Mike Finnigan: Rocking out with the coolest man in Leftblogistan
April 24, 2009 by William K. Wolfrum
Mike Finnigan is:
A) A universally respected musician that has played with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Etta James;
B) A one-time player on the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team;
C) A liberal d-list blogger’s best friend;
D) The coolest cat you’ll ever know;
E) All of the above.
If you answered “E,” give yourself a point. Because while Finnigan’s five-decade musical career has made him one of the most respected keyboardists and vocalists on the planet, he’s also played a huge role in helping shape how thousands of people get politically active on the Internet. Because just as his music career is the stuff of legends, his friendship with John Amato of Crooks & Liars means he will also go down as liberal giant (he is 6-foot-5, after all).
“Mike is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met,” said Amato in an e-mail exchange. “As a musician he’s a living legend and I’ve had the privilege of jamming with him. He’s been a political activist for decades and inspired me to get active in politics.”
But while politics has always played an important role in Finnigan’s life (“If you didn’t know politics in my family you better just sit down and shut up. It is just part of the culture,” said Finnigan.) It is his epic musical career for which he most known and respected.
Growing up in a musical family in Troy, Ohio, Finnigan was a young man with many interests. He dabbled as an amateur basketball player and was a talented enough basketball player to earn a four-year ride at Kansas University. But music was always his calling, and he left Kansas after two years to pursue his dreams.
“I played as a freshman but I was gradually losing interest and if you aren’t fully plugged in there it isn’t for you,” said Finnigan. “So I left my four-year scholarship behind, and my parents thought I was nuts.”
Finnigan, who started out as a drummer but moved to the Hammond B3 organ, started playing music with some veteran musicians. Building his music career from the ground up by playing numerous gigs at clubs in and around Ohio, Finnigan and his band – The Serfs (“We thought we were pretty hip with that name. People of the soil.”) – earned a contract with producer Tom Wilson.
While in New York recording their first album “Early Bird Café,” Finnigan’s prowess on the Hammond B3 caught the ear of Hendrix, who nabbed him and two of his band mates to work on the album “Electric Ladyland.” Jamming with Hendrix on two tracks, “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” Finnigan’s career officially took off.
From there, Finnigan has worked on numerous projects with an untold number of historic and diverse musicians over the years, including Etta James, Dave Mason, Jerry Wood, Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young), Cher, Ringo Starr, Bobby Womack, Santana, Dan Fogelberg, Elvin Bishop, Eddie Money, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Leonard Cohen, John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt, Alice Cooper, and many, many others.
While known primarily as a brilliant R&B keyboardist with a distinctive voice, Finnigan has dabbled in countless other music styles, including cutting a country album in 1993 with his youngest brother Sean and former Bread member Rob Royer. Finnigan remains proud of the project but says his age scared away record companies.
“We had some killer songs and killer players and had the luxury of doing it slowly and thoughtfully,” Finnigan says on his official MySpace page. “We came within a whisker of making a deal but when the label found out I was 47 years old, they panicked and backed out. It was (and is) I believe, some of the best singing I’ve ever recorded.”
Currently, Finnigan tours with his own blues group, the Phantom Blues Band, as well as the likes of Joe Cocker, Taj Mahal, the Phantom Blues Band, Raitt and other veteran musical stars. At 63, Finnigan says he long ago started taking better care of himself, helping him cruise through what is often a grueling road schedule.
“I was up for most the ’70s and ’80s, but in 1986, I quit drinking and drugging and all that and started taking care of myself, so it’s not easy, but if you’ve doing it for as long as I have it’s not that hard, either,” said Finnigan in a telephone interview, adding that playing with Cocker is truly a positive experience for all involved.
“It’s not as easy as it was when I was 30, but working with Joe is a piece of cake,” said Finnigan. “Everyone gets along, they’re professional and good people. It’s an ego-free zone.”
Finnigan said that he understands how difficult it is to make it in the music business, and that modern musicians are severely hampered by a lack of venues to perform.
“I’ve been damn lucky, really. There’s been so many really good guys and girls that don’t just catch a break,” said Finnigan. “In general, there’s not any live music, any more. When I was starting out you’d go somewhere like Tulsa where there would be 50 places where you could play, but not anymore.”
Finnigan added that a new generation of music lovers has come along and now expects their music for free, thus making it even more difficult for musicians to make a living.
“Making money in the music business is getting harder and harder,” said Finnigan. “Part of it has to do with there’s a lot of people who think music should be free. If you like music, then you ought to support the art. If I want to listen to a Sonny Rollins’ album, I should pay Sonny Rollins.”
But while his place in music history is etched in stone, there are many who know Finnigan primarily as the host of “Mike’s Blog Round Up” at Crooks & Liars. Finnigan was there at the start as a friend of Amato’s, going so far as loaning Amato $400 to start the popular blog. When C&L (which got its name from a newsletter Finnigan used to compile and send to friends called the “Crooks & Liars Update” ), Amato reached out to his friend Finnigan for help.
“After C&L grew and I became insanely busy, I wanted to make Mike part of the website because of (the inspiration he’d given me) and I also wanted to pass traffic around to the good and less known writers of the liberal blogosphere, because their links had helped me so much,” said Amato. “I asked him if he would like to do a daily column called “Mike’s Blog Round Up” and he quickly accepted. It’s been a fixture on C&L for many years and has helped uncover some incredible writers.”
For Finnigan – a proud life-long liberal – “Mike’s Blog Round Up” has given him an outlet for his politics, which he says haven’t changed much over the years. Though the nation’s politics have changed around him.
“I don’t know what a democrat is supposed to be and I sure don’t know what a republican is supposed to be any more,” said Finnigan. “These days, someone like Nelson Rockefeller would be a leftist. And, hell, I’m like Che Guevarra now.”
While Finnigan is as well-rounded an individual as you are likely to ever meet (“He’s a fountain of knowledge on almost any topic,” says Amato), his family remains the strongest source of his pride.
“I’ve been married 40 years, and that’s unheard of in the music industry,” said Finnigan, who curtailed much of his touring when his children were young in favor of working of working on soundtracks and advertisements closer to his Southern California home. He even did work with Fox, “Before they went ditzy.”
“We were talking once and my children said they remembered me being home a lot,” said Finnigan. “I was only on the road anout three months a year. Between 1976 and 1996, that was pretty civilized time for me, I did a lot of studio work.”
So who is Mike Finnigan? Well, he’s an important person to untold numbers of people around the globe for reasons raging from his music to his politics. And he most certainly is the coolest man in all of LeftBlogistan.