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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saginaw All Area Arts Award Acceptance Speech

This is essentially a litany of memories for my hometown, plus a long list of thank yous. I made this speech last Thursday night, May 7, upon receiving a 20th anniversary Lifetime Achievement Arts Award from the Saginaw Cultural Enrichment Commission. I'm very grateful for it, and it was a beautiful evening, with many other winners. If you read something that sounds ironic or humorous, it was intended. For instance, there of course is no stipend associated with the award.

To the members of the Arts & Enrichment Commission, to your honor Mayor Seals, to all of you in the audience. Good evening. Thank you for inviting me and my family back to Saginaw and my deepest thanks for this honor. It means a great deal to me, coming as it does from my hometown and the people here. And in these tough economic times, the generous annual stipend that goes with this award will really help.

Saginaw means so many things to me now--so many memories are conjured up when I drive in from the highway or cross the Holland Bridge. I try to hang on to them as I grow older….skating at Hoyt park in the brittle cold air, slow dancing to the Stylistics at the Y with the Schmolitz sisters. If anyone's seen the Schmolitz sisters. I'd love to hook up with them again.

I swear it was just yesterday that my friends & I were rumblin' outta the Court Street Theater on a Friday night, with our mullets & letter jackets…too cool for school, ten thousand watt fools, existential cowboys in a one horse town. There we were, and these really were our nicknames--Big A, Cedric, Rodney, Chinaman, Carley Carl, Doobie & Smoothie.

We’d drive around town all night in those big ol’ 70s cars burning tons of fossil fuel, with V-8s and snow tires, long bench seats and girls by our side. Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, her daddy’s Electra deuce and a quarter, with Stroh’s and sloe gin, goin' to hear a guy in polyester pants sing like John Denver at the Holiday Inn lounge over on Davenport. But that was all more than 30 years ago now. I shoulda never blinked.

Then there was Saginaw in Summer: river raft races, playing baseball for the Uncolas, tennis at Garber courts with the cotton buds blowing by in the hot wind and Get Back on the loudspeakers. All these ghostly names come back to me …Freddie stark, Kenny Tabascko, George Purdie, Charlie Raymond, Ted Grigg, the Loicana sisters…where are the Loicana sisters? Goin to get slurpies and pretzels at Bill’s Party Store, until Jim would chase us out. I went back to Bill's today since I was back in town, and Jim’s still there, 34 years later!

So many memories: Watchin’ Shakey Jake do the shake & bake at Hoyt Park, my grandma’s wild rhubarb in her backyard, night rides for ice cream at Mooneys, the Children’s Zoo, WSAM & WTAC, James Bond movies at the Temple, swimming at Anderson pool, Mr Hot Dog, Officer Ed, chester miller, the crisp, electric Friday nights at Arthur Hill stadium watching football under the lights, the smell of cigars and fresh cut grass in the clear autumn nights.

It was a great gift to grow up where and when I did, and to cross paths with the people I did. We were kids then, and things like the war and economy were a million miles away. We thought of football, baseball, music, movies and friendship.

Football was really the main thing at that time–my first and best coach in any sport was my youth football coach John Picard. He was, as a lot of you know, the spirit and coach behind The Pickles, a city league flag football team for boys ages 7-11. I actually started playing for him when I was 6, and then played every fall for the next 5 years.

The team was run by Mr. Picard as the ultimate non-star system: navy blue sweatshirts, no numbers, blue jeans, black cleats and helmets spray-painted a Notre Dame gold. It said to us, “You’re better than no one else and no one is better than you. “

He ran the team with extreme punctuality, discipline, respect, simplicity and precision. He knew my dad, and I remember on the first day he asked me if I was his son. “Yea,” I quietly replied. His coddling reply was “It’s ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘No Sir’ or get the hell outta here”. I was 6!! And a sensitive boy!! He only used last names and he’d sometimes smack you on the helmet or swat you in the rump, things you probably can’t do to young kids today. But we all quickly got used to that, and learned to recognize the consequences associated with being late, a missed block or a fumbled snap. It encouraged us to be better... and I loved the whole thing.

Mr Picard does unfortunately call me by first name now, but it seems a struggle, and I wish he’d just call me Francke. The things I learned from him have lasted me a lifetime. The discipline and sacrifice allowed me to gain a scholarship and compete in sports at a collegiate level.

Many of the things taught to me by Mr. Picard and reinforced by my parents actually helped me realize the demands of an artistic life and also survive a long & difficult illness. Some kids did go away in tears, and he never did allow any mothers near practice (which we all secretly loved) but last time I checked the world remains indiscriminate in handing out difficulty and heartbreak. You gotta be tough, smart and prepared. Mr. Picard gave us that. In my songs, and in my imagination, Saginaw’s been a place both common and sacred. Writing songs about this place has allowed me to discover my self. I am, and we are, Midwesterners. In the Midwest, we place the value of living in loyalty to friends and family, maybe one or two chosen institutions like a church or a union, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us.

My music has allowed me to understand these things about myself… Why am I drawn to soul music? I’ve had to come up with an answer to this question: What is Soul? Soul is, for better or worse, about suffering, survival and then, bearing an ornery optimism. It’s about scar tissue. Soul is faith when cynicism is easier. It's hangin’ in there when you've had it. It’s knowing we’re born to die, yet living with passion. It's not necessarily about unconditional love, but it is about letting a person's character be your main source for your judgment of him or her. Al Green says that soul is "fearing no evil." Maybe that describes it best. It's a quality of heart, especially after you know all there is to fear. Solomon Burke said he dreams of writing a soul song that would do no less than save the world if everyone sang it.

