Remarks at Don Francks memorial Bloor Theatre June 6, 2016
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen.Welcome to George’s Spaghetti House. I am here representing the birds, the fish, the winged one and the finned ones. They couldn’t be here but if they were, boy would they be pissed off..
Don Francks intro at George’s Spaghetti House 1982
As Roman Catholic teacher and former editor of the premier social justice paper the Catholic New Times I wish to speak of Don in theological terms. This may surprise many. But I had enough conversations with this “earthling” to contextualize him, to see him in a different light than actor, singer, poet and raconteur. The ultimate hipster, I knew was all of these to be sure, but he also a nature mystic, an earthling as he loved to describe himself.
Donny was a man of the humus, the Latin word for earth, and oddly enough the root of the word “humility”. One who is deeply grounded; one who saw himself as simply a part of the community which of course included the non-human community—the four legged ones, winged ones and the finned ones. How often I heard him speak like this from so many stages.
And Don was humble enough to hear from me that Catholicism was not essentially dogmatic but sacramental.The holy was carried thru all things—other people, movements, nature..There is no Holy Land; all lands are holy, there are no chosen people, all are sacred ikons.
In 1979 he was among the first to join Greenpeace in alerting the world to environmental degradation. His jazz singing and nightclub performances would never be the same.The dominant thread in our multi-talented troubadour was his radical concern for the planet. His vocation was to proclaim the oneness of creation as a fellow “earthling.” He had found his “faith.” His pulpit was the performing arts. It was his way to illuminate the questions of the late twentieth century. As a performer he simply refused to pursue a “career” while he perceived the planet to be burning down. He become an eloquent pursuer of social justice. As a singer, jazz and commitment to the planet were fused.
One night in 1982 as the Cruise Missile was being tested in Canada I approached him at George’s with some obscene statistics. His opening line to the assembled music fans was, “My friend Ted Schmidt just told me the US is now spending $1 million a minute on the arms race.” Don took a deep breath and said, “there’s only one thing to say about that FUUUUUUck.’
Then half way thru the set he aid, ”Please synchronize your watches. It is 9:42. At exactly 10 PM a cruise missile will be coming thru the front door. But don’t anybody get upset. It will leave by the back door.”
25 years ago I interviewed Don for the Catholic New Times. On the margins of Catholicism we understood that the emerging myth of the 21st century that is at the heart of theology and the spiritual renaissance of our time is the notion of ecology. I told Donny that what he had been saying for decades was being reprised by the great Catholic prophet of the environment, ecologian Fr Tom Berry:
The earth is our origin, our nourishment, our support, our guide. Our spirituality itself is earth-derived. If there is no spirituality in the earth, then there is no spirituality in ourselves.
Don did not say, “it’s about time.” No, his basic humility kicked in ”I am so glad,” he told me, “I really am. I know Tedro, you have beliefs which are very dear to you—some are imposed, some were given at birth.There are some books which are precious to you, traditions as well. I hope that maybe all of these things are appreciated by all of the trees, the birds and by all of the planets. All I have tried to do was to get to something beyond argument-a glass of water, a leaf growing in the wind. Get back to basics, universal truths. All of the world’s children should be able to meet and say: No pollution. Clean it up. Salvation for the animals and all living things. Have no more war—that’s another pollution. And no hunger.”
i believe Don was baptized early by Mother Nature in the wild and beautiful hills above Burnaby, BC. He never lost his connection with the ecological commonwealth. Don as you know often walked barefoot. The reason was simple. He was tethered to his Mother.
When I retired from teaching 20 years ago Don appeared—barefoot of course, wearing his Free Tibet tee shirt. Now the teaching community is pretty square and many wondered who this wild man was when they entered Villa Colombo that night.
Well I was a religion teacher in the Catholic school system so I had Don lay Lord Buckley’s classic riff on the Man from Nazareth called simply “The Nazz”
Well I’m gonna put a cat on you was the sweetest, gonest, wailingest cat that ever stomped on this sweet swingin’ sphere. And they called this here cat…The Nazz. That was the cat’s name.
So The Nazz and his buddies was goofin’ off down the boulevard one day and they run into a little cat wit’ a bent frame. So The Nazz look at this little cat with the bent frame and he say “What’s the matter wit’ you, baby?” And the little cat with the bent frame, he say “Well, my frame is bent, Nazz- it’s been bent from in front.”
So The Nazz look at the little cat with the bent frame and he put the golden eyes of love on this here little kiddie and he looked right down into the windows of his soul and he say to the little cat, he say “Straighten!” The cat went up straighter’n an arrow and everyone jumpin’ up and down and sayin’ “Look what The Nazz put on that boy! You dug him before – dig him now!”
Club owners thought Don preached too much. I who saw him perform probably more often than anyone but Steve, think not. To me he was a holy wayfarer, gifted with radical amazement at the fact that he was still here. I sensed only a pilgrim profoundly touched at the sacred communion of saints which put him back together again and again. “You know I have been saved so many times. You know this by looking at me,” he once told me.
I never heard the voice of a celebrity , but of a gracious companion for the journey, a dreamspeaker who imaged the future.
In the words of that Chinese funeral home on Spadina Avenue which we used to chuckle about, Wing On, brother Don wherever you are.