An Obituary for Frank Barsalona: The Man Who Made Rock With a Conscience
by Jack Healey
Founder, Human Rights Action Center
Frank Barsalona was the architect who built the temple of rock. He was the guy that transformed it from just music into a movement, turned it into something that reached people all over the world and changed the way we related to one another.
I first met him in 1985, when he helped the organization I was head of, Amnesty International USA, to organize the Conspiracy of Hope and Human Rights Now tours. He was the one who gave me advice on how to handle and operate with musicians like U2, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel to tour for Amnesty International; the guy who sacrificed $21 million out of his own pocket in order to help us out; the guy that drove me up to Madison Square Garden the night I asked Bruce Springsteen to join the Human Rights Now Tour. Frank believed in human rights down to his toes. Outsiders might attribute this marriage between human rights advocacy and rock to great musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youyou N’Dour, and truly they did through their music. But getting there, and done with direction, persuasion and kindness — that was all Frank. He went on to help me organize the Chilean tour called “From a Hug to a Hope” in 1990 where Sting got to sing his anthem “they dance alone” to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo for whom it was written. Throwing all his energy and considerable talent into getting young people across the world involved in fighting for human rights in places like Chile and Greece.
The first time I met him, he was seated behind his huge mahogany desk in the middle of his long, dark office. I remember thinking that being allowed into his office to chat one-on-one felt like meeting the Shah of Iran without his bodyguard. I remember how proper and polite he was, dressed in a suit and tie at all times — he was all old world manners, style and business. He loved loyalty in a business that has little or none.
He was moral, too, one of the most moral people I’d met in the industry. He loved that I’d been a priest before getting involved in human rights, and he used to occasionally tell me he was going to quit the whole business and join the seminary. Once, I told him that if he did want to join the seminary, he’d have to accept poverty as one of his vows. “Oh,” he said, laughing. “Trust me. I’ll find a way around that one.”
He had no fear in calling people out on their mistakes, either. I remember him shouting down Bill Graham, the great music promoter of San Francisco, for a mistake he’d made. And at the end of it, Bill stood up, shook hands with Frank and telling him he was right, admitted that he should have handled the situation differently. Frank had that effect on people — he brought out the best in them, whatever it took.
Earlier this morning, before I’d heard the news that Frank had passed, I was sitting in my basement office, trying to figure out how to organize a concert for Leonard Peltier. I was on the phone with one of the organizers Jack Magee, and found myself telling him that we needed Frank’s help here, that he was the only one who could really turn an idea into a concert that could actually change things. He had a way of bringing magic to any show he organized without any fingerprint, and he had the same wonderful effect on all the people worked around him.