds of survival with a particularly insidious disease, Munson's health took a nosedive just as the summer camp bearing his name was set to begin.
"My stomach was so distended, they were afraid it was going to rupture," Munson said. "They went in and did emergency surgery to let the pressure out, and that's when they found the cancer. It was the cancer behind my intestines. ... I knew it was coming. I've been fighting this off for a long time. It's still not the end."
"At first, we thought Mark would not be with us," Larson said. "And then we thought, 'Yeah, he's going to be running the show.' And then at the last minute, he wasn't even able to be here. That made me sad, and even a little bit angry, until I realized that the fact that we pulled it off without his presence proves to Mark that this a legacy that will go on and on and on, even when he's not here."
Rock band camps popped up all over the United States in the wake of the 2003 film "School of Rock." The movie told the story of a rocker recently kicked out of his band (Jack Black), who formed a band of fourth-graders to enter a battle of bands after disguising himself as a substitute teacher. The camps typically run for two weeks and participants in sixth through 12th grades are placed into individual rock bands and learn songs together. The camp culminates in a concert, when the new bands show off what they've learned.
Through the support of the local arts nonprofit The Crossing Arts Alliance and $40,000 in funds raised through grants and private donations, Brainerd now has its own School of Rock.
Munson was inspired to champion a local version of the camp after witnessing the transformation of his 17-year-old grandson. Wyatt Munson. Wyatt was a shy kid without many friends, struggling with his grades and isolation, Munson said. But a few weeks in 2014 at the URock Summer Camp at St. Francis Music Center in Little Falls had an astonishing impact on the boy. Wyatt was one of five student mentors who this summer helped other young people undergo a similar life-changing experience.
"It's definitely a different experience, just being on the other end of the teaching here," Wyatt said. "I hope that this lived up to what he (Mark) wanted. I know that he couldn't be here, but I'm so happy to be here to be able to help out in what little way I did. I was just so happy to see his dream realized, to help out all of these younger kids as musicians."
The excitement among the campers was palpable before, during and after Thursday's performance.
"I've always sang in choir, so it was really nice to get to sing in a rock band-type of environment," said vocalist Samantha Whalen of The Conditioners. "It was so fun and I met great friends throughout it, and I really hope to get to do it again next year."
"The instructors are so nice and the band members they pair you with are just amazing," said Jim Hogan, front man of Almost False. "Everyone is so nice and also talented at what they do. I definitely know now a lot more about working as a team with a band, and just how amazing it is."
The instructors, many of whom know and perform with Munson, expressed their own appreciation of the experience. Ron Behrens of Brainerd—whose dyed-blue beard complemented his band Blue Streak's name—said he gets choked up thinking of what the camp's meant to him and the kids.
"The kids, they learn so much faster than you would ever imagine," Behrens said. "The first day, it was a little sketchy. It was like, 'Oh no, I don't know how this is going to go.' The second day, they had already played through both of their songs and I was just like, 'OK, everything is going to be just fine.'"
Behrens learned of the instructor position through Craigslist and did not know Munson previously—but said he was grateful to be a part of something with more meaning than he ever expected.
"After every one of our meetings, they (the other instructors) were saying, 'I love Mark because...' and I said, 'Well, I'm falling in love with Mark.' He's such a cool guy," Behrens said. "This is probably one of the coolest things I've ever done in my whole life. I'm super happy and I'll definitely be doing it again next year."
Munson's dreams haven't stopped at the School of Rock. His next brainchild is a regular open mic geared toward kids, where he hopes they'll have the opportunity to become comfortable with performance without the pressure of competition. He said he's working with the Brainerd School District on the concept.
"You could bring your rock band, bring your brass quartet, string quartet, come as a soloist and sing," Munson said. "It could be a real popular place for the kids to hang out on a Thursday night."
Munson sees value in fostering a love for music for many reasons.
"It gives these kids the confidence to stand up and speak in front of somebody," Munson said. "It doesn't have to be performing, but just to be able to stand up and speak. ... Music is something that once you learn music, learn an instrument, that's something literally you can carry through the rest of your life."
Although his own life may be reaching its end, Munson's legacy will persist. It can be found in the guitar riffs and cymbal crashes of each young musician whose own dreams he's sparked.