I guess that’s an ideal close to the one I strive for. I’m trying to write songs about what we choose and what we lose while on this journey—how easy it is to get lost, and how difficult it is to transcend. But getting lost is also a part of the process--you get lost in the music, and find yourself along the way.

I’m also interested in the "now-what?" that comes after our illusions fall apart. " How you gonna live after your world falls apart? After 9/11? After you’ve lost all our money? After you’re told you have cancer? After the death of someone indispensable to you. What are you gonna do about it?" The romantic aspects in my songs come from trying to find what's heroic when faced with that kind of unrelenting reality. Maybe just facing it is heroic. Everyone has their own moment of hardcore reality, where they see who they really are and what their life is really worth. That’s the moment you try and capture in a song. I try and tell myself: Be happy you were born each morning; make some music today; stir it up a little, make somebody smile. Looking into the abyss is no way to make a living.

Here's a brief story about the spirit of survival, about what we call in music the “gospel vision:” I recall sitting in a dismal waiting room, with a table full of Redbooks and orange chairs, waiting to have a Pentamidine antibiotic breathing treatment to fend off pneumonia. I was very thin, very bald and still very very sick, just a couple months after my bone marrow transplant day, when I had no hematological signs of life–no white blood cell count, no red blood cell count, very low platelets, on and on. Next to me, the only other person in the room, was a lovely older black lady, also very sick, hooked up to a central lumen and looking very very tired. We smiled at each other, a knowing smile that is exclusive to people battling cancer while also still striving to be people, or, persons. In the upper corner of the room was a small tv. On this particular morning in early 1999, the tv stations were all flush with the same image: an immaculately dressed President Bill Clinton privately testifying before a Special Prosecutor on the details of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. You remember: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” That day. We both watched this for awhile, another person trapped by events out of his control. After about 25 minutes of Executive Squirming, the lovely lady turned to me and said, “Ain’t it nice to see someone who’s more fucked than we is?” Now that’s the gospel vision, turning all of the things that conspire against us into, if not things that lift us up, at least something we can laugh at.

Thanks to the Nancy Koepke, Marsha Braun and everyone involved with the All Area Arts Awards. I want to thank my friend Bob Martin, who has been an enlightened supporter of me and my music for nearly 30 years. You’re fortunate here in Saginaw to have a soul and intellect of Bob’s caliber, someone who’s kept the cultural heart of the tri-cities beating. Right from my very first night gigging at Meinberg’s in 1981, Bob was there and “got it.”

Another terrific person who got it is Sue White of the News, who has been vigilante in attending shows and writing about my career. I’d also like to thank Bo White for his historic joint over on State street, and the way he values musicians. I want to thank all of the Saginaw people that make it worth it—friends, audiences, radio people and record buyers… I’m thinking of guys like Tiny, the door man at the Pub, who helped carry our gear out at 3 in the morning when it was 3 below, all through the 80s. And my friends from my third hometown of Au Gres and Pt Lookout—thanks for coming and good to see y’all.

Thanks to my good friend and assistant Pete Wurdock, who has been profoundly encouraging in the down times and clear headed in the good times and always selfless in his help. I want to thank all my old band mates, particularly the late Guy Garber, who had terrific musical instincts and left us too soon. And of course a shout out to Johnny Krogman, Johnny Van Benschoten, Duane Miller & Jeff Shaw for getting together at an assembly at Arthur Hill and inspiring me to play guitar when I was 14 or 15. Thanks to my friend Brian d’arcy James, just nominated for a Tony award for Shrek. Thanks to my friend Rob Dewar, who’s been about the closest thing I’ve had to a brother.

I’d like to thank my good friends and mentors, Dave Marsh, Bob Baldori & Mitch Ryder, and all the many many musicians I’ve played with over years, and all the great musicians & songwriters from this part of the world, from Isham Jones to Jack Bruske to Ben Weissman to the Funk Brothers to Dick Wagner to Mike Brush To Jeff Scott to Carl McRae. I’m standing on their shoulders.

I of course thank my Mom, who is surely watching and metaphysically asking from the 5th Dimension if I shaved for this event. As all of you know that knew her, my mom had a wonderful random kind of vitality and humor that I may have been lucky enough to have inherited just a bit of, and it has made me well suited for a life in music. I love you Mom, wherever you may be now.
I want to thank my Dad, who is in many ways my best friend and just a beautifull guy—a model of what a man can and should be—love you Dad. Of course I want to thank both my sisters, Martha & her husband John, and Kit & her husband Jamie, for their friendship, gift of life, and a roof over my head when I came up here to play.

I want to thank my beautiful kids, Tess & Stew, who gave me a renewed love of the world and an urgent passion to make some kind of a record of my life here on this journey. My kids have made me want to make music that matters, to write and sing songs that carry some kind of moral force.

I don’t think I have the appropriate words to fully thank my wife, Julia, who has been everything to me since we met nearly 30 years ago—muse, lover, girlfriend, wife, sounding board, sponsor, supporter, great mother of our children, critic, manager, best friend, and the last link to sanity during the really hard times of cancer, death and addiction.
I realize that everyone has their own fights to fight, yet no one but the two of us can really know what we’ve been through together. Julia, you’ve handled desperate, desperate times with unbending grace and beauty, always. We all know the old saying “Behind every man is a good woman. etc." In our case it’s “Behind me is Julia saying get a real piano player to play that part.” I love you Jule with all I got. So thank you for this wonderful award and for making a kid from Saginaw very proud and happy. Good night.

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