A BLUES BAND FOR THE AGES
Part I: The Man Behind The Band
By Larry Benicewicz
"All blues bands, especially around here, are alike in at least one
characteristic. Members come and go, recombine, and then
dissolve. They don't last long. It's like sleeping around--very
incestuous," said Rick Serfas of Baltimore, stellar guitarist,
leader of the Soul Providers, and erstwhile emcee for the house
band at the old Full Moon Saloon's blues jams of the 80s. But he
may have forgotten one outfit that certainly dispels this notion,
the long running Washington, D.C. area Nighthawks, who will be
celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2002 with no less than three
charter members still a part of this illustrious contingent. And
how many other bands out there can claim such a incredible
stretch of camaraderie, wherein individuals long into middle age
have remained united for the common cause of keeping the blues
alive for as long as they are physically able.

The driving force and founder of the Nighthawks is Mark Wenner
and for the uninitiated, his demeanor might actually inspire dread.

Wiry and lean, he is goateed and tattooed to the max; in fact, along
with the satirist Reverend Billy C. Wirtz and harp player Brett Wilson,
they form a trinity of "illustrated men" in the local blues community.
Although decked out like a biker (that he is) with boots, jeans, and
invariably a T-shirt bearing a motorcycle logo, he is eminently
approachable, indeed, affable and soft-spoken (and well spoken)
with a self-effacing sense of humor. "Hey, there's nothing wrong with
bikers. They were our meal ticket, nearly our sole means of support
during the lean years of the blues during 70s when disco took over,"
said Mark, who usually participates in or performs at such annual
meetings of the Harley Davidson clans as Daytona Beach for the
last 20 years and Sturgis, SD, where he shared the stage with
Steppenwolf ("Born To Be Wild") under a full moon before an
audience of 30,000. But, again, appearances can be deceiving. His
laid back air belies an intense affection for the blues burning
in his gut that reveals itself onstage as he is transformed like
a Clark Kent from this mild-mannered posture to a veritable
paradigm of passion.

Mark Wenner is a curiousity, a complex person and might be
the last hippie in the sense that he hasn't sold out like many of
his generation, the Baby Boomers, who have eschewed the ideals
and values of the 60s in favor of rampant materialism. Highly
intelligent with a degree in English from Columbia University no
less and born into an upper middle class Jewish family (his
parents were a doctor and lawyer) in the most affluent
neighborhood of them all, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, he could easily
have pursued a professional career, like his brother, an
attorney, pulling down six figures a year. Instead of nearing
retirement with a healthy pension, Mark, now on the north side of
50, chooses a lifestyle of scuffling from gig to gig. Although
the line of endeavor may be unique, it still mirrors more of a
working class, blue collar mentality. And he feels much more
comfortable in the company of people on the fringes of society,
like the bikers, rather than the yuppies of his old stomping
grounds, who now sip Perrier and order cafe lattes at Starbuck's.
While his motivations may remain opaque, even to this
interviewer, the reader might be able to unravel part of this
enigma by examining his life story, which is intimately
intertwined with the history of the blues of the Mid-Atlantic
region.
MARK WENNER 2000
Photo: Larry Benicewicz
Mark Wenner was born in the aforementioned Bethesda-Chevy
Chase, MD, the well-heeled suburb of Washington, D.C. And even
as early as the middle to late 50s, he was listening to and
appreciating all types of music that was offered over the
airwaves. "Most people don't realize just what a cultural
crossroad Washington was back then. It was like Memphis with a
mixture of music--doo-whop, country, rockabilly, and blues. I'd
just as soon tune in to George Jones as Joe Turner," said Mark.
He also began acquiring records, 45s and albums, dominated by
the Sun and Chess record labels, vinyl he purchased from Waxie
Maxie's across the street from the Howard Theatre or from
Discount Records off Dupont Circle. "I even lifted some disks
like Bo Diddley's I Can Tell from Drug Fair just so I could rap
along to tunes like 'Say Man,'" confessed Mark. Over the years,
this collection would eventually grow to 500 singles and over a
thousand LPs, all which tragically would be destroyed in a house
fire in 1972. Even today, he is devastated when recalling such a
loss.
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